Jesus in unexpected places

Sometimes evidence of faith and Jesus’ influence can appear in the most unexpected places. Before I explain this recent experience, I need to give you a little context.

I used to travel a lot to Germany, and currently have to go to Italy and Austria once or twice a year. These countries appear to be very “Catholic”. I see many active churches in these countries, and I enjoy attending mass being surrounded by many families. Even though I don’t speak the local languages, I feel at home there because they remind me of my parish back in Texas. While I do see the occasional church that is no longer active (like in the US where we have a shortage of priests), these countries seem to contrast the Netherlands, where I travel often now for business.

The Netherlands are a very clean and organized country. Very little litter, lots of parks and bike trails, and most houses seem to have well-kept yards. However, in the cities I visit there, most churches appear to be closed and converted to businesses, or are just vacant buildings. According to Wikipedia, religious affiliation of any kind has declined significantly in the last 40 years, to the point where over 67% of the population has no religious affiliation. In a town where I stay often there is an old convent that is now a casino. A hotel I recently stayed in was a former Franciscan convent (the architects of the hotel seem to have respected the building, but it has pictures in the halls that are irreverent to nuns). A nearby village has two major church buildings. One is a scale replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (beautiful!), and the other a replica of Basilica of Saint John Lateran. The first is still an active parish (though not many were attending mass the day I went) the other is used as an event center. The parish near the hotel I stay in when visiting is located in the city’s primary restaurant and bar district, with its front steps covered with bicycles during the week. It’s sad to see a country wander so far from the church. For these reasons, I don’t really care to travel to the Netherlands.

During a recent trip I had to be in the Netherlands for two weeks. Over the weekend I took a day trip to Aachen, Germany, just across the border from the Netherlands and Belgium. I wanted to go somewhere different and where I could go for just a day. I read on the internet that the cathedral in the city center of Aachen was established by Charlemagne in the 800’s. Sounded like fun. The visit was everything I expected and hoped for. The cathedral was beautiful. A guidebook I purchased in the Aachen train station led me to many of the beautiful, historical, and still active Catholic churches around the town. I walked for about 12 hours that day, saw many churches and historical sites, attended mass, and had a couple of good German beers before returning to the Netherlands.

I’ve been looking for a picture of the Holy Family to place in my home. I haven’t been able to find one that projects the image or emotion that I would like my family to see, until now. While walking in the shopping district near my hotel this week in the Netherlands, I saw in the window of a bookstore several religious items; it appeared to be the Catholic store for the area (and given the evidently small local Catholic population, I did not expect there to be a Catholic store).

In that window I saw the Holy Family art I had been searching for. It is a small triptych of the Holy Family (a triptych is a work of art, usually a panel painting, that is divided into three sections, or three carved panels that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open). I hope that I can go by there this week and purchase it.

On the Sunday afternoon of that trip I was watching one of the Catholicism Series DVDs, hosted by Fr. Robert Barron. It’s an excellent series. In the first episode, one of Fr. Barron’s key points is that Jesus did not enter this world in a city of power or influence, He was not born to a wealthy family, and He was not a rabbi or leader in the temple. He was born in a small village in a conquered nation and his followers were a very diverse group (and some had “questionable” backgrounds).

The point I want to make today is that just as Jesus became human in Bethlehem, where He came into the world in an unlikely place, His influence can also appear in unexpected places, like a small store in a mostly agnostic country. These situations remind me that I can and must look for Jesus where ever I am, and that he does appear and influence people in the most unlikely places, whether they realize it or not. I must also try to be that influence, for Him, where ever I am.

How can you “be Jesus” in an unlikely place?