Pentecost XI - August 21, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Jer. 1:4-10 + Ps 71:1-6 + Hebrews 12:18-29 + Luke 13:10-17
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (Heb. 12:18-19)
Here, in typical apocalyptic fashion, the pastor of Hebrews writes to his congregation of the unapproachable transcendence of God whose presence is hidden by fire and darkness and gloom; whose coming is hailed by heavenly trumpets, and the sound of whose voice is so devastating as to induce fear and panic among all who hear it.
Although clearly harkening back to the epiphany of YHWH on Mount Sinai where even Moses is described as “full of fear,” as he enters the dark cloud of God’s presence, the pastor of Hebrews will not leave us there. His whole point is to contrast the terror of the Sinai epiphany with quiet gentle presence of God, known as the Shekinah, dwelling in the Temple on Mount Zion.
Sinai, in which only Moses “with fear and trembling” dared to enter the presence of God…and Zion, the place of the Holy Temple, where Christ leads us to the Shekinah, as “pioneer, High Priest, and Mediator of the New Covenant” (G. Cockerill, NICNT: The Letter to the Hebrews, 644). Together these mountains capture what Rudolf Otto famously called the “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” The Mystery, that is at once fearful and fascinating.
But whether fearful or fascinating, whether apocalyptic fanfare or the silent Shekinah of the Temple; by whatever name or description, we all long to touch the Divine; that Horizon that will forever elude us, transcend us, and evade us.
But while it is impossible that the finite should ever reach the infinite, that the temporal should ever grasp the Eternal; the gospel assures us that God has indeed transgressed the boundaries between heaven and earth, and stooped low to touch us, to hold us, to heal us, if only we open our hearts to that “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”
Indeed, we all long to be touched by the divine, healed of those deep wounds that life inevitably inflicts: griefs and regrets, injuries and estrangements, incalculable losses, and all the ties that bind us from living freely and fully.
Whether consciously or not, we are all reaching for something beyond, something that will raise us from the muck and the turmoil and the conflict and complexities in which we find ourselves unwittingly quagmired. Whether we perceive it as interior tranquility, ultimate fulfillment, unity with all things, or a pervasive sense of love – there is but a constant, persistent, nagging emptiness that rushes in to fill in the void of its absence. The enthusiasm of our youth fades into a gnawing and pervasive disillusionment. The optimism of the first half of life becomes calcified in the pessimism of the second half. The openness of our once innocent heart becomes fortressed and jaded by a lifetime of disappointments.
I am reminded of an incident that took place probably some thirteen or more years ago. It was late September. Fernando and I were in Petaluma spending a quiet afternoon with extended family. My nephew, Asher, now in Junior High School, was, at the time, still small enough to sit atop my shoulders for one of his much-loved piggy-back rides.
As the sun set quietly beneath the horizon, the afterglow still shone bright along the western sky as the pale blue dome above slowly gave way to deeper hues of indigo. As we milled about outside the home of my in-laws, I spied from the corner of my eye what at first I took for an exceptionally bright street lamp on the far end of the adjacent neighborhood block. Almost instinctively I turned my gaze in its direction to the sudden realization that the light was no artificial lamp, but the rising of the Harvest Moon, yellow, bordering on orange, and larger than life, she was making her silent ascent into an ever-darkening sky.
Now, looming large and vibrant against the foreground of the suburban homes that lined our streets, I looked down at Asher who had been tugging at my pocket for another piggy-back ride, and found myself exclaiming in an unnecessarily exaggerated fashion – as we often do with small children: Mira la luna, Asher! Mira la luna!
Despite his Mexican heritage he had no idea what I was saying! “Look at the moon!” I repeated, no less emphatically, but now in English. Everyone had now turned their gaze toward this brilliant celestial light show: “Mira la luna!” They began to echo back, more for the sake of exciting the kids than anything else.
No longer tugging at me, Asher now stood, awed and incapable of grasping what it was he saw floating above the horizon. I stared down at him, enjoying his childlike innocence as his cognitive wheels began to churn. Then with eyes as wide as the moon itself, he suddenly looked up at me with wonder and excitement betraying his inner thoughts with one simple word: “Ball!”
He now frantically began to pull at my belt trying to hoist himself upon my shoulders again. I realized in his excitement that he thought the moon was a ball and he had every intention of catching it. Without missing a beat, I reached down, hoisted him up, and sat him square across the back of my neck. I grabbed hold of his ankles as they dangled wildly in front of my chest. Clutching my hair with one hand as if it were a horse mane, he began waving the other as if to urge me on toward to the moon itself.
“Ball!” he screamed repeatedly with all the excitement a 3-year-old could muster: “Ball!” he said, again and again. Taking his lead, I bolted off down the sidewalk toward the rising moon with Asher kicking my chest eager for me run faster than my legs could carry me, all while waving his arms frantically in his futile attempts to catch for the biggest ball he had ever seen. As other members of the family followed after, we ran the better part of two blocks shouting the constant refrain, “Mira la luna!” while Asher eagerly and defiantly shouted back, “Ball! Ball!”
At the end of our two-block marathon, all of us were now a bit more winded than when we started, yet no closer to catching “the ball” than when we had first begun. Admitting our defeat, we had to come clean. “It’s not a ball, Asher…and you cannot touch it, or grab it, or catch it.” It’s the moon, la luna. And it is far, very far away from Earth. “Bring here!” he demanded innocently. “We can’t” I finally conceded. “It is far beyond our reach.” His disappointment and frustration were palpable.
In time, of course, he got over it, and would no doubt find the humor in what then, was for him, a tragedy. But Asher’s encounter with the Harvest Moon that evening strikes me as an apt metaphor for exactly the type of experiences that over time shut us down if we let them.
There are some, and we all know the type, who never get over it. Those who, because of life’s disappointments, become so myopic, so turned in on themselves, so jaded and calloused and bitter because they have never allowed themselves to be touched by the divine.
I wonder, indeed, if the head of the synagogue from today’s gospel was not such a person. One for whom compassion was superseded by rules and regulations and laws because that’s all that remains after a lifetime of grasping in vain for the God of Sinai, all the while missing God’s gentle touch in the silence of the Shekinah. In the Holy of Holies at the core of one’s heart.
By contrast, the woman in the gospel today understood something of the liberation that comes from being touched by the divine. Indeed, it is her ailment that made her receptive, desperate even, while the rules and regulations to tightly held by the rabbi left no room for God to do something new. But after years of being crippled, “bound by Satan” as the gospel tells us, unable to stand upright for 18 years, the woman in today’s gospel is now summoned by the divine, “Woman you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus proclaims, as he gently lays his hands upon her: The very touch of God healing her broken body.
Unable to recognize the good in what Jesus had done, the head of the synagogue, now grown myopic and stingy, and no doubt jealous of Jesus’ charisma, is unable to see a broken body healed for the glory of God, but only broken rules, which, in his indignation, becomes nothing more than an offense against God. Accusations fly as the head of the synagogue attempts (in vain) to incite the crowd against Jesus. But as our young recently visiting poet, Lily Greenberg, taught me, “Jesus broke rules like he broke bread” – and both with the same loving intention: to heal, to nurture, to restore, to liberate.
Reminding his opponents of the compassion they show even to their animals on the sabbath – untying them so as to lead them to water – Jesus points out (to the admiration of all) that religion is nothing if not compassionate. Religion is nothing if it does not facilitate the very touch of the divine in our hearts. Luke observes at the close of the narrative, “all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that [Jesus] was doing.”
It is worth pondering whether his opponents in this narrative ever allowed themselves to be touched by the Divine, or if they would forever trade that immediacy, indeed that intimacy, for the sake of their stingy rules and regulations. Trade their desire to be compassionate with their need to be right.
Perhaps we are all a lot like Asher, longing in our innocence to touch the divine. Longing to grasp that which will forever transcend us. And unable to perceive the vastness, the beauty the transcendence, we reduce God instead to something we can catch and possess, who is governed by rules and regulations of our own making, but who in the end turns out to be nothing more than a mirage, a figment of our imagination, a heavenly celestial body reduced to a little ball we can grasp in the palm of our hand.
What is it then you are grasping for? What continues to elude you? What is the desire beneath all your desires? No matter what you call it or how you name it, it’s all the same. And while you can never grasp it, while it will always mark the horizon that recedes as quickly as you advance, it has indeed already taken hold of you, touched you, embraced you. Whether we encounter it with the awe and trepidation of Sinai, or the peaceful tranquility of Zion, it is a holy encounter, a divine touch, an eternal embrace, we name simply: Christ.
And may that Christ touch you and heal you and embrace you + in the Name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.