Saturday, December 20, 2008

God, Christmas, awe of God, and the ordinary

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to both belief in God and in acceptance of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior is the inability to reconcile awe of God with God’s attention to ordinariness. The faithful and agnostic secular skeptics need to understand the awe and the ordinariness in order to discern an accurate image of God. This is an especially fruitful consideration during both Christmastime and Hanukkah. Equally, Muslims who have recently conducted the Hajj can also perceive this challenge between the awe of God and God’s attention to ordinariness.

This fundamental contrast, which is a challenge to many, is only revealed in the first place if the believer (and the inquiring skeptic) reads and contemplates the sacred literature in its entirety, and then sits back and lets it somewhat holistically “soak in.” The Jews have the greatest history of understanding that God is awesome and awe inspiring beyond comprehension, yet has a proven history of interacting with his Chosen People in minute detail where necessary. By this I do not mean God as “micromanager” through the Law but, rather, I mean the Biblical stories that demonstrate his intervention and mercy in even small matters of an ordinary person. The same God of all of creation, who appeared to Moses and the Israelites in the great Theophany sent his prophet Eliseus among not just the kings of Israel, but among the ordinary people who suffered, performing great miracles on their behalf. In 4 Kings 4:1-7 one reads how a woman who was a poor widow was about to lose her two sons because the creditors would take them from her in cost of unpaid debts. Eliseus gave her a miracle of an oil jar that was continually filled (this is cooking oil, not oil as we mean nowadays as in petroleum) so that she could sell from this continually filled jar, pay off the debts, and then she and her sons could live off of the income of the this continually filled oil jar without worry. In this one example one comprehends the awe of God, where his prophet can deliver such a miracle in God’s name, and also the ordinariness, for this woman’s name is not even mentioned, we only know that she was the poor widow of a man who “was one that feared God.”

Jesus later explains this aspect of God, his awe inspiring glory and yet his concern for even the smallest and the most ordinary among the world. When telling the Apostles not to be afraid, Jesus said the following:

Matthew 10:29-30
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s leave. But as for you, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Let me first translate the analogy that Jesus is saying before providing you with commentary. People ate sparrows for food, and two sparrows for a farthing are a low price. Jesus is saying that not even the most humble and low priced animals sold for the most humble and lowly meal is beneath not only the notice of God, but also God’s permission, for God is the one who has provided the food of creation, and is aware of every animal life, and every human meal, no matter how small and humble. It’s like Jesus would remind someone today in modern times that whenever they eat even the dollar menu chicken strips that God not only knows of the meal, the chickens that provided it, and the low price, but is also the ultimate provider of food and humanity’s ability to survive and thrive in the first place. Then, Jesus tells the Apostles to think about it: if God knows the disposition of even the smallest animal in the lowliest meal for a human, likewise, God knows every detail of every person, down to knowing the number of individual hairs on one’s head. Jesus then assures them that since God attends to even the most humble animal in the most humble meal, and has equally detailed constant awareness of each human, how much more value is each and every person to God: “You are of more value than many sparrows.” Jesus thus in the course of a longer lesson and discourse to the Apostles, at one point in comforting them, offers this contrast that I am commenting on now: God’s all knowing and mercy are awesome beyond human imagining, yet God is also concerned about every animal, every meal, and every human to their most ordinary existence and well being.

Jesus performed so many miracles of curing ordinary people that they are not even enumerated in the Gospels. Jesus clearly went above and beyond performing “just enough” miracles to “authenticate” who he was, and how he performed miracles on the behest and mercy of God.

Matthew 15:29-31
And when Jesus had departed from there, he went along the Sea of Galilee; and he went up the mountain and sat there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the dumb, the blind, the lame, the maimed, and many others; and they set them down at his feet, and he cured them; so that the crowds marveled to see the dumb speak, the lame walk, and the blind see. And they glorified the God of Israel.

Jesus cured as many who were brought to them, so many that the Gospel authors just describe these scenes in general terms, because it was God’s will that Jesus put a face on God’s mercy and concern for the ordinary person, who suffered ordinary woes in life, such as disabilities. One miraculous cure per location would have been more than sufficient to establish the God given authority of Jesus, yet Jesus went ahead and cured each and every of the suffering who were brought to him. And the people, then, just as Jesus wanted, glorified not him but God for his mercy.

One miracle that Jesus performed brings to mind the miracle of Eliseus as described above. When you read the miracle known as “The Widow’s Son,” (which I’ve discussed in previous posts), remember that the loss of a widow’s son was virtually a death penalty for her too, as she no longer had any means of support or even a provider of food.

Luke 7:11-17
And it came to pass soon afterwards, that he went to a town called Naim; and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. And as he drew near the gate of the town, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large gathering from the town was with her. And the Lord, seeing her, had compassion on her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” And he went up and touched the stretcher; and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to thee, arise.” And he who was dead, sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.

But fear seized upon all, and they began to glorify God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people.” And this report concerning him went forth throughout the whole of Judea, and all the country roundabout.

Eliseus (also spelled Elisha or Elijah) performed his miracle of the oil to save the sons of the widow some eight hundred years or so before Jesus raised from the dead the son of this widow. This is an example of what I describe as the necessity of reading the entire Bible in order to have a holistic or overall view of God; not just focus on citations or “episodes.” Only when one reads the entire Bible can one notice the constancy of God; God is constant and consistent through all eternity and is demonstrated in his interaction with generation after generation of humans. Thus one can see Eliseus have concern for an unnamed impoverished widow who is about to lose her sons and livelihood to seizure by creditors and then hundreds of years later, Jesus in the name of God raise from the dead the only son, and thus love and livelihood, of the unnamed ordinary widow woman of Naim. People who say that God is “arbitrary” are as dumb as a sack of rocks and clearly have never read the entire Bible with any degree of attention or mindfulness to the supernatural constancy of God: a constancy that is rarely recognized or thanked. This is why when I relate the above examples of Jesus’ miracles, I include the passages that relate how perfectly the crowds understood what was happening, that Jesus was not there to glorify himself, but do demonstrate the constancy of God’s complete awareness and love for the ordinary, for those who suffer and endure losses.

I’m writing this on the eve of the fourth Sunday of Advent, just days before Christmas, and that timing is exactly why I am writing on this particular topic. Christmas-celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ-should be recognition of the constancy of God that seems contradictory only when modern humans are narrow minded. The ancient Israelites and those in the time of Jesus did not have the stumbling block of thinking that if God is so awesome on one hand, why does God seem to do “ordinary” things on the other hand. Life is one hundred percent ordinary; it is only humans who glamorize certain classes of people and certain elite events. There is no contradiction at all between being constantly struck by the awesome power and might of God, and his unfathomable mystery, and yet understanding that he knows and cares about “every hair on every head.” It is only modern people who do not comprehend that, who then as a result have doubt and even sacrilegious thoughts about the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The mourners at Naim had absolutely no need for explanation or “proof” by this unnamed stranger, who walked up to them, had compassion for a widow, and raised her son from the dead for her. Notice they never even asked his name or his “credentials;” they did not need to, for they saw and believed, and they felt immediately the fear of God (awe) in the miracle wrought by Jesus. Moderns refuse to believe, or they discount God’s awesomeness, thinking he must not be so awesome if he sent Jesus, his Son, to be poor, in a manger, to live anonymously most of his life before two or so years of public ministry and a cruel death, before resurrection. To find the humility of Jesus and his birth among the ordinary people a sign of God being any less all powerful and awesome is a modern affectation and affliction that is truly contrarian and baffling.

This is another reason one must read and with a wholeness of attentiveness have a holistic appreciation of the Bible: one must look not only to the prophets and saints as role models, but to the ordinary people. What did the people of Naim “think” when the unnamed stranger of Jesus Christ walked into their funeral procession, dried the tears of the mother widow, and raised her son from the dead? Did they say, “Well, God must not be so awesome if he sent some ordinary human to do his deeds?” Of course not; people used to understand that it is a sign of God’s awesomeness, power and mercy that he raised up his prophets of the people and among the people, not as some unfathomable creature that is outside of human experience. What the people of Naim instantly said was ““A great prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people.” The two reactions most clearly acknowledged the awesome might and mercy of God, and the fact that God was working among the people. Jews had thousands of years of experience, well known in Torah study that God raises his prophets from among the people, not as an “outside force,” and also that God “visits” his people. The people of Naim instantly recognized such a gift of God, a concern and love for the ordinary people, in Jesus, before even knowing his name.

Notice something else, in the first line of that passage: “he went to a town called Naim; and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.” This is mentioned often in the Gospel that the disciples walked with Jesus from region to region in his ministry, but that also large crowds of ordinary people also traveled with him. Again, one learns to emulate the behavior of ordinary people who lived in the extraordinary Biblical times. They fully retain their awe of God and their glorification of God alone, but they accept the gift of ordinary human to human interaction with what they recognized was this mighty prophet of God, Jesus. This is how moderns must also be and to do so they need to realign their attitudes out of the mushy, meaningless and erroneous “middle.” Humans need to stop being lukewarm about God himself, and have a complete return to being totally blown away by God’s all powerfulness, his mercy and his awesomeness. Likewise they need to stop making every interaction with the divine be only “meaningful” and “impressive” if it is tinged with the occult, the supernatural or the strange. It’s like moderns have so thoroughly forgotten what ordinary life is really like (a curse of narcissism, prosperity and cynicism) that since they no longer know what their own ordinary reality is like, they can’t recognize when God is “into the details” of the ordinary and “visits his people.” Instead of having some “go ahead, impress me” attitude toward God that is rooted in the mushy meaningless middle, people need to remember and regain with a jolt fear of the Lord, of the awesomeness of God at one “extreme,” and at the same time, recognize God’s deep concern for every ordinary person throughout their ordinary life at the “other extreme.” When one sticks to the blah middle one totally misses understanding God at all.

This is how I hope that those of you who read my commentary think of the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in the upcoming days, and then going forward in your faith and life journey. You cannot understand this holiday, understand God, or even understand one’s own life and human condition if you do not understand the constancy of the “two extremes,” which is total awe for God and his mystery and power, and acceptance of God, and his offer of company, love and concern for you, most especially through Jesus Christ, into your ordinary life. When one wonders, “Well, why would God have a ‘son’ born of a virgin in a manger in poverty ‘only’ to be ‘killed,’” one need only to recall one of the many events that defy that reductionist mentality, which is to think of the virgin’s son walk to Naim and raise the unnamed son in compassion to give him back to his ordinary mother, and hear how the crowds saw and believed. A depressive reductionist mentality about the mutual divine blessedness and humanity of Jesus Christ is totally uncalled for and quite erroneous and in violation of the very clear facts.

I hope that you have found this helpful.