But I will leave as a remnant in your midst / a people humble and lowly, / Who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord: / the remnant of Israel. / They shall do no wrong / and speak no lies; / Nor shall there be found in their mouths / a deceitful tongue; / They shall pasture and couch their flocks / with none to disturb them.
Zephaniah 3: 12-13
As the celebration of Christmas, God with us, approaches, we ask ourselves where are we to look for God’s presence. The gospel readings of these days occur in the context of a dispute over the identity of John the Baptist. While it is clear that many of the people recognize the work of God in John, the religious leaders experience him as a threat to them and their place in the society. HIs words and presence as a call to repentance and change, to a re-evaluation of what is and is not important, are grace to the poor and ordinary people but a challenge and disruption to the powers that be, the religious mainstream and leadership.
For those of us who have received the faith tradition and heard the gospel story throughout our lives, there is the danger of becoming, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the second son in today’s gospel parable. In our ritual and our prayer, we may find ourselves saying “yes” but then not going to work in the field. On the other hand, we may be surrounded by many who declare themselves unbelievers, who say “no” but then do what is needed when it is asked of them.
There are so many factors in life that can feed a kind of duplicity in us, not least of which are the roles and responsibilities that our larger and smaller cultures place on us. In order to do what we feel we must, we adopt a kind of apparent form of life that suggests a competency, a wisdom, and a strength that we really do not have. In the social, political, and religious “mainstream” of life it can seem to us as if life is too often equal part dedication and affectation. In a culture whose primary values are social status, economic standing, and professional competency, we are constantly at risk of losing the proper sense of our place as one of the “little ones,” of struggling to maintain a certain standing in our small worlds to a degree that it inhibits our simple and pure call to “hear the Word of God and do it.”
Even as we try so hard to meet our responsibilities and be the one we thing we must be, we can feel as if life requires of us innumerable “little white lies” about what we are going through and who we really are. Zephaniah speaks of the poor and faithful remnant, who “do no wrong and speak no lies.” It is they who shall not be disturbed by the kind of ambition that can compromise us. As they “take refuge in the name of the Lord,” the Lord will dwell within and among them. It is with such as these that the Lord is to be found.
Pope Francis reminds us that it is in the life and practice of the anawim of our day that we can discover the life, love, and presence of the Lord. It is the humble and lowly who continue to give birth to the Son of God in the world. Perhaps as we enter the latter days of Advent, we can turn our gaze from the “big picture” to the small one. We can, at least occasionally, leave aside our important concerns and grand responsibilities and, as those who must tend to the basic and simple needs of others, realize the Divine presence in the person who stands before us in need and so offer the food, drink, support and care that is in our weak and limited capacity to give.
Jesus keeps knocking on our doors, the doors of our lives. He doesn’t do this by magic, with special effects, with flashing lights and fireworks. Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side.
Pope Francis to Clients of Catholic Charities, Washington, D.C.
To understand this reality we need to approach it with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love. Only from the affective connaturality born of love can we appreciate the theological life present in the piety of Christian peoples, especially among their poor. I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified. No one who loves God’s holy people will view these actions as the expression of a purely human search for the divine. They are the manifestation of a theological life nourished by the working of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5).
Underlying popular piety, as a fruit of the inculturated Gospel, is an active evangelizing power which we must not underestimate: to do so would be to fail to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, we are called to promote and strengthen it, in order to deepen the never-ending process of inculturation. Expressions of popular piety have much to teach us; for those who are capable of reading them, they are a locus theologicus which demands our attention, especially at a time when we are looking to the new evangelization.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 125-6