Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God Beyond All Knowing

Mount Moriah as it is today 
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The statutes of the LORD are true, all of them just. - Psalm 19:10

When I was about nine or ten, I piously set out to try and read the entire Bible. I spent late nights with a flashlight in my bedroom closet carefully reading from the very beginning. Instead of being an exercise in piety, it turned out to be quite a traumatic event.

The sex and violence of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, peaked my young curiosity but also shocked me to the core. I was young and innocent and the stories I read seemed dirty and terrible. I was amazed that this holy book was full of people who did such terrible things. Needless to say, I eventually gave up the project.

As I grew older, I continued to approach Scripture, and God, with distrust. My family had multiple discussions about various Old Testament stories at the dinner table and I would inevitably end up pounding my fist on the table and yelling, “If this is the kind of God you want me to believe then forget it!”

On my recent trip to the Holy Land, God held out His hand to me and invited me to explore Scripture with greater depth and an ever more trusting heart. Our leader, Tim Gray, infused each teaching on our trip with explanation of Scripture, to help us understand the God of salvation history. One day that particularly helped me to reevaluate my immature evaluations of some Scripture stories was the day we made our way up Mount Moriah.

Mount Moriah, which is also known as the Temple Mount, because it is the location of the ruins of the Jewish Temple, is a place central to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith. In the Jewish Talmud, the area of Mount Moriah is said to be the center of the world, the place near where Adam was created by God, where Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder and where the first Temple was built by Solomon. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended from Mount Moriah, and interestingly, Muslims used to face Mount Moriah in prayer before Muhammad instructed them to change to Mecca. And Christians of course, share the same pivotal events with Judaism until the split of Christianity and Judaism a number of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

One event that took place on Mount Moriah that is important to all three major religions is when God asks Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him, (Muslims, however, believe it was Ishmael that Abraham almost sacrificed, not Isaac). The story of Abraham and Isaac has always baffled me, and filled me with questions. I think this story has that effect on many people. As one non-practicing Jewish friend said to me when he found out I was converting to Christianity, “But what about God asking Abraham to kill his son – what is up with that?!?” I remember thinking, “Ya, what is up with that?” However, after my conversion, I am able to live with questions like these, knowing God will answer them in His own time.

Mount Moriah now includes the ruins of the Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70AD. In the spot where many believe used to be the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple is a Muslim mosque built around the Foundation Stone, the stone where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. It was here that Tim began to explain to us the significance of the story of Abraham for our faith.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it is impossible to have an understanding of this request outside of the context of the entire story of Abraham. God reaches out to Abraham, telling him that his descendents will be more numerous than the stars. Abraham, after not conceiving with his wife Sarah, takes a concubine Hagar at his wife’s insistence and she conceives a son Ishmael. As Tim points out in his book, Walking with God, oftentimes the Old Testament does not explicitly condemn the actions of its major players but rather indicates when immoral action has taken place in more subtle ways. After Abraham takes Hagar as his concubine, God is silent for seventeen years, indicating His displeasure at the lack of trust on Abraham’s part.

God finally makes Himself felt again in Abraham’s life and makes another covenant with him, this time explicitly telling him that his son will come from his wife Sarah, even though she is very old. As a sign of this covenant, Abraham must circumcise himself and his descendents. This circumcision is a sign of this covenant with God but also Abraham’s punishment for his sin of the flesh.

After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she convinces Abraham to send his concubine Hagar and his other son Ishmael into the desert. Abraham sends them away with little provisions, although he knew they would most likely die. So, when God tells Abraham to bring his “son Isaac, your only one, whom you love” to the mountain, God is telling Abraham that He has seen Abraham basically killing his son Ishmael and that it will not go unpunished. Abraham, knowing he has done what is evil in God’s eyes, accepts the punishment of God without complaint. 

Abraham, a man who has grown to have a great faith, believes that God will keep His covenant and give him many descendants through his son Isaac. As Hebrews 11:19 tells us, Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead if he so chose. By this point in Abraham’s life, he is well aware of the justice and mercy of God and he knows that whatever God asks is just and right, even if it is difficult to understand.

Popular culture imagines Isaac as a young, innocent child who did not know what was going on as his father leads him to his death but early rabbinic literature portrays him as a young man who willingly and knowingly went with his father to obey God’s command. This is not certain, but we do know that Isaac was old enough and strong enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice and it seems he did not fight against his father, who could have been easily overpowered in his old age.

On the way up the hill, Isaac asks his father where the lamb is for sacrifice, and Abraham responds that God will provide a lamb. In the end, at the moment when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, a ram appears. That’s right, a ram, not a lamb. Abraham sacrifices the ram to God and calls the place YHWH yireh in Hebrew, meaning literally “God will see to it.” Abraham uses the future tense because he recognizes that God has provided a ram, but the lamb of God is still to come. Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb?” will continue to echo throughout time until the arrival of Jesus.

Many years later King Solomon will build a Temple on this same mountain, where every morning and evening a lamb will be sacrificed to God, a reminder that He has yet to provide a lamb for the final atoning sacrifice for all sin. God, seeing that justice demands a sacrifice for the many sins of humanity, sends his own Beloved Son to be this sacrificial lamb out of His great love for us. John the Baptist will recognize this lamb when he says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” at seeing Jesus walk by. Jesus, the only, loved Son of the Father, (as Isaac was for Abraham), will die a stone’s throw from Mount Moriah at the very hour when lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. As Scripture tells us, not a bone was broken in Jesus’ body, as the bones of sacrificial lambs could not be broken. 

In the death of Jesus for our sins and in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God shows us that love and justice cannot be divorced from each other. There must be atonement for our sins, because God is just. So, God sends His own Son to die in our place, because God is love. Sometimes, in our modern culture, we have a tendency to focus on what we think is God’s love (which is more often our excuses for doing what we want) and to forget about God’s justice. This is often behind excuses for not going to mass on Sunday, for not attending confession and for generally not living lives focused on God. “Oh, God will forgive me,” we say nonchalantly. However, God shows us in the story of Abraham that none of our actions are without consequences, natural or divine. Our God is a merciful God, but that does not mean He cannot deny the very reality of who He is – both Truth and Love. 

If God was all love and mercy and no justice, there would have been no need for the death of His Son.

So, where does this leave us? 

The incident of Abraham and Isaac is still not resolved completely in my mind and it most likely is not in yours either. I don’t think it is a story that can be neatly resolved and tucked away. But that may be just what God wants. St. John of the Cross calls God, the "God beyond all knowing." And maybe that is important to remember in maintaining a healthy fear of God, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11.

How should we fear God? 

I think Abraham gives us a good example of someone who falls repeatedly but keeps getting up, trying his best to please God. Fear of God should not be a pathetic trembling before a slave master but a sincere desire to please our Father who always knows better than we do.

Dear God, help us to understand that your will for us is always best even if we do not understand. Help us to follow your will out of love and a healthy fear that motivates us to do what God wills in our life.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Blessed Among Badass Women

Then the Lord God said to the serpent  ... "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." - Genesis 3:15

You have probably seen statues of Mary portrayed as a beautiful maiden in a long dress with small, bare feet peeking out of her flowing gown. If you look closely at her feet, you will often see a snake writhing beneath her feet, its head in the process of being crushed by her dainty heel. This is a common depiction of Mary, also known as the "New Eve."  She is known by this title because, in contrast to Eve, Mary allowed God to work through her, humbly submitting herself to His will. It was through her docility to God's plan that Jesus came to defeat evil and crush the serpent, Satan.

As I have shared before, I have always had a hard time relating to Mary, or at least the Mary depicted in popular culture. Mary's docility, submissiveness and meekness are her qualities most often emphasized. These are beautiful characteristics, ones that I strive to imitate, but they are not qualities with which I immediately empathize or understand. I rarely hear about the Mary whose little bare feet ruthlessly crushed Satan.

One of the teachings Tim Gray gave to us in the Holy Land was on Mary. We were at Ein Karem, the place where Mary traveled to visit Elizabeth, commonly called the place of the Visitation. There was a light breeze that day as our group was led into the garden behind the church commemorating the Visitation and I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit particularly during this talk. There were many fascinating aspects of the teaching Tim gave us, but the part that most caught my imagination and attention was when he described the Scriptural importance of the phrase "blessed among women," used by Elizabeth when she first greets Mary.

The phrase "blessed among women" is used only two other times in Scripture, in reference to two women of the Old Testament, Judith and Jael. In Judges, the prophetess Deborah honors Jael as "blessed among women" in a victory song rejoicing over the defeat of the Canaanites. Jael is honored because she has managed to do what the armies of Israel could not; she kills Sisera, the leader of the Canaanites. Jael's motivation for killing Sisera is not clear, but it seems that because she is a descendent of the Israelites, she wants to help defeat their mortal enemy. She kills Sisera by luring him into her tent, feigning a desire to show him hospitality and instead she drives a tent peg into his head while he is sleeping. Yes, a tent peg. These women don't mess around.

Judith is the other woman in Scripture who is referred to as "blessed among women" and she is honored for similar reasons because she is the woman responsible for killing Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar's army. Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless king who planned to obliterate the Israelite settlements, including Jerusalem and the newly built Temple because they had not sent him a levy of soldiers for his most recent war. The king chooses his feared general Holofernes for the task. On route to Jerusalem is the little mountain town of Bethulia. Holofernes lays seige to the town and soon the people become desperate as their water supply runs dry. In this moment of desperation a woman named Judith steps into the story.

Judith, a widow of renowned beauty and holiness, gives the leaders of the town a speech filled with the wisdom of one close to God. Uzziah, one of the chief leaders, listens to her and urges her to continue to pray for their success. Judith responds by pretty much saying she is going to do more than sit at home and pray. She warns them that she will be leaving with her maid that night for the enemy camps. Using her great beauty, wisdom and constant prayers, Judith charms her way through the enemy camps and into a tent near the feared general Holofernes. On her fourth day in the camps, she is invited to dine with the general. Her maid serves wine and Holofernes drinks himself into a stupor. Seizing upon her chance, Judith grabs the general' sword, and with two swift cuts, she chops off his head.

At first I was a bit shocked that Mary would be associated with two women who used their womanly guile to lure men to their death. But then I thought about it in the context of salvation history. God, showing favor to the Jews, cultivated a chosen people who would produce the Savior of the world. In this salvation history, there are glorious kings and great leaders who protect and ensure the survival of the Israelites. But it is predominantly through people viewed as small and weak that God shows His great power and mercy to His people and protects them from being defeated and extinguished from history.

The story of David and Goliath is one such example of the weak and small conquering the great. But I am particularly captivated by the many women who are responsible for single handedly maintaining the continued survival of the Jewish people. This is a beautiful way that God communicates the inherent strength and value of women, even amidst ancient cultural values that did not regard women as equals to men. It is also how God communicates Himself, by showing that it is through what is thought of as weak and lowly, that God shows His greatness and power. And through Mary this pattern in salvation history reaches its pinnacle. Through this small Jewish woman, God brings the salvation of the entire world and the defeat of all evil.  Mary is not a prop in God's salvation play, or someone who participated without freedom or action on her part. Rather, Mary is a free, integral player in the story of salvation, just as Jael and Judith's free actions were essential to the survival of the Jewish people. Like Judith and Jael, Mary's yes to God crushes the head of the enemy, not only the enemy of the chosen people but the enemy of all peoples of the world, Gentile and Jew.

After hearing this teaching on Mary in the Holy Land, our group walked out of the gardens in a stunned silence, mulling over its implications. I turned and met the sparkling eyes of a young deacon on our trip who said playfully, "I call that the blessed among badass women talk." I laughed heartily but afterward I began to think more seriously about what this teaching taught me about God.

Two thousand years ago, God, the king and creator of the universe, chose to manifest Himself in our world as a poor child, in a manger. And even in today's world, He chooses to manifest Himself through the small, humble and the weak. I don't think God is just saying, "Be weak and small and I will work through you." He is saying that, but I also think that He is communicating to us how we can grow strong. As the Lord said to St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinth 12:9) It is through embracing our weakness and admitting our vulnerabilities, that we become strong.  By embracing our smallness before God, we grow spiritual armor on the inside. And perhaps it is through the very things that we consider our greatest flaws that God will work His greatest acts in us. Through this process, the hope is that eventually, like Mary and Paul, we will become spiritual badasses for Jesus. 

Dearest mother Mary, help us to see you and understand you as you are. You long to put your mantle around us and lead us to your Son. Help us to grow closer to Him, through you, every day. And help us to embrace all that makes us weak because it is through this that God will make us strong enough to enter the gates of heaven.