Our vocation is to bear God

  • November 24, 2006

Some questions seem to be our companions for life. I used to think they would get answered and go away. Now I'm less surprised to hear people of 25, 35, 45, 75, asking what I'd thought was the proper concern of the 15-year-old: "What am I supposed to do with my life?"

Many people find the query interposed daily, in this form: "What am I supposed to do today?" The hurricane of opportunities, information, desires, duties, cares, needs, doubts, thoughts, plans, discussions can make the day seem like a series of hurried, provisional answers to the familiar question, "What am I supposed to do with my life?"

A particularly memorable posing of this question came my way while I was working at an inner-city parish. We were preparing for a special Christmas feast. Duties, details, tasks accumulated and accelerated over those last few days before the 25th. A few days before its arrival, an unexpected advent occurred. A man dropped in and asked if we had a place where he could stay, as he had no place to sleep. After some hesitation, not wanting to start a trend which we could not support, I told him he could sleep in the garage, which was being used mainly for storage. I hoped this arrangement would be discreet enough that others would not make similar requests. Returning to my whirlwind of duties, I largely forgot about José.

From time to time, he would drop in, pick up a cup of coffee, and follow me around talking. It wasn't too difficult to toss back a regular "mmm, mm hmm" while continuing to chisel items off my to-do list. The day of the 24th was particularly hectic, with a plate of pre-celebration tasks served up on a bed of the regular day's duties. José came in early and started shadowing me, coffee in hand, chattering, even while I discussed with myself the vital question, "What should I be doing today?"

God's grace: something José was saying broke through. I stopped in the middle of the room and asked him to repeat. He had found a pigeon, he explained again, wounded on the sidewalk, picked it up and made it a nest in the garage. There was a bale of straw there on which he'd been sleeping; he took from the bale, lining the straw nest with down from his sleeping bag. The bird had slept in the garage with him that night.

This story brought everything into focus, as I remembered why there was a bale of straw in the garage. We would be strewing it on the chapel floor that night, to remind us that we were stepping into the pig-trough in which Christ was to be born. There, and nowhere else, would Christmas occur for us. Not only had José been sleeping in the straw of the manger, but he had also taken in a wounded pilgrim to shelter there.

Amid all my activities, amid my evident certainty that the coming of Christmas depended upon my hard work and organizational skills, the quiet truth spoke in a way which I could hear. Christ comes, lays His head in our mess, and says: "Here I am. Hold me. Carry me. Bring me forth into the world. I depend upon you. That is what you are supposed to be doing with your life. That is what you are supposed to be doing today, whichever day this is."

This shabby, smelly street person spoke these words to me. He was Christ for me that day.

More, he brought me closer to the Mother of God. I've always known the name of Mary is one of the most cherished ones in the church (after all, my parents handed it on to me), but for many years she was no more than a concept, a faraway marble statue, a china face with a penchant for blue. She was neither intimate nor a real person for me. People like José have pointed me to her. She is hidden, shining out from the shadows.

Mary teaches us, first, who we are to be, all of us, each in our own way. Second, she shows us that this vocation is possible, for at least one human being has achieved it. She bears God; we are to bear God. That is our vocation, our duty and our delight. That is the secret of Christmas hidden in the inner joy of Advent.

If learning to bear God seems like a well-spent Advent, leading to a good Christmas, then I am grateful to have been taught by José how to put flesh on this task. Opportunities will come, daily. What else am I supposed to do with my life?

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