The Word Among Us

Advent 2007 Issue

Reading the Signs

How to see heaven in your everyday life.

Scripture tells us that faith is "the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). According to St. Paul, faith creates a desire for God and a longing to be with him, "clothed with our heavenly habitation" (2 Corinthians 5:2).

This desire for God is the reason why people choose to "walk by faith, not by sight"—even when walking "by sight" seems so much easier (5:7).

Living by faith means believing that we can touch the unseen heaven even while we are living on earth. It means that we are so convinced about God’s presence in our lives that we make it our goal to please him, even if it means saying "no" to some very strong and attractive temptations (2 Corinthians 5:9). In this article, we want to ask what it might take on our part to experience this kind of living by faith.

Read the Signs! One day, some Pharisees and Sadducees, wanting to test Jesus, asked him for a sign from heaven. In reply, Jesus asked them why they were so good at discerning something as fickle as the weather, when they didn’t know how to read the "signs of the times" (Matthew 16:1-3).

Jesus wants all of us to be able to discern the signs of the times. He wants us to know how to spot the signs in our world that point toward him, his powerful love, and his Father’s deep desire that we all be gathered in his kingdom.

Christmas was a large step forward in the fulfillment of God’s plan. By sending Jesus to be with us, God was saying, "I love the world so much that I’m willing to send my one and only Son, not to condemn it but to save it" (John 3:16-17). A "saved" world is a world in which heaven has come down to earth. It is a world in which God’s people are in touch with his Spirit and able to read the "signs of the times" that tell us about Jesus’ love and about the Holy Spirit’s transforming power.

This is such encouraging, uplifting news, and yet all too often, we walk around believing that only a few special people are able to read the signs of Jesus’ love and presence. But just the opposite is true: This gift is not limited to saints, priests, or hermits. Everyone can have their spiritual eyes opened!

With Eyes Wide Open. As Jesus told Nicodemus, we who have been baptized are born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). We have all received a new birth that has made us capable of seeing the kingdom of God (3:3). When we nourish the gift of Baptism by seeking God in every way, by turning away from sin, and by trying our best to love, we will be able to "see the kingdom of God" more and more clearly. Conversely, if we allow our hearts to harden, our spiritual eyes will be clouded, and our ability to see the Lord and his kingdom will fade (Mark 8:17).

It’s true: We have spiritual eyes, and we need to open them! God has done everything he can to make it possible for us to see his kingdom. But possibility is not the same as settled reality. Reality comes when we ask and seek. It comes when we take the necessary steps to open our eyes and look. Only as we practice the art of prayer—in private, at the Eucharist, and in the Scriptures—will we be able to put our faith in the unseen glory of heaven.

The good news is that God doesn’t expect us to do this all on our own. On the contrary, he is committed to teaching us and encouraging us along the way. This is, in fact, why he sent the Holy Spirit—the Third Person of the Trinity—to live in our hearts. It is the Spirit’s job to open our hearts and our minds so that we can understand everything that Jesus taught (John 14:26). It is his job to take everything that eye has not seen and ear has not heard—everything that human hearts could never conceive of on their own—and reveal them to us (1 Corinthians 2:7-10).

A Faithful Disposition. God does not want to hide his wisdom and his love from us. He doesn’t want to make it hard for us, or to make us have to work so hard that we give up before we reach him. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no effort required on our part. This is what Jesus meant when he told a woman he met in Samaria: "The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him" (John 4:23). If we want to touch heaven, it is crucial that we learn how to worship God in a way that acknowledges his authority, his love, his glory, and his power.

There are many attitudes and dispositions, good and bad, that we can have when we participate in the worship of Mass, when we pray, or when we make the daily decisions of life. The best disposition we can have is one that says, "I must spend time with the Lord every day—time in which I am free to worship him deeply and with no distractions. I also need to take hold of whatever I receive in prayer and put it into practice at work, at home, and in my community."

If we come to Jesus with hearts that are as pure and undivided as possible, we will find ourselves acting just like this Samaritan woman. Once she met Jesus and came to see who he was, she hurried off and told everyone in her village about him (John 4:29-32). This is how we will make ourselves ripe to receive God’s wisdom. This is how we can set our hearts on Jesus. This is how we will be more likely to live by faith and not by sight.

The Spirit Lives in You. Tradition calls Mary "Immaculate" because we believe that from the moment of her conception, she was preserved from the stain of mortal sin. Theologians tell us that it had to be this way: How could a sin-stained and imperfect womb carry the perfect holiness of the Son of God? In a similar way, we believe that when we are baptized, our souls are washed clean so that we can become a temple of the Holy Spirit. We may still have to deal with the sinful inclinations that are part of our fallen nature, but at the core of our beings—what Scripture often calls our spirit—we have been cleansed and purified.

This means that just as Mary carried Jesus two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit wants us to carry him. We all know how an expectant mother is always feeling her belly, checking on what her baby is doing inside of her. Likewise, the Spirit wants us to reach into our hearts and try to feel or sense what he is doing in us or saying to us.

So many people in Scripture learned how to hear the Holy Spirit and "see" the kingdom of heaven. For instance, St. Peter traveled to Samaria and to the home of Cornelius, a pagan, because he felt the Spirit was leading him there (Acts 8:14-17; 10:1-48). Paul and Bar-nabas were commissioned by the church in Antioch to become missionaries because of the Holy Spirit’s promptings (13:2-3). Later, Paul, Luke, Silas, and Timothy felt led by the Spirit to change their plans and enter Europe rather than restrict themselves to Asia Minor (16:6-10). As a result of this change in plans, the church in Philippi began. Philip, too, was led into Gaza, where he evangelized a powerful government official from Ethiopia (8:26-40).

All of these stories lead us to one conclusion: We have spiritual eyes, and the Holy Spirit wants to open them. All we have to do is have the right disposition before God, and we will find him.

Living by Faith. Christmas tells us that our life is precious to God. Why else would he send his only Son to save us? Why else would he send his Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us? Our Father wants to influence our lives each day. He wants to open our eyes to his heavenly revelation so that we might have faith in the unseen and strive to please him every day on earth as it is in heaven.

With this in mind, let’s try to make this Christmas special. Let’s give Jesus a present by worshipping him in spirit and truth, with all that we have and all that we are. Let’s ask him to open our spiritual eyes so that we might peer into the unseen realm of heaven. Let’s ask him to help us walk by faith and not by sight.