The Lord is near. Indeed. I have loved coming to Eucharist Adoration since the time I was a child. During these times, I could feel God’s presence because I was so near to the Lord. I think that nearness really speaks to us today as we continue in this pandemic and we keep hearing over and over and over again that we need to be socially distant. I read an article recently that someone said that we should change the name social distance to physical distance. It’s assumed that this would be more accurate and help us more if we were just physically distant from each other. I thought that was good, but I thought about it further and reflected and thought, “Physical distance?” It is still distance. Physical distance still creates social distance and isolation. Especially for us as Catholics, we are used to God coming close to us. As we hear in the reading, “We are used to the Lord being near.”
In every sacrament, we have some sense of touch and some sense of contact of the human and the divine. From the very moment of our baptism, as the priest pours water and anoints our heads with oil, we are touched by God. When we had our first confession (and if we have been to confession recently), the priest lays hands over the penitent, and we feel the hand of God so near to us. When we come to receive the Eucharist, God is not only near, but we receive him into our mouth and, all of a sudden, God is within us. The same thing happens with the Rite of Ordination. The priest kneels down before the bishop, and the bishop lays his hands on them. The bishop takes the priest’s hands and anoints them. Touch is so important. For those that have been confirmed, the same thing happens. The bishop lays his hands on the Confirmandi and anoints the forehead with holy oil. He touches them with their thumb. In the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, a husband and wife come together. As they say their vows, there is a specific part of their instruction where they are to join each other’s right hands and declare their consent before God. Touching each other. Then finally, for the Anointing of the Sick, there is a beautiful moment where the priest lays his hands on the person and then touches their hands with oil. The sacraments cannot be “physically distanced.” We need to actually be close to receive the sacraments.
I know that all of you experienced the time of great distance when the churches closed down. It was a time when we felt a tremendous distance from God. I was with my nieces and nephews today and, when they ran into the house, I did not know whether I could hug them or they could hug me. We just stared at each other. I asked them how school was. If you think distance does not matter, ask a grade school kid how virtual learning is going, and they will tell you it is lousy. It is nothing like being there in person.
This physical separation and this social separation also cause us to experience a spiritual separation; however, God is always near to us, and God will always find ways to be near to you. When I was growing up, I loved Advent. For me, it is such a season of wonder and awe. I loved decorating the Christmas tree. The part that I liked was the lights. I would get to do the lights. We would often turn off all the lights in the house so that you could see whether or not there were bulbs burned out. You could also see inside the tree as you decorated the tree. I would wrap the entire tree in lights, and I would always leave a little strand coming down to the manger. The manger was ultimately my favorite thing to set up before Christmas. I will never forget this one Christmas when I was setting up the manger. I placed the manger under the tree and began to spread some hay there. Then I put into the manger the cow, the ox, the ass, the sheep and the shepherd, the Wisemen, and Mary and Joseph. The angel would hang above the manger, and then I would put baby Jesus in. I remember wanting to be close. I loved just looking at the manger and adoring baby Jesus. I would lie down under the tree and put my head right in front of the manger and just gaze in at Our Lord. One Christmas, my sister (she must have learned this somewhere), came over to me while I was lying on the floor looking at baby Jesus. She reached down and grabbed baby Jesus out of the manger. She pulled him away and said, “He does not go in there until Christmas.”
I remember looking back in the manger and all of the animals were just staring at this empty space where Jesus was. They were staring at the ground. Mary and Joseph looked confused to me, and the animals looked confused. I was confused looking there and seeing nothing. I realized at that moment that I wanted him to be there. I wanted him to be close. I wanted to be close to him. We always sat in the front row whenever we went to Mass. The Denk family had six kids – three boys and three girls. We sat in the front row and came in a minute before Mass started. We would make this whole scene before Mass started. We were always in the front row and near the altar. As I got a little bit older, I began to serve and was even closer to the altar and the Eucharist. My mother would take me to Eucharistic Adoration as a child. I have to say that, as a child, I absolutely loved being in the presence of God before the Holy Eucharist. I felt so close to God. I loved him. After grade school I went to public high school and then I went to college and kind of got away from some of the faith as I entered those phases of life. As I was entering into those college years, I was partying. I was probably doing stuff that I should not have been doing.
Whenever things got really bad and I needed an escape, I would go to Perpetual Adoration. My parish, Holy Family in Parma, had it all the time. I could go at 3:00 in the morning and be with the Lord. This was constantly a way to be close to him. All of us need to experience God who is near to us. All of us need to find God when it seems like he is ripped away – like when he is ripped out of the manger from us. We need to discover him and find him. All of us need to feel his presence. To be human means that we do need to be near him. We need to be near God, and we need to be near each other. I am sure you know the stories of babies if they are not held or cradled. If they are not nurtured, they could be very likely to die from lack of touch. The lack of nearness from their parents severely impacts them. I think about people that are in nursing homes right now. My pastor a couple of assignments ago, Father Martello, has been in the nursing home and has been quarantined in his own room since March. No family. No visitors. You cannot tell me that social distancing and physical distancing is not difficult for him. I know that it is not just he who is experiencing this. Everyone is going through their own isolation.
Physical distancing does lead to social distancing, and social distancing does lead to spiritual distancing. God does want to overcome that. He did come back into my life even though he was taken from me in the manger. Just as this pandemic has thrown our spiritual lives into chaos while churches were closed for times, he comes back into our lives. He is the one that constantly draws near to us. If you have felt distant from him, if you felt far away, if you felt isolated, if you felt alone, if you feel a lack of touch or a lack of embrace, know that he wants to be all of that for you and that he can be all of that for you. Let him draw near to you in the season of Advent so that ultimately you can receive him fully as we celebrate Christmas.