“Reverence for the bread and the wine of the Eucharist is the beginning of reverence for the whole world in which the giving of God’s glory is pulsating beneath the surface of every moment.” – Rowan Williams
“God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.”
“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.” – Gregory of Nyssa
I have been known to say to someone I am close to, that I think she/he uses the word beautiful too much. An iPhone can be cool, impressive, really, really functional, but I think to call it beautiful is pushing the envelope. A Kansas sunset is beautiful when examined through an iPhone application but does that make the app beautiful? Effective? Yes. Highly functional? Sure. But is it a thing of wonder? Is that app an object of beauty?
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But, I think it is in the eye of the beholders.
Beautiful is a word, which has no words beyond it. It is a terminal description. Therefore, I think we should save it to describe Jesus, other people, or things like: Kansas sunsets, Rublev’s icons, a bride on her wedding day, or even a K-State Championship. The ordinary can be beautiful.
Maybe I’m wrong, but the way we speak of things affects how we see them. If we use an ultimate word, like beautiful, on penultimate things, then our eye that sees beauty and wonder, has dimmed.
The word wonder is closely related to beauty. The two go together. Maybe we use “wonderful” too much too. (I’m no doubt guilty of that.) However, wonder describes the surprise of beauty. Wonder is our emotional reaction to beauty. The dictionary describes it as: rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience. Beauty surprises, and fills us with wonder.
As you might expect, I think wonder and beauty have to do with our experience of God. Dostoevsky said:
I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would say even more. If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth. There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ. That infinitely lovely figure is as a matter of course and infinite marvel.
The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.
Gregory of Nyssa saw wonder as a sign of God’s goodness and presence. Knowing that God was beyond comprehension, he says, “God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.” This is an important point as we contemplate God’s name, YHWH.
Gregory was a poet and priest. He loved the simple, small church work of a priest in 4th Century Cappadocia, in modern day Turkey. He would have been content writing hymns and poems and listening to confessions. Unfortunately for him, he was the brother of Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, a great churchman, and writer, which meant that little brother Gregory was going to end up doing some work he didn’t really want. He became a bishop.
He wasn’t horrible at it. However, it is clear both from his contemporaries, as well as historians, that he was a better poet and priest than he was an administrator. His writing, which is indeed poetic, included this:
God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.
Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.
When wonder and a recognition of beauty are absent, idolatry emerges.
Gregory’s quotes help us make sense of Paul’s words in I Corinthians 10:1-4. Here, the Apostle Paul refers to what is happening in Exodus. Paul uses the Exodus story to make a connection to the church in Corinth.
He sees in Exodus, images of the worship practices in Corinth that were being misunderstood and misused and even abused. Paul sees the church in Corinth and the Exodus Israelites suffering from a similar experience; a loss of wonder that ends up in idolatry.
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,[a] that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. ~ I Corinthians 10:1-4
In this little paragraph, Paul makes a connection between early Christian worship and the wanderings of the Exodus-ing Israelites. The connections are plain, “passed through the sea,” that is the Red Sea crossing, equals baptism. The pillar of cloud correlates with the presence of God’s Spirit that comes with baptism. For Paul, both the Exodus Israelites and the Corinthian Christians were baptized by water and the Spirit.
There is another connection from early Christian worship. That is the food and drink of the Exodus-ing Israelites. Paul alludes to the bread called manna, a humorous name which simply means, “what is it?” This bread miraculously appeared every day but the Sabbath. It was sustenance to a hungry people. Of course, we don’t have to go far to see what Paul is doing. Manna correlates to the bread of the Lord’s Supper, which is the subject of the upcoming chapters of I Corinthians.
The drink refers to the blood of Christ, which is celebrated in the Lord’s Supper. You may ask why? Water is not used as a synonym for the wine of the Lord’s Supper. The text speaks of water and it refers to the times that the Israelites received water from the rock. Moses is commanded to draw water from the rock, at first, by striking it with his staff. In the book of Numbers he is commanded to speak to the rock but in frustration, strikes it with his staff.
Note also that Paul speaks of the “rock that followed them”. What does he mean? He is referring to an interpretation of the story that was well known to 1st century Jews. Early rabbis speculated that the rock that provided water for the Israelites also followed them throughout their wilderness wanderings. That is, God provided the same rock for them to drink from throughout the desert.
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? But, so does walking across the bottom of the sea on dry land and manna bread showing up on the ground day after day.
But, back to the analogy of the water from the rock and the Lord’s Supper: We must ask, how did they get water from it? The rock was broken. Moses is told to strike it the first time. He does and water pours out. He is told to speak to the rock the second time. He does not speak to it but in frustration hits it with his staff. God provides water in spite of his disobedience. “… and the rock was Christ.” The broken rock signifies Christ’s broken body and shed blood.
Paul speaks to them about baptism and communion. But he does so as a warning.
Exodus-ing Israelites and Corinthian Christians Loss of Wonder
Behind Paul’s argument is his recognition that the Corinthians of southern Greece in the 1st Century and the Israelites wandering in the Sinai 1600 centuries earlier were both suffering from the same spiritual malady, a loss of wonder.
A pillar of fire, a pillar of smoke, magic food, walking through the sea, and all after being supernaturally delivered from slavery; what do we find? A people who have lost their sense of wonder, who no longer know how to appreciate, let alone recognize, the miraculous, who turn to idols and corrupt behavior. Isn’t it fascinating that the big miraculous events didn’t convince the Israelites that God was with them? They weren’t enough. One wonders if such signs would still be insufficient today.
Gifts of healing, gifts of tongues, manifestations of God’s Holy Spirit, were routine among members of the Corinthian church. Yet, Paul unleashes a vitriolic attack on these Christians because they used their spiritual experiences and spiritual gifts as markers to elevate them above their poorer brothers and sisters. They engaged in carnal behavior. They had seen and experienced the beautiful but, unlike Moses, they didn’t take the time to take off their shoes. They lost their sense of wonder.
For both groups, Gregory of Nyssa’s observation rings true:
Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.
We don’t know entirely what got them to this place. But, after seeing the miraculous, the Exodus-ing Israelites, lost their sense wonder, if they ever had it. They sought to control, cajole, and otherwise manipulate God. They attempted to do so through Aaron while Moses was on the mountain. They complained about God, not to him, and set out to control him through idolatry.
In their desire for control, they created idols. In their so-called wisdom, they failed to comprehend what God was doing. God was saving them. God was loving them. He was making them his children and making them a great nation. Ultimately, they were killed, and they killed one another over their idolatry, though a few, learned to fall to their knees in worship and in wonder. They learned, again, to take off their shoes.
God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.
We don’t know exactly how it happened for the Corinthians either. We do know that their city was known for its especially perverse sexual appetites. In fact, a Greek verb developed at the time that meant to act like a Corinthian, sexually. Either way, they failed in their experiences of worship, to recognize the wonder present to them in the risen Christ and the powerful Holy Spirit. Instead, they bent their experiences to serve themselves and in the process, they defrauded their sisters and brothers. They acted like Corinthians.
The Israelites worshiped the calf and the Corinthians worshiped themselves.
And the warning to all of us is the same. God is as present to the church today, and to the church in Corinth in its day, as He was to the Israelites in the desert. The fact that they were witnesses to God’s supernatural power did not keep them from ignoring him and ultimately doubting YHWH’s reality, goodness, and love.
Moses’s people in Exodus become the Messiah’s people in Corinth and beyond.
The Church performs the same drama that the Israelites performed in the wilderness. We show up. We worship. But God reminds us to be still and let him fight for us.
There is a third worship practice illustrated in Moses receiving the Law on Sinai. We have baptism, Eucharist, and Word.
The pattern laid out in Exodus applies today.
- We are baptized. (passing through the sea)
- We receive the Lord’s Supper. (bread from Heaven and water from the Rock).
- We hear the Word read aloud. (Moses on Sinai, the 10 Commandments, the voice of the LORD.)
This is not all that we do. But these are vital elements of Christian worship that are easily ignored, manipulated, and abused. We can add prayer, singing, fellowship, etc. No practice of worship is safe from our misuse.
It is important that we are reminded of the fact, that: Worship, well done, is an antidote to idolatry. It is a means by which we are broken from our desire to worship ourselves, our wealth, our country, or even our own ideas. Our theology and our psychology, when not tempered with wonder and wisdom, can become idols in themselves. Worship, then, is an important reminder of who we are. We are People of wonder, people who worship.
The Stalking Rock
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,[a] that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.
Rabbis, around the time of Christ and before, knew the story of the water-giving rock in the desert and began to fill in some of the blanks around the story. This is a long revered tradition in Judaism known as Midrash. As they read about the rock in Exodus giving water and then again in Numbers they began to assume that the rock followed the Israelites around. Paul picks up on this notion in I Corinthians, “the rock that followed them”, and recognizes something about that Rock that the Rabbis didn’t. “…the Rock was Christ.”
The Rabbis, however, saw this rock as traveling with Israelites through the wilderness providing the water they desperately needed but also walking with them as a kind of Ebenezer or marker of God’s presence. The rock haunted the wandering Israelites appearing, at times, when unexpected.
It reminds me of two beautiful stories. One is the novel Silence by Shusako Endo and the other is The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Each novel tells a story of priests who are haunted by their past, by their failures, by their apostasies. Each priest is running from their vocation, but on their way they are accompanied, to their chagrin, by ugly, Gollum-like, figures who keep reminding them that they are priests, passively threatening to turn them into their captors.
These two stalkers aren’t beautiful, they are ugly. They aren’t particularly useful to the priests, instead, they are liabilities and threats. But, each one beautifully reminds the priests that there is no escaping who they are. There is no escaping their vocation. They belong to God and they are priests, by God! As much as each priest runs from his own identity, he cannot escape God, even when he appears in the guise of corrupt, apostate beggars.
The routine of the Exodus life caused the Israelites to lose their sense of wonder and it dimmed their eyes for beauty. The rock follows the Israelites, providing what they need, wonderfully reminding them that God cares about their needs. They ignore it. They forget it. It is just a rock after all. It is just an ugly desert beggar giving up its water for the life of the world.
The Rock is Jesus, stalking us like the hound of heaven. Silent and still, offering up water, giving us life.
“God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.” So says Gregory of Nyssa. When we worship him well, we see his beauty in the Rock that stalks us through the wilderness, in the simplicity of bread and wine, in regular worship and wonder.
Does everything happen for a reason?
When we ask this question we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. If we say that everything does happen for a reason, that God is ordaining every good moment and every bad moment, we are left having to accept divine involvement in things that are so horrific that to attribute them to God’s wisdom is tantamount to taking the Lord’s name in vain, of misusing the name of God. To assert that God is the author of every rape, every murder and every act of abuse toward a child is to blame God for the work of the devil. God is not bound to a law higher than himself but it seems contrary to his character to rule such acts as the ones listed above as abominable and then to make those things happen for his higher purpose. If God commands us not to sin why would he break his own law?
On the other hand, if we say that there is no purpose behind difficult experiences we run a different kind of risk that leaves us feeling like the events of our life, whether they be good or bad, are random accidents and that God has nothing whatsoever to do with them. God doesn’t have to be the initiator of every experience we have in order to initiate some of them. In spite of this, however, we are confronted with a greater concern which is why did God allow something bad to happen to us, and what do we do with the memories of our past that are so painful? What do we do about fears of the future? Bad things may yet happen to us. How is God involved in our future if we say he isn’t involved in our past?
One “middle way” in this circumstance is to recognize that while God does not cause every thing that happens, and some things happen for no clear reason, God remains connected to us in the experience in such a way that he will redeem it. Rather than orchestrating every moment of our life, programming us like computer code, he is allowing our experiences, our stories to unfold, and through his omnicompetence he redeems every sadness, every injury, every loss no matter how great or devastating.
Does everything happen for a reason? No. Everything does not happen for a divine reason. Yet everything that does happen remains a thread of grace that God weaves in the fabric of a life of grace and redemption.
Faith and Theology is a wonderful site that is both theologically informed, thoughtful, and humorous. This link leads to a sermon by Kim Fabricious. I wish I had preached this sermon. I am glad that someone did.
“So our sins become not stopping points, but starting points. They can be the occasions of constantly fresh, constantly wider visions of the grace of God. It’s often been said, boldly, that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God’s love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God’s creative mercy still waits. We have a future because of this grace.” ~ Rowan Williams
“The single central thing is the conviction that for us to be at peace Jesus’ life has to be given up. It isn’t that a vengeful and inflexible God demands satisfaction, more that the way the world is makes it unavoidable that the way to our freedom lies through the self-giving of Jesus, even to the point of death. In the kind of world that you and I inhabit, the kind of world that you and I make or collude with, this is what the price of unrestricted love looks like. Hang on to that, and the jostling images and theories are kept in perspective.” – Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust
Plato reportedly said that most of his students needed the whip, whereas Aristotle needed the bridle.