Downplaying Emmanuel

I was lector at Mass today, and sometimes that means I notice things in the readings that I might otherwise miss.  The first reading was from the book of Joshua and picks up when the Israelites are finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land. Joshua, in place of Moses, is leading them.  Just as God parted the Red Sea for His chosen people to flee Egypt, now He parts the Jordan River for them to enter the Promised Land.  Just because Moses is no longer with them does not mean God is no longer leading them, and He performs this miracle through Joshua to remind them of that.  They had surely heard the stories of their fathers and the Red Sea, and now the Lord was showing the same favor to them.

When Joshua is speaking to the people before the crossing, he prepares them for the miracle, saying, “This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst, who at your approach will dispossess the Canaanites.” (Joshua 3:10)

A living God.

Not a God who is aloof and watches from afar.  Not a Deist conception of God, who made the world and now lets it run alone. Not a God who is detached from His People.  But a living God, One who is active and personal and ready to intervene even in the acts of nature.  One Who wants to show His People that they are His People to such an extent that He is willing to perform a crazy awesome miracle and stop water flowing downstream.

There is a growing trend in the Christian world today to believe that God is an “impersonal force.”  Studies have shown that only 60% of people who believe in God believe in a personal God with whom they can have a relationship.  Even more shocking, 29% of Catholics say the God they believe in is an “impersonal force.”

Is it no wonder, though, when you hear priests and “theologians” downplaying the crazy awesome miracles?  “Oh, the Red Sea was actually the Sea of Reeds and was really just a marshy lake and only a few inches deep.”  “Oh, when Jesus walked on water, they were actually really close to land and it was a sandbar.”  “Oh, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was actually about everyone sharing what they had with their neighbor.”**

I have heard each one of these from the pulpit or from a biblical historian.  So it’s no wonder that we’ve lost our belief in a personal God, in a God who can and will act in my life because He loves me.

We’ve made Him impotent.

If He didn’t do it then, why would He do it now?  And so we go to Mass on Sunday and miss it all.  Maybe we don’t know what is happening —  we don’t realize that God is coming down on the altar to commune with us.  Maybe we’re too focused on ourselves or on the people around us to realize that God is inviting us to a personal relationship.

Or maybe we’ve downplayed it too long. Maybe we’ve talked about the Mass simply as a communal banquet where we come together as a community to forgive and share and love, and made too light of the miracle that happens before our very eyes.

Catholics, of all people, should have an understanding that God is here, God is close, and God loves them.  Because He shows us at every Mass.

“This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst…”

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**Of course, any attempt to explain away a miracle usually just results in another miracle that needs to be explained. “Wow, so it’s a miracle then that Pharaoh and all those chariots and charioteers drowned in a few inches of swamp water.”  “Wow, so it’s a miracle that St. Peter managed to sink into that sandbar.” “Wow, it’s a miracle that they wanted to carry him off to make him king when all he really did was get them to share…”

Photograph from Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

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