OUR MYSTERIOUS, BIG GOD

Author: Fr. Michael Byron
February 04, 2019

There is nothing more dreadful than the person who thinks she/he has got religion.  We all spend our lives in the sincere search for holiness and for God, and we are absolutely right to do that, but who is more off-putting than the one who thinks of him/herself as having been successful in that?  And it’s more than about being off-putting.  It’s about being just wrong.  Because the paradox about the quest to know and love and serve God is that the better we become at doing that the more mysterious and elusive and surprising God becomes.

When I was teaching in the seminary there were two categories of students that I could predict in advance would be the most difficult to deal with on theology.  They were the recent converts and the engineers.  The recent converts were generally convinced that after years of searching the religious buffet out there they had finally found “The Truth” in the Catholic church, and the last thing they wanted to do was investigate the how and why of that truth.

And the engineers were the ones who were convinced that there was a human solution to every ambiguous question about life, and all they needed to do was to find it.  Both of those groups wanted pat answers to huge questions about religious meaning, and they tended to become irritated when I wasn’t able or willing to provide that.

Any thoughtful Catholic pastor or theologian will be quick to assure you that the moment you think you’ve got God all figured out you have most assuredly lost your way.  And as soon as your religion is able to be reduced to logical propositions and definitions about abstract ideas, it is no longer Christian.  God is not a laboratory specimen.

For those of you who’ve been a part of Pax Christi for a long time, you’re aware that the carved wooden body of Christ—the “corpus”—on our cross came to us as a gift from St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, back in the days when Pastor Ken and Fr. Tim were great friends and collaborators in the ministry around here.  For years I have enjoyed telling people that I consider myself to be a closeted Lutheran, mostly for one reason.  Although I don’t think that Martin Luther was right about all things, one thing he got absolutely correct is that he knew what he didn’t know, and could not ever know about God.  He was humble—even though he was brash in speech.  And one of his protests against the Catholic church of his 16th century time was that it presumed to know too much about holy mystery.  It presumed to have gotten God a bit domesticated, too predictable, too much under human control.  In fact, Luther insisted that it was good and healthy for people of faith to live with a certain disquiet about who and how God is.  That is a very wise sentiment.  And Luther’s greatest proof for all this was the cross, that instrument of torture and death that stands as the symbol of God’s greatest victory.  On the face of it, the cross is nonsense, as Luther insisted.  And yet nothing could be more true or necessary.  On the day that you think you’ve got the cross of Christ all figured out, be concerned.  Be concerned about your presumptions—maybe even your religious arrogance.

It seems that the people of Nazareth in today’s gospel of Luke believed that they had God pretty well understood, and that understanding did not involve a young man in their midst named Jesus, the son of Joseph.  The one whom they knew they knew.  And so when Jesus attempted to tell them otherwise, they weren’t just baffled—they were angry, and even violent, attempting to destroy him.  

For these people in the synagogue that day, God wasn’t being permitted to do anything that wasn’t already expected of him, so he wasn’t really free to be God at all.  

When Christians gather for prayer and liturgy we do so in a spirit of vulnerability—in the best sense of that word.  We come here to be opened to transformation, to surprise, to change, to deepening our understanding of God.

We don’t come here to manipulate God, as if we could.  We come here to remember again what we don’t yet know and haven’t yet experienced about God.  We come less in search of pat answers to our religious questions, and more to open ourselves to questions that we’ve never dared or imagined to ask like—              

Could Jesus, the son of Joseph, really be the Messiah?
Could God be stirring in our midst in a way we’ve never considered before?
Are some of our imagined religious certainties really not so certain?
Have we made God too small as the result of all our piety?

These are the questions that are posed by people who are willing to be vulnerable, and therefore willing to be transformed, even to be astonished.  As we encounter the Lord again here at Eucharist, may this be our desire and our will.

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