[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in
heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is
before all things, and in him all things hold together.
--Colossians 1:15-17 NRSV
As you go from this place, hear these words:
May the strength of Christ go before you to prepare your way.
May the grace of Christ come behind you to finish what you must leave undone.
May the peace of Christ surround you in the present moment.
And may the love of Christ guide your every thought, word and deed.
I’ve been saying the benediction I offer each Sunday for at least fifteen years. I’m not exactly sure when I came up with it. I’m fairly sure it is original to me, insofar as it came to me as some kind of mild epiphany once upon a time. I’m also pretty sure it was influenced by benedictions affirming God’s presence that I must have heard along the way. Probably its ultimate source lies in a prayer of St. Patrick:
Lord, be with us this day,
Within us to purify us;
Above us to draw us up;
Beneath us to sustain us;
Before us to lead us;
Behind us to restrain us;
Around us to protect us.
Who knows when or where I first came across Patrick’s words.
Whatever mysterious mixture of inspiration prompted me to come up with the benediction I offer, I stick with it, because with all my doubts and questions regarding God’s presence in my life, in the seconds it takes me to say it, I believe with certainty that the words of the benediction are true. As I look out on the faces of church members I know well and strangers who have wandered in all of whom are looking back at me, I do believe that Christ is all around us—before, behind, surrounding and guiding every one of us.
There is a spectrum of awareness of Christ’s presence that each person who hears the words of benediction fall on. Week to week people may fall at different places along it. One week a person may be keenly aware Christ is present in their lives, and another week they may feel Christ has been absent. Some people move up and down that spectrum, while others hardly move and stay largely fixed at their particular level of awareness no matter their circumstances. When I reflect upon my own awareness of Christ’s presence, I feel more like the indicator of an old-fashioned car radio that moves up and down the dial as someone rapidly turns the knob. Yet, somehow it is easier for me to be certain when I look into others’ eyes at the end of a church service—some wide open and awake, others bleary from a late Saturday night, still others already focused far away on what brunch or lunch spot they are headed to after the service—that Christ is ever-present all around us, within us, always accessible to us even if we don’t realize Christ is there.
I suppose I was attracted to the belief of Christ surrounding us, because I grew up conceiving of God as God the Father with Christ seated at his right hand located far above me in the throne room of heaven. The world was a hierarchy with God and Christ at the top and me somewhere near the bottom. Christ was only accessible in certain sacred locations or among certain sacred circumstances. It was up to me to struggle to find where Christ was hidden, and if I wasn’t successful it was my fault for not searching long and hard enough. Wherever Christ was, Christ was not near to me. If and when Christ showed up, he must surely be disappointed by the long list of my sins he discovered.
Along my journey, I did meet Christians who believed Christ was close at hand. These Christians spoke of God like a cosmic vending machine or Aladdin’s genie. Jesus controlled the stop lights to help them on their way to work. Jesus enabled them to find a two-for-one deal at their favorite restaurant. Jesus blessed them with all kinds of things which seemed more like coincidences to me. Surely Jesus had better things to do than respond to selfish wish fulfillment.
It was only when I discovered so called “feminist” theologians who pointed out where scriptures reveal God’s presence in all creation that I began to question the concept of God being always separate from us. Those feminist theologians didn’t come across to me like radicals on the fringe but in many ways they seemed quite conservative as they pointed out what was plain to read in scripture but which had never been pointed out to me. “[Christ] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In other words, Christ is in and all around everything, even me.
I’m sure about the same time I read feminist theologians I was also discovering Celtic Christianity and the likes of Saints Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert and others. Thanks to a seminary class on classics in Christian spirituality I read Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. These ancient writers showed me the deep well of Christian tradition which understood God as not way “up there” apart from us worthless sinners but “down here” among us, around us and always present with us. This wasn’t a new fad but an ancient tradition which had been there all along in Christianity.
What a relief and a comfort it was to find out Christ was all around me, not as some imaginary friend or divine butler but rather present in the miracle of each breath, the beauty of each rain drop and ray of sun, and most mysteriously in the presence of friends and the mercy of strangers. Since this discovery of Christ’s presence all around me, I’ve experienced a never-ending process of trying to live out of this truth. I’m neither very disciplined nor programmatic in my spirituality, so I’m grateful Christ is gracious and never standing by with a clipboard checking off my sins as I had imagined in younger days.
Despite my questions, doubts and lack of awareness the rest of the week, on Sunday mornings when I offer the benediction, at least for a moment or two, I am utterly confident of the truth of Christ’s presence in our lives. I hope that at least for a moment those who hear these words share the same confidence.
Grace and Peace,
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