Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 10, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
In our first reading we have heard of the famous scene in the First Book of Kings in which the prophet Elijah, alone and discouraged, encounters the God of Israel. But this encounter is not like earlier ones, particularly the encounter between Israel and God at Mt. Sinai, where smoke and fire, earthquake and thunder, announce the presence of God. As Elijah stood before God, there was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; there was fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Instead there comes “a tiny whispering sound,” as our translation has it. “A still small voice” is an older translation. One scholar thinks it should be rendered “a fine sound of silence,” the paradox of a silent sound, an audible silence, being deliberate. Here, we are given to understand, is where the Lord was to be heard.
The passage can lead us to reflect on the various images of God that we meet with in the Scriptures. I don’t suppose that anyone has ever counted all the images that are used in the sacred books. Just from the first fifty Psalms, we find God prayed to as king, as shield, as warrior, as a fortified castle, as a rock, as shepherd, as light, as a flowing stream, and this is not to mention the images implied in the pleas for help and rescue uttered by the Psalmist. And the number and variety of images became even greater in the Gospels–think of all the images used or implied in the parables of Jesus–, in other New Testament books, and in the course of the Christian centuries. St. Augustine, for example, began a tradition within Christian spirituality of speaking of five inner senses corresponding to our five external senses. He developed the theme by saying that to the eyes of the heart the Lord is light, to the ears of the heart he is music, to the heart’s sense of smell he is a delightful aroma. We can all “taste and see how good is the Lord” because our hearts experience an inner hunger of their own, for which Christ is the bread of life, and an inner thirst for which he is an unfailing spring of fresh water.
I mention these things for two reasons. First, so that you might give some thought to the image of God that means most to you, that comes most spontaneously to mind when you hear the word “God”. This may be a biblical image; it may be one classic in Christian spirituality; it may be one that you have encountered elsewhere; it may be one that came from your own depths. But who, what, is your God? What images convey your own desire for God, your need of him? What do you need God to be for you? What feelings does one image or another evoke in you? Is it joy? Fear? Love? And, in turn, what images of God do your feelings elicit?
Second, the Scriptures and Tradition offer us a variety of images for two reasons also: so that we will not allow anyone of them so to dominate our minds and hearts that we overlook or forget the truth that is expressed in other images. This is perhaps especially necessary when the image is one that we have devised ourselves; it must always be put to the test of the biblical images. But secondly it is almost certain that in the course of our lives images of God will succeed one another as we mature personally and grow in the Christian life, or because of the various experiences that define our lives: triumph and failure, joy and sorrow, sin and repentance, strength and illness, love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, life and death. People familiar with the Psalms often find that a Psalm that they might have heard or prayed for years and decades suddenly is not just words on a page or in a hymnbook but comes alive as the expression of their own heart’s deepest emotions.
As you may know, Jews and Muslims are forbidden to make any visible image of God. Perhaps the reason for the prohibition is the danger that God will become identified with one particular image, which will then become like an idol. No single image, as also no single concept, exhausts the reality of God; one may express some dimension of his mystery that another does not. All of the images are necessary because God infinitely transcends any and all of them.
Christians have broken with that tradition, however, and for one simple reason: because we believe that the God who cannot be seen has made himself visible in Jesus Christ. “He who sees me,” said Jesus, “sees the Father.” Christ,” St. Paul said, “is the image of the invisible God.” The Incarnation overturns the prohibition against images. If anyone asks us, “What is your God like?”, we may, we must answer, “Our God is like Jesus Christ.” Not, of course, in any physical sense–God remains invisible–but in the sense that we could say, “Our God talks like Jesus Christ, loves like Jesus Christ, acts like Jesus Christ, calls like Jesus Christ, welcomes like Jesus Christ, rejoices like Jesus Christ, suffers like Jesus Christ, forgives like Jesus Christ, loves like Jesus Christ.” Here, in the end, is where we find the Image of all images of God, the supreme expression of who God is, the norm by which all other images are to be measured. Our God is like Jesus Christ.