"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, 'Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."
- Luke 1:26-29
"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
What does that feel like? How does it feel for you to hear that you are favored by God? The Lord is with you. God, the Creator of the universe, favors you, is with you.
How perplexing. What sort of greeting? What can this mean?
How can I be favored by God when I'm so terribly ordinary? How can I be favored by God if bad things happen to me or to the people I love?
How can I be favored by God if God knows all about me: My angry outbursts. My laziness. My lustful thoughts. My irregular church attendance. My sporadic prayer life. The times I wonder whether God is really good or trustworthy or loving. Or whether God even exists.
And yet, the Lord is with us. Emmanuel, the name of God that we hear over and over again in Advent means, God-with-us.
The essence of prayer is the recognition that the Lord is with us. We are invited to joint with Mary, whose encounter with God, like our own encounters with the Divine, confounds all sense of reason and defies our expectations. It is about daring to open our hearts to a God who, heedless of the cost, entered into His own creation in the womb of a poor Jewish girl, clothing eternal glory and majesty in mortal flesh -- a God who does the same when, by the Spirit, God lives in and through us.
God comes to us at all times, unbidden. As the angel Gabriel came to Mary, so God comes to us and announces His favor and His intention to take our flesh and make it one with His Spirit as we are the living Body of Christ. Our journey in relationship with God is a journey into that reality, the reality that God abides with us, here, now, always.
It is no accident that you are reading these words. Why have you come? What are you hoping for? Are you ready, are you willing to discover what God has prepared for you, beyond your expectations, your hopes, your fears?
The truth is, God is with us by the Spirit right now. Our purpose together this Advent is not to talk about abiding in the presence of God, but to practice. My hope is that what you experience in these few short weeks of preparation for Christmas you will be able to take into your continuing practice of the presence of God in your private prayer.
Every one of us has had experiences of awareness of Emmanuel, God-with us. Maybe you haven't called those times God-awarenesses. What I am talking about are the moments that felt like more, moments of transcendence or wonder or awe or deep tranquility. They are the moments when, however briefly, we've had a sense that there is something -- or someone -- some sense of life resonating in us beyond the bare facts of the moment in which we find ourselves.
The purpose of this exercise is to practice listening for God in this moment and discovering what it feels like for you when you experience what I will call the presence of God. This sort of practice hearkens to the recommendations of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius taught that we could employ all of our faculties, including our imaginations and our memories, in approaching God in prayer.
Find a quiet space and time. You'll need 10-15 minutes. You'll likely want to read through the instructions a couple of times, so you don't have to stop in the middle of the exercise. You don't have to do it exactly as it's written. Use it as a starting place and see where it takes you.
Sit where you can have your feet on the floor. You should be comfortable, but alert. Close your eyes.
Ground yourself in your body by taking a deep breath...and letting it out. Another breath, noticing the air entering...and leaving your body. Once more... It is God who provides the very air we breathe.
Welcome the Holy Spirit to be with you in this time. Invite the Spirit to open your heart and your mind.
Take another conscious breath... We are going to spend some time remembering...
When have you been conscious of the presence of God with you? Invite the Spirit to lead you, to call your attention to the times, the experiences, the fleeting moments that God may be inviting you to recall.
Maybe you have known God's presence in prayer...at church...in the sacraments...at home...at work...or school...in the car...with someone you love...with someone who was ill or dying...in a time of great joy... Maybe what you remember is a small, private moment, a moment known only to you... Continue to return your attention to the Spirit. Let the Spirit direct your thoughts. There is no right or wrong. You may recollect only one experience...or a few...or many.
As you reflect, listening for the Holy Spirit, notice: Which one experience of the presence of God seems especially compelling to you right now? With your eyes still closed, hold that experience in your mind, in your heart.
As you reflect on that time, when you experienced the presence of God, notice what you feel in your body. Do you feel tension? Lightness? Something else? Where in your body do you feel the presence of God. Place your hand there.
If that feeling in your body had a color or a shape, what would it be? What is it like? Does any image arise for you? This is only for you, so that you can know what your unique experience of the presence of God feels like for you.
Continue to sit with the feeling for as long as seems right for you.
When you feel ready, open your eyes and gently return to the space you are in.
Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this time.
Next week: "Do Not Be Afraid"