On the morning of Friday, January 12, 2007, the Washington Post conducted a social experiment. The paper hired Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most gifted violin players and had him busk in a subway station during rush hour. The writer of the article wanted to know if in an ordinary place at an odd time people would recognize beauty and stop to appreciate it. That morning, Bell spent 45 minutes playing six famous musical pieces. While nearly 1,100 people passed by this violinist that morning, 27 of them tossed money in his case totaling $52.17 – $20 of which came from one person who DID recognize him. Only seven people stopped to listen for a notable length of time and Gene Weingarten documented his observations for the Washington Post.
To be fair, the crowds in Washington on that January morning had no reason to expect a subway busker to be a famous musician. But as we journey through Advent, we should take heed to another morning where a VIP was missed, and make sure that we are paying attention.
Twenty centuries ago, the people of Israel lived in the hope that the Messiah would come. Their longing for this promised one had been augmented by all they had suffered under a Roman occupation. Every day, they prayed that God would deliver them. The birth of Jesus was the answer to all these hopes and prayers, but we’ll see that most people didn’t have a clue what was going on. Certainly, the shepherds and the Magi will find their way to worship the newborn King, but these represent a miniscule fraction of those who’d been praying and waiting for his birth. A few days later when Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the temple (Luke 3:22-40), it is only Anna and Simeon who recognize Jesus and see their hopes fulfilled.
Seven years after his first subway concert, Joshua Bell returned to Washington, DC, in September 2014 and performed another well-advertised concert in the subway station. This time people knew what was going on and made a point of stopping and listening. Each year, Advent is that big advertisement that tells us to look for Jesus in our lives. If we struggle to recognize Him, a good starting point can come from contemplating the actions and attitudes of those who did encounter the Christ child.
First, we can consider the shepherds. In his 2009 Christmas homily, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the fact that when the angels appeared the shepherds were awake, “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). As they watched, they were paying attention for anything out of the ordinary to protect their sheep. It was because of this state of watchful readiness that they were able to hear and respond to the angel’s message about Jesus’ birth. Like the shepherds, we need to learn how to be spiritually awake, which Pope Benedict says “means to develop a receptivity for God: for the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us; for the many indications of his presence.” We develop this receptivity to God by our faithfulness to consistent personal prayer (daily, if possible) and by participating in the prayer of the Church – particularly the Eucharist.
When we read about the Magi, we often consider the long journey they took to find Jesus or the significance of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh they presented to Him. It’s also worth remembering that they needed help to get to Jesus. They needed to follow a sign God had given them – the star that led them throughout most of their journey (Matthew 2:1-2) When they couldn’t see that anymore, they had to seek help from Herod along with the priests and scribes who pointed them to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3-6). In the end, they also had to listen to God who told them in a dream not to go back to Herod, but to instead return home by a different road (Matthew 2:12). We can imitate the Magi by accepting the many ways that God speaks to us. At times, He does so through various forms of help God has given us to lead us nearer to Him whether it be subtle signs, the help of others, or something more direct or dramatic.
Finally, the story of Simeon and Anna is an example of us of what it really means to wait in “joyful hope.” One way to understand hope is that it means you believe that God’s promises can be trusted – that they will make a difference in your own life. Simeon and Anna lived that hope in a very particular way. Although they had already lived most of their lives, they hadn’t stopped believing God would keep His promises. And so, they spent each day looking at the face of every child who came into the temple, asking themselves “is this the one?” The Canticle of Simeon speaks to the joy they must have felt on that day when Jesus finally showed up there: my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:29-30). We can imitate Simeon and Anna by choosing to hope and by actively looking for the ways that God speaks and acts in our own lives.
Although most of Israel was waiting for Him, the way in which Jesus showed up on that first Christmas morning was missed by most of them. The “experiment” conducted by the Washington Post in 2007 shows that we still tend to miss many things around us if we’re not paying attention. As we journey through the Advent season, we need to be watchful for the ways God may be working in our lives, to accept the help that God gives us, and to remember that God acts in our lives in small and hidden ways.
“God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child.” -Pope Benedict XVI
-Mike Landry is Catholic Youth Camps director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He is also chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, serving 10 schools west of Edmonton. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain with their five children.