Identify with the abandoned Christ
On two realities of God.
When reflecting on our text for this week, Joshua 3:1-17 (take some time to read this first before continuing), I was surprised by what I’d like to call this “double image of God.” On the one hand, God seems to be “the hidden one” and, on the other, God is experienced as being extremely near to Israel. What struck me most is that neither of these are kept separate from one another. The author of this text could deal with both the illusiveness and the extreme nearness of God. If he or she didn’t have to make a choice between these who paradoxical images of God, neither should we. Let’s try to reflect on both for a moment:
God at a distance
“When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. 4 Then you will know which way to go since you have never been this way before. But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do not go near it” – Joshua 3:3-4
“The longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul —The pain within is so great… Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness. The place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me. In the darkness…Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?... The one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark—and I am alone.” – St. Teresa (The Dark Night).
This strange commandment in 3:3-4 reminded me of Mother Teresa’s longing for God – this ultimate desire to “see” God, to know “God.” It is said that St. Teresa spent at least 50, almost until her death, reflecting on the “absence of God” – often vividly portrayed in her journal entries. For many reasons, this is a terrible experience and one that should not be easily romanticized. It is an experience that many honest and God-seeking people go through on the regular. To not take seriously the feeling that God is sometimes “absent” in our lives is to disregard many of the biblical writings. So, in this text, we find that the Israelites needed God, but that – at the same time – God seemed distant, uninterested, and occupied with the holy ones rather than the mere mortals at the back of the parade.
In my own life, I have often experienced God in this way, but perhaps this is also an exceptionally valuable experience to go through. This is the lesson I get from Joshua when warning the people to not get too close to God. Perhaps sometimes we too might think that we understand God, that we know God, that we “own” God. Yet, God remains God. God remains free to act and to do as God pleases. This was the great insight of the theologian Karl Barth when he explained that God always comes “to” us. God surprises us by showing Godself to us. In this sense Augustine was right – “when we understand anything, it would not be God.”
Now, why does this matter? It matters because we often try to box God into our own agendas, ideas, and desires. We often think we can coerce God into what we want God to do for us or for those who think and believe like us. But God is God. God is in control of God’s story. God is at a distance, going in front.
LET'S GET INTO IT
It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. - Eugene Ionesco
Take a moment to answer the following question:
Where have you experienced being at a distance from God? What did that feel like? What did you learn from that process, that “dark night of the soul”?
In what ways are God surprising to you? In what ways did God act in ways that you would not expect God to act? Think about Jesus… when the religious leaders came to know Jesus, they saw him as a cheat and a fraud. They couldn’t imagine God acting on behalf of the vulnerable. Where does God need to surprise you today?
WORD INTO ACTION
God amongst us
“Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. 10 This is how you will know that the living God” … “16 the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So, the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.” – Joshua 3:9;10;16-17.
Later in her life, St. Teresa got solace with this turmoil she experienced when Joseph Neuner, S.J., suggested to her that “her dark night might be one way God was inviting her to identify with the abandoned Christ on the cross and with the abandoned poor” (Martin, 2007). This same God is also present in the book of Joshua. This God who is actively involved in leading the downtrodden and oppressed – in a miraculous way – into a new future. In this way, God is intimately close to us. In this way, in our most vulnerable moments, God is very visible. God is the God of those who feel lonely. The One who acts on behalf of those who are outcast.
In this text, and with the whole story of Israel, we see this in surprising ways. Just when the people thought that God was absent, that God abandoned them, they saw God in new and surprising ways.
With this in mind, reflect on the following:
When in your life (it does not matter how long ago) did you feel particularly close to God? What did that feel like? What do you remember about that time?
Both absence and presence…
In summary, what I’ve learned from Joshua this week is that God is at the same time both strange and familiar, both absent and present, both surprising and known to us. How can we live a life that honors this nature of God? In this sense, the Reformer John Calvin was correct when he said that the whole Christian life is to seek the gracious face of God and live accordingly – faciem Dei contemplari.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
"Savior of Zvenigorod" - Andrew Rublev
Nouwen begins this meditation on the icon by stating, ‘To see Christ is to see God and all of humanity. This mystery has evoked in me a burning desire to see the face of Jesus’. Nouwen then relates this to his love of the face of Christ as portrayed by Rublev in this icon. Nouwen begins by describing the damage to this 15thC image and then describes what he sees as a ‘tender human face’ and the colors ‘of inexpressible beauty’ which are used. The next focus for Nouwen are the eyes of Christ: ‘Their gaze is so mysterious and deep that any word that tries to describe them is inadequate’. Nouwen concludes the meditation by stating, ‘Seeing the Christ by Rublev is a profound event…seeing Christ leads us to the heart of God as well as to the heart of all that is human’. In an Afterword, Nouwen discusses the icon painting tradition and notes that beginning in the 6th C. there is a tendency to portray the face of Christ in a similar way in all icons and in a way which may be related to the face on the Shroud of Turin which may have been the actual face of Christ.
For further reading:
“Views on Calvin’s ethics from a South African perspective” by D. Smit in Essays on Being Reformed – Collected Essays 3 (2009).
That's all for this week
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