In the first year of my priesthood, almost six decades ago, I had the good fortune of starting out as a full-time hospital chaplain. That was unusual in those days, and several times I was asked by concerned observers what I had done to deserve such a punishment. (I remember one person asking me what window I had broken!) In those days hospital assignments were considered handy outposts for priests who got into one sort of trouble or another. The five years I spent there were among the happiest of my life.
Among the blessings and advantages that I enjoyed were my friendships with the medical staffs and the opportunity to be with them every day in a variety of situations. I can still recall many of the conversations that enriched my life. One came back to me as I was preparing this homily. Several of us had just left the chapel after celebrating a Holy Week liturgy, maybe Holy Thursday. I was very conscious of the presence of a young doctor, only a few years older than I, who was coming from the Mass. He was regarded as an extraordinarily good doctor; how many times I heard nurses say, “If ever I am suddenly in need of a doctor, don’t call anyone but…” – and then they’d mention his name.
I was especially aware of his presence because I was feeling embarrassed over the archaic, unscientific, largely mythical character of the ancient scripture readings we had just heard, and I wondered what this learned man of medical science was really thinking.
As we waited for the elevator, I said to him, “Pretty hard to swallow some of that old stuff, isn’t it, Doctor? I think it’s about time the authorities bring it up to date.”
He answered quickly, spontaneously, “I’d much prefer the poetry we just heard to the lifeless prose of a medical journal.”
He was even smarter than I had previously judged him to be! In what was considered my field, not primarily his, he taught me something I have never forgot. In that wise comment, he showed himself, as a Catholic Christian, to be way ahead of his time.
Poetry. The bible, we now increasingly understand, is full of poetry. They are not historical accounts or scientific reports that we find there; mostly they are, rather, poetic outpourings from the hearts and minds of men and women who had come to know that the one and only God of Love is always with us. They knew that that divine presence was the ultimate source of our energy and our destiny. They could not find enough ways to announce to the world, “Emmanuel,” God with us! And so, where to begin but with human language at its colorful best?
At this time of the year, we hear the familiar ancient messages about a divine architect, and heralding angels, and a guiding star, and mysterious stargazers, and awestruck shepherds, and reverent animals, and a most unusual birth. All exquisite poetry! Profound message! And the doctor was right: It beats a dispassionate reading from a scientific journal any day of the week!
What are we being told in such a resilient and enduring way? It is being revealed to us that in Jesus we have a new window on the mystery of God! What we see through that window is that we do not need a bridge between us and a supposedly distant God. No. Jesus saves us from that ancient misconception and lets us in on the hitherto secret that God is in everyone and everything, in every particle of this vast and incomprehensible universe! Emmanuel: God with us!
A truth as fundamental as that cannot, should not, be left to mere factual statement. It deserves to be and it needs to be celebrated with every means at our disposal. Let’s keep listening to the ecstatic biblical authors with our hearts and minds as open as we can make them! Let’s enjoy what they have written for us!