Underneath where eyes don't go
A sound that keeps the beat that holds
Alive the song I listen close
Do I follow, do I follow, where it goes
This refrain from the song, Where it Goes, by the Gray Havens provides a beautiful canvas of the human longing to live life most deeply. The human heart desires more than what the human flesh can provide on its own, recognizing that persistent longing (like a “beat that holds”) that exists “underneath where eyes don’t go.” This is, in a nutshell, the religious experience of every human person. The religious person recognizes this persistent desire and seeks to pay attention to it.
I share this on the feast of St. Andrew and in the season of Advent, because the account of Andrew and John in the Gospel reflects this very experience--our experience. It is also an experience that the season of Advent invites us to embrace.
What is this experience? It is our longing for the exceptional. Yes, it sounds cliché and hollow, but that is because many common words have lost their true value and power. Fr. Giussani, in his book Generating Traces, helps us recapture the essence of this word by describing the exceptional as that which corresponds to the deepest desires of one’s heart. So this experience (manifested by the song lyrics above and Andrew in the Gospel) is this longing to encounter that which corresponds to the deepest desires of one’s heart—a longing for the exceptional.
The question in the song, “Do I follow?” is answered affirmatively by Andrew. He follows. But he follows a particular man. Why? What makes this one man worth following? What is it about this man that triggered a response to leave everything behind and follow? What is it about this man that allowed the disciples to have this great affection for Him?
Fr. Giussani beautifully asks these questions and offers that one-word answer that again seems so simple—too simple—yet indeed profound. Fr. Giussani writes that this man, Jesus Christ, generated attraction because He was exceptional. And so Christ was exceptional in the eyes of the apostle Andrew because Christ corresponded to the deepest desires of his heart.
Such reflections may lead us to wonder what this desire actually looks like in our life. Yes, we can, as faithful believers, affirm that Jesus is truly exceptional, but what does my desire for the exceptional look like on a daily basis?
This year’s theme for the 2023 New York Encounter beautifully illustrates our current situation. To paraphrase, the theme highlights that the last few years have strengthened within each of us a desire for authentic community, a community that is truly interdependent. The uncertainty of the past few years (and the feeling of our inadequacy to face said uncertainty) have intensified our desire to be seen, accepted, and affirmed by someone in the flesh. We yearn for the presence of someone in our life who is not scandalized or embarrassed by our brokenness and sins. We desire the presence of someone who understands our life with certainty and accompanies us throughout it. We long for a presence that truly sees us and unconditionally loves us.
This is why Andrew followed Jesus along the road. For the first time, Andrew experienced this presence that saw him, a presence that understood his own life better than he did, a presence that filled this need. This is why Andrew was able to respond with such simplicity and certainty—a simplicity and certainty which would seem absurd to any outsider (think about the absurdity of following someone along the road whom you have barely met!). But the exceptional presence of Christ—the fulfillment of his desire to be seen and loved—draws out this unquestionable attraction and clarity in Andrew.
The season of Advent can draw out this unquestionable attraction and clarity within each one of us. This beautiful yet short liturgical season proposes a time to reawaken this desire and see with renewed eyes the exceptionality of Christ. In our longing to be seen, known, and loved, Advent proposes the coming of the only presence that can fill this need.
Advent gives us, if you will, a space “underneath” in which we can listen close to the song of our heart.
And like Andrew, we can follow.
“Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go.” -Pope Francis
I remember getting up in the middle of the night years ago to try and glimpse a rare, hybrid, solar eclipse. My husband and I camped out at the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of the night with blankets and hot chocolate to wait for a rising sun that would be covered by the moon. Rich pink and orange hues danced across the sky, basking the surrounding monuments. Though there were clouds that day, we knew something mysterious and magical was happening above us. We were willing to sacrifice some sleep and wait in the cold just to catch a glimpse of that star.
What did the magi see when they looked up in the sky over two thousand years ago? It was enough not only to make them camp out in wonder, but to set out in haste. Their journey required provisions, logistics, time, and great effort. But something in the sky beckoned them. I imagine it was similar to what Peter, Andrew, James and John saw in the face of Christ calling them on the beach – something so extraordinary and captivating that it called them out of their day-to-day routines to begin a new journey. Both the journey of the magi and that of the first apostles had the same end: Jesus Christ. These journeys show that an encounter with Jesus is life-changing. It sets us in motion: the journey of the magi, the life of discipleship and evangelization.
This past Sunday, the Christmas season continued with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. The Gospel reading recounted the journey and visitation of the magi to the Christ-child. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. the great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.”
The birth of Christ is the first outward manifestation of the Messiah. Jesus, whose name means “God saves,” is the revelation of God’s plan of redemption. After years of prophecy and expectation, longing and promise, God comes in the midst of his people in the most intimate way possible: as one of them.
This Incarnation is awe-inspiring. So awe-inspiring, in fact, that it even draws strangers. The Messiah foretold was long-awaited by the Chosen People of God—the Israelites. And yet, how many do we see at the birth of our Lord? The Visitation of the Magi foretells the inclusion of the entire world in God’s plan of salvation. He has come not only to redeem Jews, but Gentiles—peoples of every land and nation. As Paul wrote in Sunday’s second reading, “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
What can we learn from the magi? In his homily on the Feast of the Epiphany last year, Pope Francis boiled it down to 3 things:
Let us imitate the magi in our lives of discipleship. They were not complacent, but so observant that they were able to recognize God’s sign: the star. “The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat,” Pope Francis said last year. “They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.” They were vigilant, ready to go when the time came. And their hearts were receptive, disposed to the signs of the times. From there, they set out on a journey which would lead them to Christ himself. This journey required effort, planning, and sacrifice. And finally, they came bearing costly gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They met the generosity of God by reciprocating generosity. Pope Francis continued, “To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus.”
As we reflect on the significance of the Feast of the Epiphany, let us look to the example of the magi in our lives of discipleship. Let us look up beyond the distractions of the world in order to see God’s star. Let us take the risk of setting out on our journey closer to Christ with joy. And let us give generously to a world which needs the generous love and mercy of the Christ-child.
Question for Reflection: What are some things in our life that might distract us from seeing God in the everyday?
November 9th is a worldwide feast day celebrating the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. It may seem silly to have a feast day devoted to a church; after all, we are used to commemorating great saints, like Cecilia (November 22nd) or Andrew the Apostle (November 30th), or an aspect of Christ’s life, like the Solemnity of Christ the King (this year, November 25th). So why celebrate a building? Sure, it is a church, Mass is held there, the Eucharist is housed there – but that can be said of any other Catholic church. What makes the Lateran Basilica so special?
The full name of this particular church is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran. What a mouthful! The Lateran Basilica is one of the “major or papal basilicas,” the four highest-ranking churches in Roman Catholicism, due to their historical significance. The other three are St. Peter’s in the Vatican, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. St. John Lateran (as it is commonly known) is the oldest of the four, the oldest public church in Rome, and houses the cathedra (seat) of the pope in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome. Because it houses the cathedra, the basilica is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. It is also the sole holder of the title “archbasilica,” demonstrating its ranking above every other church in the world.
An inscription on the façade of the building says, “Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput.” Translated, it means, “The Most Holy Lateran Church, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.” Today’s feast day celebrates not only the physical structure itself, but also what it symbolizes. As the seat of the Holy Father, it reminds our hearts and minds of the fidelity we show to the successor of St. Peter, an expression of unity that binds together all the faithful. Moreover, the physical edifice of the church calls to mind what the Catechism states, “The Church is the Body of Christ” (CCC 805). While the Lateran Basilica itself is a magnificent building, housing priceless works of art, in the end it is just a hollow shell. The faithful who enter it, pray in it, and celebrate the Eucharist inside it are what truly bring it to life and bring its purpose to fulfillment.
On this feast day, let us pray. Let us pray for the Holy Father, that he may continue to lead the faithful entrusted to his care. And let us pray for the Church, that her members may always work in unity to bring about Christ’s kingdom on earth.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Sacred Scripture is silent on the childhood of the Blessed Mother, but for centuries Catholics in both the Eastern and Western Church have celebrated the moment that she was presented in the temple. This is especially true in the Eastern Church. Tradition (with a small “t”) holds that Saints Joachim and Anne brought their little girl to the temple when she was about three years old. They recognized that she was a gift from God and in their gratitude for the incredible blessing they had received; they wanted to present her back to God.
Our Lady’s presentation in the temple is more than just a touching story of an elderly couple offering their precious child back to God. It can serve as a beautiful reminder that, by the nature of our own baptisms, we too have been given back to God. This is true, regardless of whether that baptism was of the tiniest of babies or this past Easter Vigil.
From the very beginning, God had chosen the Blessed Mother to be His own mother. As a baptized Christian disciple, God has a special mission in mind for you. He has a plan for each one of us. By the nature of our baptism, God calls us to become a part of the New Evangelization, to become a missionary disciple of Christ. This mission will look a little different for each one of us. Some might be called to be missionaries in faraway lands, while the majority may be missionaries in their own backyard. Living out your baptismal call can be as simple as spreading the Gospel to a coworker or friend. It can take the shape of helping someone in need. It might be inviting a neighbor to attend Mass with you followed by a fun activity.
Many years after her presentation, the Blessed Mother told God “yes” when He asked her to become the mother of His dearly beloved Son. What God asked probably seemed scary. She may not have fully understood all that God was asking of her, but she trusted in Him and said “yes.” It should be the same with us. Even though it might mean stepping outside of our comfort zone or risking embarrassment, God calls each of His baptized children to take a risk and share the Good News.
Saints Joachim and Anne recognized that their little girl was something precious from God and that she belonged to God. The Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple tomorrow can serve as a real reminder of our baptisms and that we too belong only to God. What a blessing that is!
Jennifer Beckmann is an Administrative Secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.