Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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Our Church calendar is marked not just by events in the life of Jesus and the ancient biblical stories, it is also shaped and formed by the commemoration of holy women and men, the saints who’ve walked the journey of faith before us. While it often assumed the saints were persons who “knew” God and were fully aware of God’s presence in their life, their writings often reveal the great questions and doubts they had about God. Many saints came to understand that our desire to know the ways of God will always be left wanting. The God whom they felt present to them was also a God who remained ever hidden from them. For some saints, the hiddenness of God caused them great pain. For others, it became a source of great inspiration, even compelling them to speak of God not by what God is but by what God is not. In fact, if you’re ever interested in exploring this approach, there’s a theological method, known as apophatic theology, which speaks only of what cannot be said of God.
Recently we remembered in our Church’s calendar the medieval saint, Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was, and still is in many theological circles, considered to be the greatest of theologians in the Church’s history. He wrote at a time of great intellectual discovery. Western Europeans, influenced by Muslim scholars, rediscovered the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. The Islamic influence even gave birth to modern mathematics, not only in the renewal of algebra, geometry and trigonometry, but also the very system of numbering we have today. Aquinas embraced not only the rediscovery of the ancient Greek texts, he also wrestled with the writings of the great Islamic philosophers and theologians of his day, such as Averroes and Avicenna.
Inspired by the intellectual curiosity of his day, Aquinas wrote countless books on theology and philosophy. In attempt to give a complete summary of Christian Theology, Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologica, a multi-volume synthesis of Christian belief. Even though many believed it to be the most comprehensive reflection upon God, Aquinas later related a mystical encounter he had with God. God, as the story goes, revealed himself to Thomas in a dream. Thomas awoke from the dream overcome with awe and exclaimed that all he had written about God was nothing but a small piece of straw in a large pile of hay. God, it seems, was more than anything of which we could imagine.
I’m reminded of this story as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday. Taken from the Gospel of Mark, the lesson tells of the occasion when Jesus was drawn up in the sight of his disciples and transformed before their eyes. There, on the mountaintop, Jesus showed himself in dazzling light with Moses and Elijah on either side of him. So taken aback by the bewildering sight, the disciples yearned to hold onto the moment, to contain the vision they beheld. Yet before they could capture the sight, the vision vanished and Jesus stood besides them and ordered them to tell no one of what they saw.
Most preachers this Sunday will focus on the way this story reveals Jesus’ divinity and Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. All this is certainly true. Indeed, Mark’s portrayal of Moses and Elijah does point to Jesus’ fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel. Elijah’s appearance also fulfills the prophecy that Elijah will proceed the Messiah’s return. Finally, Mark’s story of the Transfiguration makes clear Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is not merely a prophet or a holy one; rather, he is human and divine. He is the promised salvation of God’s people.
However, are those the only points of the story or is there something else going on here?
I suspect this story points to something else: namely, the allusiveness of God. God is more than anything we can imagine or conceive. Although God reveals God’s self to us in human history, God’s self-disclosure is cloaked in mystery and wonder. The ancient Israelites knew this well. They feared the sight of God, for a mere glance upon the face of God would be too much to bear. Although this may seem to make God remote and detached from his people, the scriptures sustain the sense of awe with an acute sense of the tenderness of God. Even though God is too much for us to behold, God tenderly places his hand over the eyes of Moses as God walks by Moses so as not to strike Moses dead. (Exodus 33:22)
To this day, our Jewish sisters and brothers sustain a deep sense of the holiness of God. God is so holy, so beyond our human imagination, that they will not write out the name of God nor will they even say it aloud. Moreover, they sense the holiness of God in the Word and refuse to touch the very pages of the Torah with their barehands. Instead, a pointer known as the yad helps the reader as they read the holy words of God.
To contemporary Christians, such ancient practises may seem utterly foreign. In fact, we delight in our sensual experiences of God as revealed in Jesus. We feel inclined to picture God and imagine God in very human ways, as a tender parent caring for a child or shepherd leading his flock. Our images give us comfort and assure us in times of trial and difficulty.
Yet the images we concoct of God in our mind can also be dangerous and have been used in terrible ways in history. We are often tempted to do as Peter wishes to do: to build a dwelling place for God and to contain God in ways pleasing to us. We want God to conform to our ways and our desires, rather than be open to God and God’s ways.
As I said, this has had dangerous consequences in human history. Certain portrayals or images of God have been used to manipulate and oppress people. God has even been used as a justification for war and terroristic acts, and not just by other religions; Christianity has a bloody history whereby God was used as justification for the destruction and annihilation of peoples. Tragically, so attached were the Crusaders to their depictions of God that they killed thousands of Eastern Christians because the Eastern Christian worship and iconography was so foreign to them. They literally thought the Middle Eastern Christians worshiped another God!
While Christians may no longer maintain such beliefs nor inflict such violence upon others because of their religious imagery, we still hear of stories by which idolatrous images of God are used to oppress others. As soon as we attach ourselves to one depiction of God or another, we succumb to the greatest of all sins, the sin of idolatry: forcing God into our own image and likeness and not let God be God.
All of us are tempted to do as Peter does in today’s story. We all want to contain God and put God into a box and make God comfortable for us. Yet anyone who has prayed and walked the journey of faith knows, as soon as you get to know God you realize you know nothing at all, much in the same way our saintly friend Thomas Aquinas discovered several hundred years earlier.
I know this all too well myself. I once experienced a crisis of faith while going to graduate school for theology. Early on in the course of my studies, I had an unnerving experience whereby I found the more I read theology, the more I realized how little I knew about God. Perhaps it was my youthful naïveté at the time, but I thought my studies would help me to understand God more. This remains true for me today; as soon as I think I understand how God works, God surprises me and leaves me in a cloud of mystery.
Yet I’ve come to see this as the point of scriptures. I suspect Jesus’ command to his disciples to keep quiet and tell no one of what they had seen is to ensure the disciples don’t make the scene too familiar. Once we get comfortable with the vision, we fail to sense the awe and wonder it first caused us. We lose the holiness of God.
I often wonder if those of us in the Church have made God too familiar and that we’ve lost sight of the holiness of God. We sometimes even assume that we are doing God’s work when in reality it is God who is working in us. Take, for example, the Kingdom of God. Too often do we hear “let us build the Kingdom of God” when in reality it is God who is bringing about his reign among us. It is the grace of God that is at work within us. The Kingdom comes about not by our wisdom or talent, but by the very hand of God working in and through us.
Our familiarity with God is sometimes revealed in the casualness to which we approach the Liturgy. This is an area where I think we could learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers. We sometimes forget that we are entering into the holy presence of God when we hear the Word proclaimed and partake of the Bread and Cup of Life. We are not about to celebrate a simple table fellowship; rather, our gathering around this table is a gathering around the Banquet of the Lamb, the feast God set for us to be fed and nurtured. God enters into our midst and we literally touch the hand of God in Word and Sacrament.
The Early Christians were deeply mindful of this and I like to close with the words of a hymn that captured the utter holiness of God. The hymn, inspired by an ancient Syrian-Christian prayer and incorporated into Orthodox Liturgy, expresses well the mystery of God:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”