Recently astronomers alerted us to an event in which the constellation Regulus and the planets Venus and Jupiter were going into conjunction. The effect of this was brighter than normal light from the synchronicity of these heavenly bodies, such that the event was referred to as being similar to what took place sometime around the years 3-2 BC, that is, the ‘Star of Bethlehem.’ Where I live it was cloudy on the night of the convergence so I did not see it, but interestingly no one reported it to be all that stupendous. It fell out of the news. Honestly, I did not expect another Star of Bethlehem event, since there was only one time when a miraculous star sighting of that magnitude would have mattered: to herald all the joy of the coming of the Son of God into the world. Yet I cannot help but think that a beacon of light might be helpful to remind us that the Son is no less present in the world today. In fact, in this world such a beacon is much needed, indeed.
The world has always been exceedingly complex. Throughout the ages God has communicated with His people, sending signs of His care to us through the prophets and all the holy men and women who served Him. When God finally decided to send His Son into the world, it should not surprise us that the heavens complied, so to speak, to alert the wise men who ventured forth to see where the newborn king was born. The light of the ‘star’ not only guided them, but it provided light for Mary and Joseph, helping them navigate to Bethlehem as well. It also was a beacon for the shepherds and all those who sought out Emmanuel, God-with-us. And just as the slogan we see at Christmas says, “Wise men (and women) still seek Him,” we must seek Jesus every day of our lives and not only during the holiday season. That is why being recently alerted to the convergence of stars and planets was a good reminder.
An important distinction needs to be made, however. This is not about seeking signs and wonders in order to believe that God is present. Seeking out signs is not really the best way for us to live the spiritual life. In fact, it is often discouraged since we can be easily deceived by ‘an angel of darkness masquerading as an angel of light’ as St. Ignatius of Loyola would say. If we seek signs and spiritual phenomenon not only can we fall prey to deception, but we can find ourselves disappointed when they do not happen. St. Teresa of Avila discovered that we can begin to unwittingly seek the gift and forget the Giver of the gifts. In other words, we can shift our focus from God to the gifts because we enjoy the experience too much! If that keeps up we can be deceived into many erroneous ideas such as becoming falsely humble, professing to be unworthy, while simultaneously seeking to impress others; or we can become haughty because we do think of ourselves as gifted; or we may simply stop paying attention to God, spending our time in the afterglow of the gift we received rather than being attentive to the One who sent it. Instead of seeking signs then, we need to trust that God is with us even when we do not readily perceive His presence. We need to cling to the gifts of faith, hope, and love which He has given us. This is especially true in times of struggle or trial.
However, God does send us signs of His presence that we are meant to perceive. First and foremost He is present to us in Word and Sacrament. God is present in the Scriptures and this is why we should continually pore over the Bible. We will not understand everything and we will find much mystery, but the more we immerse ourselves in Scripture the more we open ourselves to His voice. When we reflect and pray over the Scriptures we can see how much we need God, but we can also see His unfathomable goodness, mercy, and love. This is unchanging: He always has been, is, and always will be; and He always has been, is, and always will be Love. This means that no matter how little we understand, and how unable we are to keep from falling into sin, He has always loved us, loves us now, and will always love us. God's mercy and compassion are deeper than the oceans and vaster than the infinity of the cosmos. This is our faith.
God is present in the sacraments; every time we receive a sacrament we are having an encounter with the living God. In the Eucharist we encounter Jesus Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. Nothing less. The fact that we have this miracle and reality offered to us every day is beyond any gift we could hope for, leave alone deserve. But because of the unfathomable mercy and love of God, Jesus came into our world and then did not leave us alone when He died and rose. God-with-us is truly God-with-us-always in a tangible, sensible way. Though we cannot understand how this is, our faith tells us that Jesus is with us in such a way that we can derive all our strength from this reality. We do not have to worry about what life dishes at us. All we need to do is cling to Him and therefore, to let Jesus be our strength in our great weakness and powerlessness. This is our faith.
Finally, God is present to us through that which He has created. In the encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis makes it clear that we are stewards of the earth, as the Bible indicates, and that in beauty we see God reflected. The Pope wrote: “What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. ‘Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker’ (Wis 13:5); indeed, ‘his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world’ (Rom 1:20). For this reason, [St.] Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” *
Not only do we find God through what He has made, we also can find God’s presence anytime we participate in a loving act. If we try to act in mercy and compassion, that is, if we try to do everything with love, no matter how small the matter, we are in the presence of God. When we are loved by someone else, we are in the presence of God. It is so important that we can see the signs around us, so that we do not always need something along the magnitude of the planets aligning in order to recognize God is with us. It is essential that we realize God makes His home in our heart if we invite Him in. Through baptism we have received His presence, His gifts of faith, hope, and love, and we are connected forever to the Body of Christ, (all those alive on earth and those who have predeceased us and who are already in Heaven.) If we are weak, He is our strength. If we are suffering, Jesus is there with us to comfort and to guide us. He is there to heal us, whether it is in body or in spirit, but in the end, He is there to bring us home to Himself in Heaven. Jesus is our beacon and He is the destination. This is our faith.
Whether or not we have signs in the heavens, we can learn to see the signs of God’s love around us. He does make Himself known to us. If we beg Him to help us see His presence around us, God will do it. He will help us to be able to see little things as if they were as big as the Star of Bethlehem. If we ask, God will enable us to see with our hearts so that we do not really need to see with our eyes all the time. This is where we get confused: we expect to see with our eyes and forget that a heart turned to God sees more truly than our outer senses can ever perceive. Therefore, let us ask God to help us perceive the beacons of light which He sends and are present in our world constantly. Let us trust that He is with us always.
May we ask God to help us see the beacons of light He offers to guide us! May we allow God to shine like the Star of Bethlehem within us, so that we may be filled with His light! May we be a beacon of the light of God’s love for others! In our weakness may we find His strength as we try to live within the uncertainties and complexities of our world! May we have hearts attuned to God, finding Him in His Word and in the Sacraments! May we find peace and bring peace to a world in need of it! And may we be filled with gratitude because of God's infinite care and mercy! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*The quote is from paragraph 12 of the recent encyclical Laudato si’, written by Pope Francis. The entire encyclical can be found at:
The photo of the stars is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Star
The icon is St. Ignatius in Prayer Beneath the Stars by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/holy-men-icons/product/133-st-ignatius-in-prayer-beneath-the-stars
Following the icon is a favorite painting, a print of which hangs in my house: Chalice and Host Surrounded by Garlands of Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1648)
The following two photos are mine. The first is a garden in Ireland and the second is the sky, taken while on a recent trip to New Mexico.
Heart Speaks to Heart