The Feast Day of St. Ambrose
“Are you ready for Christmas?”
I’m grateful to be surprised awake when a friendly store clerk asks me this question. I have been wondering if the person to whom I want to give this gift I am buying already has one just like it. I have been feeling a bit sad that I can’t give them what I really want to give them, which, when I really think about it, is wonder and joy, a sense of belonging, or a little hope. And then, boom. Into to the middle of all that angst and speculation comes this potent spiritual question: are you ready for Christmas?
Am I ready for Christmas? Am I ready to be surprised by God, the Creator of all that is, who will somehow work God’s self into a tiny, 3D human body and become incarnate? Am I ready to receive God when God stands in the center of my heart and knocks on the door to my consciousness? Am I ready to see it when God peers at me out of the eyes of the person with whom I am just now talking? Am I ready for that incomprehensible occurrence that we call the Second Coming? Am I ready for my own death?
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” instructs Jesus in the Gospel reading for St. Ambrose’s feast day today. My way of doing that is through a shift of attention. Brother Lawrence, the Seventeenth Century kitchen monk, called it practicing the presence of God. It is the awareness that God is right here, right now, present. I can speak to God and listen for God no matter where I am or what I am doing. And I can dedicate whatever it is that I am doing, whether it is buying a gift, scraping carrots, taking out the trash or writing an icon, to God. “This is for you,” I say.
In practicing the presence of God, my prayers are really simple and personal. “Look at how that woman is holding her child,” I might say. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
“What a sunset,” I might observe. “I love all the vibrant colors light can manifest.”
“That really made me angry,” I might realize. “I wonder what about it is pushing my buttons. Maybe you can help me figure it out.”
“My joints ache in this cold weather,” I might complain. “That never used to happen. You missed that part of being human, having only lived into your mid thirties.”
These prayers are full of trust – that God is not only right here, but listening – that God cares to listen. But they also prepare me for each moment in which I live.
I look into the store clerk’s eyes as she rings up my purchase. “No,” I say. “It’s hard remembering that with each of these gifts it’s the thought that counts, you know? I find myself hoping that somehow, magically, my little gift will solve all my daughter’s problems, make her happy.”
“I know what you mean,” says the clerk with a laugh. And she launches into a story about her own struggle to find the right gift for her son. “Whatever I give him is something, though,” she finishes. “He’s getting a present from his mama. You have a merry Christmas.”
She hands me my receipt and turns to her next customer. And that’s it. God has peered out of her heart and told me exactly what I needed to hear.