God’s actions are not limited by what we can comprehend

Easter 3

Acts 3:12-19; Ps 4; I John 1:3-7; Luke 24:36b-48

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts rise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38) Today, we all know why. My sister, who reacts strongly to things, texted me last night, fearing that we were entering World War III. It seems as if the skies are giving us two contrasting exhibitions this week: a majestic eclipse, and a demonic rain of missiles. St. Paul urges us to look at whatever is good, pure, and holy, so I am going to focus today on the heavenly one.

I don’t know how you experienced the eclipse, but I found myself moved to wonder and to awe. It confronted me with the inadequacy of our understanding: science can tell us the movements of the sun and the stars, but seeing a thing like that pushes us into Mystery, helps us to realize that the universe is larger and more wonderful and more finely-calibrated than we can imagine. Daylight turning violet rather than fading away, or coming from an angle we’d not seen before on this world; shadows becoming clearer even as the light dimmed. And then, sudden darkness and a ring of silver fire in the sky. And we knew that it was going to happen, and why. Can you imagine what it would have been for a person in the ancient world to see something like that?

The Resurrection of Christ is supposed to be that kind of experience for us: one which expands our horizon, helps us to understand, on a visceral level, that this world and its God are wilder and weirder than we can begin to imagine. That God’s actions are not limited by what we can comprehend, and that God’s grace is offered to help us grow into people who can see God’s reality, even if now we can barely even dream it.

I was presented recently with a powerful image of that: a fresco from the Church in Chora, in Istanbul. To enter that church is to enter a world of wonder. When the ancient church was restored in the 14th century, its walls were covered with mosaics and frescoes. If you turn into the side chapel, you will walk past several tombs towards an image of the Last Judgment; behind it, at the end-point of your journey, you will find a magnificent fresco of the Anastasis, or Resurrection.

(click to enlarge)

In the center, Christ strides forward, drawing Adam and Eve from their tombs. Under his feet, the locks and bars of the underworld lie shattered, while behind him, saints and bishops gaze and gesture in awe. Christ himself stands before a mandorla, an almond-shaped full-body halo. In this case, the mandorla is black, surrounded by a sparkling silver aureole against a darkened sky. Does that image remind you of anything?

When I saw a photograph of the fresco this week, it seemed blazingly clear that Christ had been painted as the source of a total solar eclipse. After all, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe “darkness over the land” during the Crucifixion. In other words, the sun went dark as Jesus was dying. Usually, people talk of this in terms of symbolism: Christ is the light of the word; Christ was dying; therefore, the light left creation as well.

I’d like to try on a more radical idea this morning: that the sun went dark during the crucifixion not because Creation was reacting in sympathy to the death of Christ, but because the death of Christ eclipsed what had been the natural order of things, making the whole creation new. After all, that’s what the mural shows: it shows Christ in the position of the moon blocking the light of the Sun. God’s Son blotting out the earthy one; the new creation effacing the old.

So often in the West, we think of salvation as personal: Christ stepping in to save us, one person, one soul at a time. But that is a small shard of the fulness of Christian revelation, which speaks not only of personal salvation, but of the salvation of the world, and even of the cosmos. The author of Revelation writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. …And the one who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21:1, 5) We tend to imagine such things (if we imagine them at all) as part of the end-times, but the decisive action took place with the death and Resurrection of Christ. At his death, the graves were opened, and at his Resurrection, Mary Magdalene meets him in an Edenic garden, a garden emptied of death. The imagery points us toward a new creation being born in and around us, even now.

If salvation is not merely personal, that’s because sin is not personal, either. When Adam and Eve sinned, the ground was cursed — but, as Marilynne Robinson points out, they were not. (Reading Genesis) In other words, humankind was condemned to live in a creation that was off-kilter, threaded through with difficulty and death. And if that’s the only creation we know, then our sense of what is “natural” would be off-base, too. We might imagine, as people have too often imagined, that we are souls or spiritual beings trapped in a body, waiting to be freed by death. We might come to believe that physicality is itself a sign or a source of sin. But Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the creation is good. We are and were created to be embodied creatures. When Jesus rises from the dead, he does not come back as an ethereal spirit, but as a man who can eat and drink and be touched, even as a man whose flesh remains marked by the wounds of this life. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me, and see.” (Luke 24: 39) The goal of our faith is not to become non-human, but to become truly human, as Jesus was and is.

That work-in-progress, that divine work of re-creation, is what we are invited to join. St. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:1-2) Hearing these words — really hearing them — can be difficult for us. We use the image “children of God” so frequently that our minds can just pass right over it without considering what it might imply, but John is pushing it to its real meaning: we were generated by God and are becoming like God. And this is not a natural evolution, but a supernatural one, God’s power working in us a powerful transformation.

The monk Guigo II prays to Jesus, “You say in your Gospel that ‘My Father has never ceased working and I work with him.’ What else is this work but a new heaven and a new earth? You are making an earth out of the abyss, and a heaven out of the earth. The abyss is the sinner, …yet.. .[t]his abyss, deep and dark, calls to an abyss which is far above it… When you make light shine out of darkness, that they might cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, you show that you have created a new heaven and a new earth… Lighten my darkness, Lord, and say to my soul: ‘Let there be light, and there shall be light.’”(Guigo II, Meditation V, rearranged a bit) This abyss deep and dark calls to an abyss which is far above it: that’s the mystery of our faith. That by God’s grace, the darkness and pain which are part of this life, of this world, themselves cry out to the infinite abyss of love which is God, and become part of the transformation. That every cry of desolation is heard; that despair is answered; that destruction and loss — even when they seem absolute — are not the end. “Touch me, and see,” says Jesus.

We do not have to understand these things to believe them. What we have to do, somehow, is to live as if they were true. When a little child jumps off a set of stairs or the limb of a tree, he or she does not need to understand gravity. What that child needs is trust: trust that their daddy will catch them. It may be hard — it is hard — to have that kind of trust when we see the suffering this world can produce, but without it, we concede that pain and death are unredeemable. That loss is what is absolute in this life.

Jesus stands among the disciples as he stands among us, not as the embodiment of an indifferent God, but as the God who has allowed himself — his very flesh — to be marked by our suffering. Who entered our death and lived, who has changed the very nature of creation. The Resurrection, like an eclipse, should rock the foundations of our world. It shows us that God’s imagination is wilder and more fierce than our imagining. Perhaps it is time to allow ourselves to imagine more fiercely, to care as deeply, to walk confidently in the darkness until we can see God’s answering light.

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