A tendency found in many religions is to escape, sometimes even negate and deny, the ordinary: the Buddha finds enlightenment after leaving home, friends, and attachments; the yoga path of Hinduism is an ascending detachment from family, business, relationships; the Greek ideal of truth is the world of forms, while the “life of time and senses” is illusion. Christianity itself has had its traditions of flight— we know this: flight from marriage, from the city, from the “world”.
But the heart of Christianity is a transformation of the ordinary, not a flight from it. After all, Incarnation, the central mystery we embrace, affirms that the eternal Word becomes flesh, not flees it. We are, in this respect, children of Judaism where the God of Moses and the prophets enters space and time, where God is deeply concerned about and profoundly moved by our condition. The most ancient covenant of Abraham arises from his relationship to Sarah—her childlessness, her laughter, the baby she finally nursed in old age. Abraham’s mighty faith was tested in relationship to his son—his son was his prize possession, was his guarantee of immortality.
In the Christmas narratives, ordinary people like shepherds and travelers are the messengers of God, not just angels and certainly not the power-brokers of nations. Zechariah in his doubts and dumbness; Elizabeth finding God in her cousin Mary;Joseph coping with the demands of Caesar—taxes, housing, and relocation—they all encounter God. A simple, devout man like Simeon still searches, still hopes, and finally sees. Another old prophet, Anna, still praying in the temple sixty years after her husband’s death —when one might think there was not much more to look forward to —this Anna discovers the truth.
And then this holy family, these people… Cousins and aunts and acquaintances. A mother who is mother of one child, yet mother of us all. Her spouse, a man, a worker, a father of a child somehow not fully his. They are all ordinary people who find the place where strength and wisdom and favor might flourish.
It is first and foremost in our relationships, our families, our friends, that God is encountered, that faith is given flesh, that our theories of justice are tested out, that our prayer is made real, that dreams are actualized.
Even the great mystic teacher St. Teresa of Avila insisted on that truth: when people came inquiring about the heights of holy prayer, she would ask how their relationships were going. And the great skeptic Sigmund Freud knew it, too: the stage of the ordinary, of the family, was where the deepest dramas were played out.
Our most profound sufferings, our greatest heroics, our most significant encounters with God are here with these people we know and love, in their goodness, in their weakness. Where else do we most intimately encounter what Paul calls the “requirements” of love: patience, humility, forgiveness, kindness… It is one rather easy thing to love humanity. It is quite another to love this one, who is so close to me, so like me.
It is all here, in our homes, in the pews of our churches, in our friends, in our families. Here is the holy ground. Here is the face of God, the smile shining upon us, the kindly gaze upon us. These are arks of the covenant. These are “the holy of holies” if we only look, like Simeon; if we only see, like Anna; if only, like Mary, we take time to ponder it all in our hearts.
Fr. Wolfgang Felber SJ