We would be in awe if we saw Jesus appear in the form of an infant, and yet the way we do see Him, in the form of bread and wine, is just as awesome. So often, however, it seems ordinary to us.
The first time I ever went to a movie alone, I found myself sitting across the aisle from several Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. We were in the little Clearview Cinema in Bronxville, N.Y., for a not well-attended Sunday evening showing of Bella. The hush and intimacy of the theater and the anticipation of the kind of movie we were about to see made the experience feel almost contemplative. It was as if those few of us who had wandered into this room tonight were about to share a secret experience together, like the quiet bond among strangers at a weekend retreat.
Bella is about Nina, who is alone and down to her last $500. She's an adult but not quite grown up, carrying a cell phone she could only get with a co-signer because her credit is so bad. She is fired from her job as a waitress the day she finds out she is pregnant. It is also about her coworker Jose — head chef, ex-soccer star, and ex-felon — who runs after the distraught Nina, leaving his kitchen rudderless and his boss (who also happens to be his brother) ranting. When Jose finally catches up with Nina, she blurts out the truth about her pregnancy.
"You wanna talk about it?" Jose asks after a long pause. For the rest of the day and into the next morning, Nina and Jose do just that, wandering through the city that continues to churn and rush around them with unrelenting indifference.
For most of the movie, I was intrigued. But I vaguely wondered whether it was as good as I'd expected. The conversations and action seemed ordinary: two people walk through New York City for a day, one carrying the burden of an unwanted pregnancy and the other the burden of a little girl's accidental death years ago. Those are dramatic problems, of course, but the movie doesn't present them in a dramatic way. The lines are not particularly striking or impressive. They are human, fumbled, everyday words leading to predictable conclusions and outcomes.
And yet, when the movie ended, some part of my chest hurt as if it had been punctured. Bella depicts the most basic, most remarkable, most repeatedly played-out miracle in history: the story of God working so quietly and in such unlikely people that the world doesn't notice, even while it is changed forever by another battle between Life and Death for human souls.
On Christmas Eve in 1934, St. Faustina received a promise from the unwed teenage Mother who became Queen of Heaven and Earth: "I will share with you the secret of My happiness this night during Holy Mass" (Diary of St. Faustina, 346). I eagerly read St. Faustina's account of that Mass, but I was puzzled because the Blessed Mother's promise was not explicitly referred to again. And yet, St. Faustina's description of her feelings at the beginning of Midnight Mass echo that promise: "I immediately felt a great interior recollection; joy filled my soul" (Diary, 347). This joy was followed by a vision of "[the Infant] Jesus on the altar, incomparably beautiful ... After the elevation He looked at us ... but just for a short while, because He was broken up and eaten by the priest in the usual manner" (Diary, 347).
I had to read that passage several times before I understood that the secret of Mary's happiness was simply the presence of her Son, which we experience in the Eucharist. Saint Faustina saw the truth of the Eucharist the way Mary sees it — the way we all are called to. We would be in awe if we saw Jesus appear in the form of an infant, and yet the way we do see Him, in the form of bread and wine, is just as awesome. So often, however, it seems ordinary to us. The Sacrament comes into our bodies and souls, changing them forever, and to us it may feel like just another Sunday or Christmas morning.
When I sat in the theater on that Sunday evening, I had an experience similar to one I often have at Mass: I didn't watch carefully for those awesome, everyday displays of grace. Obviously, a film and the Mass are completely different, but they have something important in common: the first can and the second always does tell stories of God's triumphant love and mercy. God fights every day for the souls of sinners like Nina and Jose and for the lives of babies like Nina's. He fought for His entire wayward human family when He sent His only Son to earth. And He fights each moment against hell for each of us.
This Advent, let us pray that we will open our eyes to those miracles that happen right in front of us "in the usual manner." The sheer abundance of those miracles, instead of causing complacence, should cause rejoicing. Our Heavenly Father doesn't wait for a particular date in December to shower us with gifts. Every day He pours them out: a sinful life redeemed; a new life created; a small white Host that can fill a soul with the joy of heaven, if only that soul will open her eyes and see.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.