Come and Behold Him
Sometime last fall, I told you about a news article from the New York Times that was circulating quite a bit, showing results from a scientific study suggesting that two strangers could fall in love with each other by following a certain set of instructions: the pair answers 36 questions in a conversation with each other. The questions are increasingly more personal, beginning with easy things and moving on to deeper, revealing questions. And then, after that, you and your conversation partner are supposed to stare into each other’s eyes – sustained eye-contact, no talking, for four minutes. The author of the article actually fell in love with the person with whom she tried this exercise.
I was thinking about this study this week as I was thinking about how significant making eye contact can be in our lives. There are many cultural expectations around eye contact. In some cultures, men and women are discouraged from prolonged eye contact with each other. In some cultures, people who are in subordinate work roles in hierarchical cultures are discouraged from looking into the eyes of their superiors. I think of our own culture, where we emphasize the importance of making eye contact when we’re engaged in public speaking, for example. Or how many have become frustrated with how the rise of smart phones and tablets and other electronics have decreased how frequently we’re making eye contact with each other, even while carrying on conversations. However we interpret it culturally, eye contact is certainly powerful and meaningful.
I still remember attending an intergenerational retreat weekend at Camp Aldersgate when I was in Junior High. My friend Weston and I decided to go to the adult Bible study since we were very mature, and somewhere along the way during the study, we had to pair up and look into our partners eyes for a few minutes. I don’t remember exactly how long we had to do it for. I can’t remember why we had to do this, what the exact purpose was. I only remember that it seemed like an eternity. It was awkward and uncomfortable. That describes most of my junior high experience, so this was like that in sharp, intense focus. We survived, but I will never forget the experience – it was intense, and something about that time made me feel vulnerable and exposed. Seeing and being seen – it can be powerful, meaningful, vulnerable.
My brother Tim is mostly blind in one eye. He was born with a scar on the center of his eye, which means he has only peripheral vision in that eye. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what exactly this means for how things look to Tim on a day to day basis. Basically, it’s like if you took a picture and folded it over so the middle section was hidden. You would only see the edges of the picture. That’s what Tim sees with his bad eye – just the edges, not what is directly in front of him. My mom still vividly remembers when the doctor discovered this at one of his appointments when he was about 5. The doctor covered up Tim’s good eye, which compensates and works extra hard to cover up for the other. And with the good eye covered, Tim’s other eye didn’t know what to do. His eye just sort of wandered all over, unable to focus on anything without the anchor of his other eye, because everything left was what was supposed to be peripheral. As I said, Tim has learned to compensate. As difficult, as vulnerable and exposing as it can feel to look someone in the eye, and to be looked in the eye, it’s a gift to be able to do so, not to be taken lightly. To focus on someone, to give them your full attention, to look them in the eye, to try to really see them is an important experience, even if it is sometimes challenging.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, two psychologists who met at Harvard in the late 1990s, developed an experiment that shows how limited our perception and attention to what is going on around us can be when we’re focused on something else. In the experiment, you are asked to watch a video of people in white shirts and people in black shirts passing basketballs to each other. You are instructed to watch the video and count how many times people in white shirts pass the ball. It is a little confusing, but if you are careful, you can produce the correct number: 15 passes. But then, the video narrator asks: But did you notice the gorilla?
Fifty percent of viewers of the video, including me, when I first saw the video as part of a lecture on preaching years ago, respond, scratching the head, what gorilla? Sure enough, when the video of the two groups passing the basketball is replayed, you, the viewer, now looking for the gorilla, instead of white shirts, can’t miss a woman in a gorilla costume walk directly through the group, beat on her chest, and walk off. The first time I saw this video I really wanted to believe that they were two different videos, that the gorilla was not there the first time. (Looking at these still images from the video, it seems hard to believe that one could possibly miss the gorilla!) But no, it is just how our minds work. When totally focused in on one thing, we can miss other things, no matter how obvious they seem, altogether. This is why my mother always likes to see Todd, my actor-brother’s shows, at least twice. One time, she says, the first time, she can only focus on Todd, no matter what else is happening on stage. But if she actually wants to see the whole show, she needs to see it a second time, so that she can pay attention to everything she missed by watching only Todd the first time through. As long as we are focused on the right thing, the important thing, our inattention to all the other details isn’t so bad. But if we’re paying attention to the wrong thing, we can end up in trouble. Scientists say that our limited attention capacity, our working memory capacity, is why you can walk right by someone you know and not notice them, if you are looking at or thinking about something else, or why you can’t really text and drive as well as you think you can, and people end up in automobile accidents. Sometimes there are big consequences for paying attention to the wrong thing.
It’s Christmas Eve. Are we paying attention to the right things? What is holding our gaze today? What’s got our focus? What’s catching our eye? This year, as I read the Christmas story from Luke again, words I know so well I could practically recite them for you, I noticed how many phrases in the story seek to grab our attention, turn our heads, make us look, really look, at what is going on. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, and Jesus is born, laid in a manger because there is no room for them in the inn. And a spectacular attention-getting display unfolds to get the attention of some nearby shepherds to make sure that they know to go and see this newborn. A messenger from God stands before them, and we read, “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” and sensibly, they were terrified. But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid, but SEE! I’m bringing you good news of great joy for all people: Today, a savior is born, a messiah, God-in-the-flesh.” And then, the whole sky is filled with angels, “heavenly host,” and they praise God saying, “Glory to God, and peace on earth!” When the messengers leave, the shepherds say to each other, “Let us go and see this thing that God has made known to us.”
They go and find Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the text says, “When they saw this,” they let Mary and Joseph know that the angels had sent them. Some who they tell their story to are amazed, but Mary treasures their words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds head back to their work, but as they go, they praise God, give glory to God, telling everyone just what they have heard and seen.
“Don’t be afraid!” the angel says. “Don’t be afraid, rather look! See! See the sign of good news, the message of great joy! See this one who brings peace. See this one who is a savior. See this one who is God-on-earth with us.” “Let’s go and see,” the shepherds say. “You won’t believe how we ended up here,” they tell Mary and Joseph. “Thank God for what we saw today,” they told anyone who would listen.
Eventually, Jesus too will invite people to “Come and see.” It’s a phrase he uses more than once in his preaching and teaching, and more than that, it’s a grounding in invitation to us that pervades his ministry. He asks us to look and see: look and see people we don’t usually see, but Jesus is so good at bringing to the center. Look and see God at work in the world in places we usually don’t give a second glance. Look and see God at work in our own lives, as we realize we are precious to God, of sacred worth, created in God’s own image. Jesus asks us to look and see him: living in our hearts, living in our world, living in each person we encounter. Look, see. Pay attention. Let Jesus at work in the world hold your gaze, and hold your attention.
Tonight we’re being invited, encouraged, charged with the task: “Come and behold him.” We sing the words. We read them in the familiar story. Do not be afraid: Look! See! So let’s do just that. We have made it to the manger. Let’s make sure we’re really seeing what is held there. Let’s look deeper. Let’s give this child in the manger our full attention. Our time. Our focus. All of our eye contact. To us, a child is born. There are so many other places to look, I know. Let’s make sure we’re focusing on the right thing. As the messengers promised the shepherds, so they promise us still. If we’ll look, if we see, we’ll find good news, great joy, peace. We’ll find God, lying in a manger, filling our hearts, changing our world. Amen.