Friday, April 10, 2009

Understanding God: simple suggestion to be near to him

Many people feel that they are distant from God, or God is distant from them. This is a perfectly understandable problem and not new to humans, who have felt this throughout the generations, and God understands. However, it is particularly acute in these modern times. In a way it is ironic because never has there been more freely available printed information about God, and more people searching for "spirituality," yet, modern people feel distant from God in a way that, for example, the ancient Israelites of Biblical times did not.

The Israelites did not have the "advantage" of "lots of miracles" to bolster their faith either. Hundreds of years would often span the time between miracles by God's prophets or miraculous appearances by God. So what did the Israelites have that modern people seem to possess less and less of?

For one they were better informed and availed themselves of the very gifts of knowing him that God has given people. As I attended Good Friday services at the nearby cathedral I was sad, but not surprised, to observe something missing from the worshippers that used to be so basic in the years past, but seems totally forgotten today. This is by no means a criticism, as I delighted in seeing the faith and love of the Lord present in all who attended on this most solemn day. Rather, I am using what I observed to explain to people something who the older ones may have forgotten, and the middle aged and young people seem to most certainly not learned in their faith formation.

First, here is what I observed from virtually every person who came through the two doors within my line of vision. People would enter, dip their hand in the holy water font, and make the sign of the cross while simultaneously walking and scanning with their eyes for what seat they wanted in the pew.

Hmm. This is not a scolding but pointing out a missed golden opportunity to know God.

The part of the church that contains the altar is called the sanctuary. In the sanctuary God is physically present. No, I do not in this case mean the sacred host, which is the true body of Jesus Christ when consecrated. I mean God the Father. God, understanding that people will always have to strain somewhat to believe in his presence when they cannot see him, committed to all the faithful that he is present in the sanctuary of the temples of the ancient Israelites and also, obviously, by extension, in the sanctuary where an altar where sacrifice and appeal to him is made.

Now, before I cite scripture and make Biblical commentary on this subject, let me address the obvious "modern thinking" problem. Many moderns say, "But I thought God is everywhere." He is everywhere, but he understands that people, not God himself, have problem remembering that. So God solemnly and repeatedly committed through word and deed that people can be absolutely certain of his actual presence in the sanctuary of his houses of worship. Thus someone can have squishy faith or worse, great doubt, in God's overall presence in the world (perhaps thinking that God withholds himself from the day to day matters, both joys and woes, of the world) and upon entering any place of worship with an actual sanctuary, be absolutely assured that God is sitting right there.

Thus good Catholics are supposed to do this: entering the church through any of its doors, dip one's hand into the font and make the sign of the cross while facing the sanctuary. Furthermore, before removing one's eyes from the sanctuary area, genuflect, usually at the end of the first pew nearest to you. When you enter God's house you are supposed to acknowledge God's presence with eyes and gesture (both sign of the cross and genuflecting) where God has promised that he dwells, which is the sanctuary.

If most people entered the church for service and saw God with only a fraction of his glory visible to the eye in the sanctuary, I imagine most people would notice (though probably a stubborn few would still worry about which pew they will sit in and which neighbors are there). But that is not supposed to be the priority with the first few steps into the house of God where God has promised to be present in the sanctuary. Yes, I like to get a good seat and look around who else is there too. But I do so after genuflecting toward the altar upon my immediate entry. In fact, that is such an urgent priority that I sometimes do not avail myself of the holy water font, since my eyes are fixed on the sanctuary whenever I enter ANY church through ANY of the doors (front or the two sides), and I genuflect. Often I do so twice, and this is how people used to be and used to understand that GOD is there even before the celebration of the Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus. I do so upon entry and then again at the end of the pew that I am about to enter in order to take my seat.

When people don't do this it's not a "bad thing," it's a "sad thing," since they are no longer remembering that God has promised to be in the sanctuary of every church that believes in him and that offers sacrifice and worship. In the Orthodox churches, the sanctuary is an actual separate small room in the back where only the priest enters, consistent with how it used to be in the temples of the Israelites. Now that is symbolized by where the Torah resides.

All Catholics should:

1. Enter the door, dip their hand in the holy water font, and make the sign of the cross while facing the sanctuary. This is in honor of Jesus Christ.

2. Still facing the sanctuary, genuflect, usually at the end of the first pew if entering by the side doors or the last pew (either main aisle end). This is acknowledging God's actual presence in the sanctuary.

Even if you do nothing more than this you will feel a strengthening of your feeling of God's presence in your life. It takes nothing away from God "being everywhere," but you are taking him up on his offer to commit to each and every one of you that HE IS THERE in the sanctuary.

These are examples of God making himself seen in the sanctuary:

Luke 1:5, 9, 11-13
There was in the days of Herod the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.

According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

Now, as you read further you will see that this angel of the Lord identifies himself as Gabriel, but make note that Gabriel says: I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God (Luke 1:19).

Isaiah 6:1-4

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. [This is how you know that Isaiah is performing priestly duty in the sanctuary of the temple, since he says that God's celestial robe filled the whole temple's interior].
Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
And one cried unto another, and said Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house [temple] was filled with smoke.

These are two examples where God elects to deliver messages of redemption from within the sanctuary of the temple. God, of course, can appear whenever and wherever he wants, but nothing that God does is insignificant. God continues to demonstrate his closeness and presence in the sanctuary. It is particularly key that God, through Gabriel, announces the pregnancy and birth of the man who will make straight the way of the Lord, John the Baptist, in the sanctuary of the Temple. This is the bridge in understanding that even as God announces the man who would herald the coming of the Messiah and the New Covenant, that God "makes his seat and presence felt," so to speak, most especially within the sanctuary of his house.

Revelation 13:6

And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.

Why does St. John observe the beast during the Apocalypse, blaspheme God, the name of God, and all in heaven (answer is obvious) but also God's tabernacle (answer not so obvious)? The word "tabernacle" is very precise: it does not mean as people think today just a symbolic allusion to assemblies of people who worship God. The tabernacle (the Biblical word for sanctuary) means the tabernacle, otherwise scripture would not use that word. Thus even way in the future during the time of the Apocalypse the beast its self understands that God is committed to being physically present to his people in "his" (God's) tabernacle. This is how we know that God's promise to be present in his tabernacle, to strengthen the faith of those who enter his house of worship to sacrifice and petition, continues from the very beginning of faith history to the very end of the world.

You can read the history in the Bible about the early forms of tabernacle and God's promise to accompany Israel through the tabernacle. I wanted to draw your attention to the continuity of God's promise of actual presence in the sanctuary (even though, yes, he is everywhere at once) throughout the New Covenant and, ironically through the testimony of the beast and St. John's witness, all the way to the Apocalypse and the end of days.

So even though you cannot see God with your eyes, there he is, in the sanctuary of the churches of his faithful.

I hope that you have found this helpful. To know God is to love God, and if you remember that he keeps his promises you will know he is there in the sanctuary, and if you remember that at all times you will start to feel closer to him within your individual reality too.