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Mystery and Modesty

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Feb 26 2017


Some days, belief is a breeze. We enjoy the company and love of our families. We move through the world with vigor and ease. We take pride and pleasure in work done well. Our needs are met; our wine glasses full. There is so much to be thankful for, we think. #Blessed, we post with bubbly earnestness. When there is a welling up of good feeling – when we have finished with bedtime stories and snuggling, or when old friends reminisce and laugh late into the night, or when Saturdays are for tea and puzzles and teasing the cat only – some days, we know that God is with us. Other days, we are not so sure. Other days, days when relationships are colored by joylessness and anger, when it seems as though love is turning to dust, when the pain is so great that getting out of bed is too much, when despair and suffering wrack us, when we are made to say goodbye too soon, when we are afraid and sad and alone, when our questions go unanswered and our prayers go unanswered and pleas for miracles are met with silence and the whys and the where-are-you?-s pile up like hospital bills – other days, God is dead to us. Where is God on these days, these days when there is, for all we can see, not a trace of that higher benevolence in which we are to trust?

The scriptures speak with beautiful, sad honesty of the hiddenness of God. God is never one you can quite get a look at. Which is not to say that God is not there to be seen, only that, sometimes, as it has been said, the hardest thing of all to see is what is really there. The scriptures speak of God’s voice sounding – of ‘Let there be’-s echoing down and down into depthless nothingness and light and life coming forth; the scriptures speak of God’s visiting us in dreams and visions, showing us what shall be or what could be. But this is not much of a feast for the eyes, nor is it assurance for the shaken soul. Even when the scriptures do speak of a sighting, what we are given to behold is not God, not God actually, but rather swirling mists and all the pink and golden burning of a sunrise. God’s mysterious Being is cloaked in cloud and light. In the book of Exodus, the Lord summons Moses to Mount Sinai; from its lofty heights, God will hand down the law, the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. This law, which is to shape the moral life of the Hebrew nation and the world, and which will, this law which will, in the span of the forty days and nights of Moses’ encampment on the mountain, grow into an exacting, comprehensive legal corpus hundreds and hundreds of statutes in length, addressing the minutest and most intimate of personal concerns – this law comes from a Lawgiver whom no one has ever seen, whom no one can claim fully to know. For the Lawgiver, the Lord is veiled by a fog, is obscured by the brilliant radiance emanating from God’s own person. 

In the book of Exodus, God tarries with Moses on the mountaintop of Sinai, and it is as if fire has been set to the sky itself. Billowing glory engulfs the precipice and spills down earthward, falling over the trembling, wonderstruck masses below in cascades of light. This image – of an imageless, unseen but palpably sensed Presence in the hollow of storming holiness, of God cloaked in cloud and light – is patiently honed throughout the scriptures. In the book of Leviticus, as God indwells the tabernacle, the tent-shrine where the people are to worship and pray and search the mind of this One whose ways are higher than our ways – as God indwells the tabernacle, again, great plumes of cloud and light come to tower over those gathered. In the book of Numbers, which tells of the Israelite’s desert trek to the Promised Land, God leads the people – as pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night. In the book of Chronicles, when God is enthroned in Solomon’s temple and when, in the book of Ezekiel, God later abandons the temple as defiled and unfit, this image of a haze and holy blaze again appears. This image will lend itself also to the writers of the New Testament, to the evangelists and to Paul.

In the book of Matthew (and in the books of Mark and of Luke), Jesus retreats to a high mountain. There is a sudden, resplendent flash and he is transfigured: Jesus assumes a strange and beautiful glow. He is a fallen star. Mists roll in and wrap themselves around his person. An aura of enigmatic and unearthly splendor envelops him; a lovely eeriness, a sort of air of the beyond hangs about him. And Jesus, cloaked now in cloud and light, takes on a new mysteriousness. Imparted to this man we know, this man at whose birth we were present, imparted to this man who is here with us, imparted to this man who could be seen is something of the unseen-ness of God. Jesus is withdrawn from the worldly traffic of perceiving and apprehending and knowing; the particulars of what he is – a man, of this age, of that coloring, what have you – the particulars of what he is melt away for a moment and we can only marvel and wonder at the anythingness, at the everythingness, at the all-in-all-ness of this One who is become blindingly pure light. This man whom we thought we knew is hidden in storming holiness, and we have a sense that there is more to Jesus than we understand, than we will ever understand. 

The scriptures speak with beautiful, sad honesty of the hiddenness of God. God is never one you can quite get a look at. Jesus, too, eludes our gaze. On those days when we ask for answers and for miracles and are denied them, on those days when we can barely believe and need a surer consolation than seems ever to come by faith, on those days, that the scriptures give us mystery… it is almost… meanness. To come to God begging and feel we have gotten no further than we would talking to a brick wall will leave many of us shaking and weeping like ones betrayed. And yet, this, what we can experience as cruelty, may be a kindness. Nick Wolterstorff taught analytic philosophy at Yale for many years; in a remarkable, wrenching little book – a diary he kept after his twenty-something son had died tragically and suddenly – he wrote: ‘It is said that no one can behold God’s face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see God’s splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see God’s sorrow and live. Or perhaps God’s sorrow is God’s splendor.’ 

To know what we are desperate to know would be to see the oceans of tears welling up in God’s eyes and to see the great chasms that grief has carved into God’s brow. It would be to see the broken latticework of chance and choice, which is the very scaffolding of the universe, to see it crumbling to naught, and to see the One who is grey and pained and groaning beneath the weight of it. It would be to see all that should not have been, but, in the end, could not have been otherwise. It would be to see all the sadness there ever was. It would be unbearable and shattering. That God, that all God is and all God knows, is kept from us – this is a kindness. God’s holding back, holding in, holding close some of what God is: what comes to me is the notion of modesty. It is modesty in the charming, old sense of the word: being who one is while being considerate of who others are, and so practicing a thoughtful, benevolent reserve. Not sharing all one could, which is a sort of gracious sharing in its own right – a sharing of room and opportunity, a shaping of open space for relationship, in which others can be and can offer what they would. God is holy mystery, which is to say, God is modest; we may feel this to be diminishing and punishing, for there is an intimacy and understanding we are refused, but it is, in fact, a kind of dignifying regard, it is a show of care, it is a love which protects. God’s modesty spares us, saves us from seeing what would only hollow and annihilate us: the pain of all the world, gathered and held, hidden in the broken heart of God. The mystery of God is the modesty of God is the mercy of God.