One of the things that often (though not always) sets a committed Christian apart from the merely nominal believer is an experience of the presence of God. During the awe of a beautiful Mass, during the suffering of a loved one's passing, in a lightning stroke during an otherwise quotidian time of prayer - such an experience of God's presence can touch one, transform one forever. Finally one feels that God is real, God is here. I remember in my youth a self-professed atheist telling me she had felt the presence of God in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Many of us have had the experience of holy places, of a church or shrine in which we knew God was present.
And yet, for the person of faith, such an experience, such a claim, can be bewildering. We believe God is everywhere. That means that God is present in my living-room as well as in my church. And God does not have parts, so there could not be more of him somewhere than elsewhere. God is equally present everywhere. What, then, do we make of God's presence?
The Jewish people struggled deeply with God's presence and absence. They knew he dwelt in the heaven of heavens, and yet was somehow present to them in their prayers. God's dwelling place was in the Temple, but as the visions of Ezekiel show, God could leave the Temple desolate due to its uncleanness, and live with his people in captivity. God could seem to be achingly close at times, either to bless or to judge, and strangely absent at others. The cry of the Psalmist echoed by Jesus still cuts to our heart as well: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? You are far from my plea, and the cry of my distress." (Psalm 22:2) But if God is everywhere, how can God be absent? The mind may hesitate, but the heart still cries - my God is gone! Such was the cry of the Jewish people as the Ark of the Covenant, the place of God's dwelling, disappeared during the Babylonian exile. (Catholics could imagine what it would be like if every tabernacle out of every church mysteriously disappeared, and Mass was never celebrated again. The Eucharist would be no more, and, in a very real way, God would be gone.)
The theologians rise to the challenge with an answer that can satisfy the mind, and, given time, warm the heart as well. God is equally everywhere, but his presence to a place is marked by his effects. Imagine a flame. Now imagine a pot with water set atop that flame. As the water begins to boil, one could say that the flame was more present to the water than before. So also God, as he pours forth his truth, his beauty, his goodness into the world, as he sanctifies the world and glorifies it, is more present to the world. When sin increases, and death, and ugliness, and lies, God's created effects are diminished, and so it seems that he is absent. That is why it seems so often that God is present in beauty and absent in suffering. Beauty is his effect; suffering is the destruction of his effects. Therefore, when we ask God to be present, we are asking him to bless us with his effects, with life and love and wisdom and goodness.
This is true enough, and good enough, as far as it goes. But there seems to be a mystery to God's presence and absence that rises above our mental categorization. The pathos of God's presence and absence in the Scriptures...surely it includes the definitions of the theologians, but it also surpasses them. The cry of God's people for his presence is more than a simple desire for physical or metaphysical improvement. There is something more, something of the depth of the soul - something that makes the empty Temple, rebuilt but still desolate for five centuries, one of the saddest places in existence. God's house is built again after the Exile, but the occupant is absent, and Israel is never again to know the glory of the years of David and Solomon. The Temple is empty, the Temple is empty, God is absent, God is gone...
Until forty days after his birth, when God is brought to the Temple by his mother, and is presented there. The fourth joyful mystery is the mystery of God's presence. Finally, in the child Jesus, God is no longer absent - God is here!