As they’re wont to do, a recent conversation with my Mother moved from Christmas current to Christmases past. We were discussing the visits of Santa Claus to our childhood home, and Mom remarked, “We have plenty of pictures of your sister crying, rather than sitting on Santa’s lap.”
“You don’t want to get those photo albums out now, do you?”
I don’t know when my Mother thought that we would have a better time to look at old photos than my visit home at Christmas. “Yes, I do.”
“Alright, they’re in the bottom drawer of the hall linen closet.”
We passed almost an hour, and we hadn’t looked long before my mother was insisting that I not turn the pages too fast. “Wait, I want a better look at this.”
Before photo albums—electronic, paper, or plastic—how did people manage to have another look at the world, to see what they missed the first time around? Perhaps they reread letters, because both photos and letters, especially when encountered many years later, allow us to see again the world in which we once lived.
What we discover, of course, is how much we missed the first time around. “Wow, she really was a lovely bride.”
“I didn’t realize that he was ever that thin.”
“Or you that young!”
“Look at your face. You still react that way when you’re surprised.”
The simple fact is, what you see in the world depends a great deal upon what you’re looking for. In like manner, the nature of a prejudice is what narrows our expectations, leading us to find what we expect to discover, and, sadly, we never realize what we’ve missed because of it. Remove the prejudice and then see how wide the world is! That’s why looking again, many years later, can produce such a different sight, indeed, an unexpected insight.
No story in the gospels is told without purpose. All of them are meant to teach us something about the life of Christ, and about our own lives as well. Saint Matthew recounts the wonderful story of the Magi from the East, because it perfectly captures his own insight into the whole saga of Christ. Namely, that some people looked and saw nothing, while others gazed upon all that they could ever have hoped to have found.
Saint Matthew presents Christ as the Messiah King, whose presence was overlooked by his own people but not by those whose hearts were open, whose minds were restless and attentive. The sight of the Child with his mother was available to anyone, so too were the preaching and the miracles that Christ would later perform in our midst, but not everyone saw what was there to be seen. As Matthew sees it, what happened shortly after the birth of the Messiah was true of his entire life, and is still true today. “The mystery was made known...by revelation. It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph 3:4-5). Christ is God-among-us, but only for those who have the eyes to see.
For most of us, most of the time, revelation is not the entry of new facts into the world via a vision or a prophecy. Rather, it’s suddenly seeing the same old world in an entirely new way. This can happen in so many ways. We can experience a terrible setback in life or a great boon; we can lose a loved one or fall in love. Or we can simply look through a photo album or reread an old letter, and suddenly the world that we have taken for granted is suffused with grace, with the presence of God. As Goethe put it in Faust, “In many hued reflection we have life.”
Note that, contrary to our sentimentality, grace is not always a pleasant experience. As Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught, in those moving away from God, grace often comes in the form of an unpleasant jolt or a melancholy reminiscence. How else can the Holy Spirit turn us around than to jostle us away from false securities? In such a moment, we sadly remember that the world wasn’t always this way. But then, add a dollop of hope. That should lead to the happy conclusion that it also doesn’t have to be this way. It can change for the better.
Do you seek to see the Child with his Mother? Do you pine to be moved by the preaching of Christ? Do you long for your life to be reordered by his resurrection? Grace comes in many forms. Your world need not be rocked. You might try opening a photo album or an old box of letters. Take another look at the world. See what was always visible to eyes of faith. “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory” (Is 60: 1-2).
Isaiah 60: 1-6 Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6 Matthew 2: 1-12