The God of small things: Benedict XVI on the hiddenness of divine action

In this post I would like to take one more look at Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s writings, particularly the insights they provide regarding Advent and the Incarnation looked forward to during this season. His Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is replete with acute observations, sometimes mentioned almost incidentally to the main argument, and thus I find that re-readings of the texts are rewarding and enriching experiences. This is particularly true of the Infancy Narratives, a relatively short book rich in such ‘incidental’ slices of wisdom. One such theme mentioned as an aside when discussing the annunciation to Zechariah is that of the humility and hiddenness of God’s action:

…we must note the difference between the annunciation of the birth of the Baptist to Zechariah and the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary. Zechariah, father of the Baptist, is a priest and he receives the message in the Temple, during its liturgy. Mary’s lineage is not mentioned. The angel Gabriel is sent to her by God. He enters her house in Nazareth – a town unknown to the sacred Scriptures, a house that we must surely picture to ourselves as being very humble and very simple. The contrast between the two scenes could not be greater: priest – Temple – liturgy on the one hand, an unknown young woman – an unknown small town – an unknown private dwelling on the other. The sign of the new Covenant is humility, hiddenness – the sign of the mustard-seed. The Son of God comes in lowliness. Both these elements belong together: the profound continuity in the history of God’s action and the radical newness of the hidden mustard seed.

from Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), pp.20-21, Bloomsbury.

            This concept of the humility of God’s dealings with the world in Christ – the lowliness of Jesus’ birth, the simple background of Mary and Joseph, etc – is not a novel perception, and neither is the element of hiddenness, but I do feel it is an important theme to return to, especially at this time of year, when we consider the implications of the Incarnation and wait for the coming of Christ, both in us and at the end of all things. It is an encouraging thing to think about, when sometimes the smallness and seemingly inconsequential nature of our own lives and efforts can weigh us down.

Furthermore, Benedict briefly returns to and expands upon the theme of hiddenness as he concludes his treatment of the annunciation to Zechariah, and highlights that God’s workings retain this quality of hiddenness even within the grander context of Temple and liturgy:

…in the account of the apparition of the archangel Gabriel at the hour of the evening sacrifice, we can surely see a reference to Daniel, a reference to the promise of everlasting righteousness entering time. In this way, the evangelist is saying to us: the time is fulfilled. The hidden event that takes place during Zechariah’s evening sacrifice, unnoticed by the vast world public, in reality ushers in the eschatological hour – the hour of salvation.

ibid, p.25.

            Having made a distinction between Mary’s humble beginnings (and Nazareth’s seeming lack of importance), and Zechariah’s position of prominence as a Temple priest, Pope Benedict then points out that even this annunciation is an event unbeknownst to the rest of the world – this is not a major public event, but a personal revelation to one man, alone in the sanctuary at evening time. So, not only does God’s entrance into history consecrate the forgotten poor and the lowly of the world, but His dealings with us provide a tacit recognition and blessing of hiddenness per se. By knowing that the greatest events in world history – the Son of God being born into this world as one of us, with all that surrounded and followed it – were of no consequence to anybody but a small handful of people who could not prove or validate their experiences, can also be of great comfort and encouragement to us today.

How many times have we all felt that we are ‘up against it’ in some way – that our pleas and exhortations fall on deaf ears, that what we do is not making any difference, and/or that we are in this alone, that no one is there to understand or bear those trials with us? God’s ‘mustard-seed’ methodology (so to speak) does not only show us that He is on the side of the lowly, but that He is most with us in those moments when we most feel alone – it is in His hiddenness that He is made known. This may seem one paradox too far, but it has been the experience of all the great Christian mystics, and it seems, that of the principal participants of the Christmas story too.

Also, I sometimes wonder if, despite feelings at the time, this is not our experience too. The feeling that our deepest intuitions and beliefs about reality are not shared by a great deal of those around us can be a bewildering, sometimes depressing experience; but after these emotions have passed, and it is possible to reflect upon these trials, I for one have found that my reliance on those beliefs have become strengthened and confirmed. By the testing of faith in times when God seems hidden and the way of the world seems determined to compound that feeling, we discover which of our beliefs stand up to scrutiny, what holds firm against the storm. It is, paradoxically indeed, in these moments of hiddenness that we are drawn closer to God and deepen our connections with Him. As the mustard seed germinates slowly and patiently in the darkness of the earth, growing into a plant and gradually deepening its roots, we too can trust that our faith will grow in those times of hiddenness, and that God will ‘bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’ (1 Corinthians 4:5).

One final point to consider is that, just as God was doing great things on that evening in the Temple with Zechariah, and in that small dwelling in Nazareth, as well as in many other moments of grace and revelation delivered in hidden corners and dark places, it is important to remember that God is doing great things in us too. Through our baptism, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, and are made co-workers in Christ’s great ongoing work of salvation – each one of us is, whether in grand deeds or quiet daily activities, so far as we cooperate with His grace, bringing the light of the gospel into a world without hope. As Saint Paul said, ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As Pope Benedict says in his book, the hallmarks of the New Covenant are ‘the profound continuity in the history of God’s action and the radical newness of the hidden mustard seed’ – in Christ God’s action is opened up to the whole world, and in His members the saving message and action of this covenant are made manifest simply by bearing witness to and living out that radical newness in daily life. Every Christian is indeed a new creation, and continues the history of God’s action by fulfilling the promises given in baptism, by really being a Christ-bearer to the world. Again, it does not matter if this is done on a grand scale or to a wide audience – God has shown that He operates in hidden places, and is no respecter of publicity. The hard part is to remember what a great honour we have been given, and to recall this gift to ourselves daily – if we trust in Christ, He will do the rest. 

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