TRULY YOU ARE A GOD WHO CONCEALS HIMSELF, O GOD OF ISRAEL, SAVIOR.


26TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR: CHAPTER



TRULY YOU ARE A GOD WHO CONCEALS HIMSELF, O GOD OF ISRAEL,SAVIOR (Isaiah 45: 15). How mysterious that a prophet, and one of the greatest, should describe God as hiding himself when God has raised him up precisely in order to make himself known through His interpreter and witness. This saying is all the more mysterious when we read it in its immediate context which speaks of the conversion of the Egyptians, the Ethiopians and Sabeans to the God of Israel. The prophet depicts them as casting themselves down in worship and saying to Israel in prayer: "In you is God and there is no other but God." It is of this great God whom they will acknowledge as evidently the one real Lord of all of whom Isaiah says He conceals himself.

One of the fundamental characteristics of the Bible is its way of depicting God as present and active in the world, and yet hiding himself in the obscurity of His infinity. He condescends to reveal Himself to human persons, and yet remains decidedly elusive. This is so characteristic of the God of the Hebrew Bible that one of the best students of the Old Testament considers appreciation of this paradox the key to a right interpretation of the Old Testament. "The Elusive God" is the title Samuel Terrien gave to his study. The concept of the Presence of God is more basic than that of Covenant, he is convinced, and accounts more satisfactorily for the character of Jewish religious practice and belief than that of Covenant or indeed of any other subject. When it is combined with what he calls "the integral mutuality of cult and faith", it provides a fresh and illuminating approach to Biblical theology. He further affirms that using this combination of the theology of Presence and the interaction of faith and cultus allows the exegete to arrive at a solution to the problem of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. He states the case in the following terms.

It was a new theology of presence, drawn from the Hebraic complex of cultus and faith, which presided over the emergence of Christianity from Judaism.... For Christians of the first generation, divine reality was mediated no longer through the temple of Jerusalem but through a living reality- the person of the risen Lord. The ancient mode of Hebraic presence was radically transformed by the experience of the resurrection.... Stephen and Paul developed a theology of presence in which the temple ideology was applied to the spiritual body of the risen Jesus and thus, to the church (p. 5).
The revelation to Moses at Sinai features the hiddenness of God as well as His presence. When he was told to depart from Sinai where he had spoken with God in the cloud, Moses, fearing to be left on his own, prayed that he might know God in himself through learning his ways: "Please, let me know thy ways that I may know you (Exodus 33:13)." As Terrien observes:
Presence and the risk of losing its comfort combine within the human spirit to create the need for religious knowledge. Presence is the begetter of theology . The all-demanding desire of Moses is "to know" God.

By asking to know God's ways in order to know God himself, the human contender speaks as a theologian of the name. The ways of God are the signs of his purpose. They represent his creative will. At this moment of the encounter, Moses discerns that the only knowledge of God that is accessible to his human finiteness is an acquaintance with divine presence in history. (op. cit, 140). Interestingly, Moses receives only an indirect reply to this ardent prayer. Without stating explicitly that He will not disclose his nature in its essence, God gives a refusal in the form of a consoling reply that evades the specific request: he will accompany Moses on the way. His presence shall remain with him. "And [God] said: My face (that is, my presence) will go and I will put you at rest." This first prayer was followed by a more insistent plea: "Pray, let me see your glory (33:18)." In reply the Lord gives a direct refusal, but softens it with a vision better suited to his prophet's human limitations than the direct sight of divine glory: "And he said you cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live... you shall see my back, but my face you shall not see (33: 20, 23)." Here God equates his face with his glory. The back of God, contrasted here with his face, refers to his goodness. In this passage, which is the product of an earlier stage of theology, glory and name are presented in sharp contrast. Eventually, however, the priests of Jerusalem evolved a theology that saw no conflict between the name and God's glory: each, they came to believe, is a form of God's presence and so they used the two interchangeably. While God's face directly reflects his glory, and so must remain invisible to mortals, his back symbolizes his goodness which can be seen in creation and history. Above all, God's goodness is displayed in his fidelity to the promises made to his chosen people.

This theology of presence deeply impressed the Lord Jesus and his followers. The evangelists and St. Paul did not discard it as if it were too bound up with the old covenant which was surpassed by the New, established by Jesus in his blood. They saw that stressing God's presence in Jesus lent itself more fittingly to account for the natures of Jesus as divine and human than did the title of Messiah. This latter title, because of its associations with political and military glory, was ambiguous and something of an embarrassment. This appears in all the evangelists, and is evident in Mark's Gospel especially. For John, as we read in his Prologue, Jesus is the Word who is God. He became flesh and so was present and lived among us. This allowed John and his companions, he goes on to say, "to see his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." But it was only those with faith and who worshiped the Lord who saw his glory.

While the Word revealed the Father upon becoming man, yet his divine nature remained hidden to the many. It was revealed only to those whose eyes were opened by faith. This is made evident first at Tabor to the three chosen apostles, later, after the resurrection, to specially designated witnesses, including several holy women.

The church was established by Christ before the Ascension of Jesus in its essentials. But it developed and grew, not simply because of the memory of Jesus who had once been present as man in the flesh, but due to the church's firm faith that Jesus continues to live in glory at the right hand of the Father, and that he will surely come again to gather his faithful to himself and bring them to the Father. Thus the Lord remains present and active in the midst of the church, but at the same time, hidden except to the eyes that are opened by a lively faith.

St. Paul understood well that even in his lifetime, and especially in his passion and death, Jesus, though divine, was a hidden God. His very incarnation was a divesting of his glory. This glory was hidden in the name of Jesus as the apostle proclaimed in his Epistle to the Philippians where he tells us "he emptied himself and took the form of a slave and he assumed the likeness of man. Appearing in the fashion of a man, he became destitute, and he became obedient even unto death on a cross." Though the divine was hidden in the Lord's lowly estate, yet, as this hymn goes on to affirm, "God has greatly exalted him and given him a name which is above every other name..." If Paul stresses the meaning of the name and of the glory it is in the context of establishing a profound unity of heart and mind in the community of believers. The verses immediately preceding this hymn state his purpose emphatically:

Fill up my joy so that you all have one mind and the same charity, being united in soul and sharing the same concerns. Do nothing from contentiousness or vain glory; rather in humility consider others better than oneself. Do not look to your own interests but each to those of others (2: 2- 4).
St. Benedict As if taking his clue from this association between humility and the obscure presence of the Lord, St. Benedict, in the chapter of his Rule that he devotes to humility, indicates, in his treatment of the first step of humility, the role of God's presence in acquiring that virtue.
Let a man consider that he is always being looked upon by God every hour And that his deeds are viewed by the sight of the Divinity in every place and reported hourly by the angels. The prophet indicates this to us when he shows that God is always present in our thoughts in this way, by his words: "God examines the heart and the kidneys (Ps. 7). And again: "God knows the thoughts of men that they are vain (Ps. 93)."
Benedict is particularly concerned to emphasize this divine presence at the divine office. He opens the chapter on the topic of the Office with this theme of the hidden presence.
We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord observe the good and the evil in every place, but above all we believe this to be the case without any doubt when we take part in the work of God. And so we should always remember what the prophet says: "Serve the Lord with fear." And again"Sing with wisdom." Also: "In the sight of the angels I shall sing to you." Accordingly, we should consider how we are to conduct ourselves in the sight of the divinity and of the angels. Let us so stand and sing that our mind is in harmony with our voice (Ch. 19).
St. Benedict is faithful in this teaching to the spirituality of the apostolic community as well as that of the early church. While it was at the hours of the office that Christians were more aware of the Lord's presence, the Lord's living presence was especially experienced at the celebration of the Lord's supper. This rite was performed in a spirit of joyful anticipation of the Lord's coming in the near future in the earliest time of the Church and so, as we see from the Didache, included in the celebration was the joyful exhortation "Maran atha" ("Come, Lord Jesus"). At the same time, this presence was, in a sense, doubly hidden in that the bread and wine concealed the living, but invisible glorified body of the Lord, even while its consecration caused him to be present in a more focused manner. St Thomas Aquinas expressed this feature of the Eucharist very well in the third stanza of his great hymn, Pange lingua:
The Word who is flesh/ made true bread become flesh by the word/ and wine became the blood of Christ / and if the senses fail/ faith alone suffices/ to strengthen the sincere heart.
The Syriac Church was keenly sensitive to the mysteries (raze, in Syriac) of the Bible which reveal those hidden realities concerning God and divine matters that are within the range of human capacity to grasp. These mysteries derive their significance from the fact that they disclose something of the person and role of Christ; at times, according to Fr. Sidney Griffith, they even embody Christ, as we see is the case of the Eucharistic sacrament. (I follow his thought here as found in his article "Spirit in the Bread; Fire in the Wine" Modern Theology 15 (1999), 228 ff).

St. Ephrem is surely the author who best illustrates this approach to Scripture. He has a very considerable body of writing that treats of the Eucharist. He refers to this sacrament under the term Qurbana, which means sacrifice or offering. Ephrem refers to this mystery as "the medi cine of life" and recommends it be taken every day, not just on Sundays or special occasions. This offering is not only a communion with the Lord, it is also a sacrifice. The Last Supper is closely connected with the sacrificial death on Calvary in Ephrem's thought. This point needs to be made today since so many Christians, especially Protestants, do not maintain this connection, nor do they hold that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. Ephrem's words, on the contrary, are a clear affirmation of this truth which Catholic tradition has faithfully preserved.

He (Jesus) broke the bread with his own hands in token of the sacrifice of his body. He mixed the cup with his own hands, in token of the sacrifice of his blood. He offered up himself in sacrifice, the priest of our atonement.

The Eucharist is given from the motive of love for the Church and all its members, Ephrem teaches: "And since he loved his church very much, he did not give her the Manna of her rival [that is, the Jewish Pascha]- he became himself the living bread for her to eat." Ephrem has no doubt that in the Eucharist the historical body of Christ, now glorified, is present. Thus he is a prominent witness to this Catholic belief from the Syriac community that was culturally so well placed to understand and transmit the teachings and practices of the apostles. In our times, when the truth of the real presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist, so central to the Catholic faith has been obscured for a majority of those who identify themselves as Catholic in this country, this witness of Ephrem, dating from the three hundreds, is more than ever pertinent to stress. This divine presence is effected, he writes, by the action of the same Holy Spirit who overshad owed Mary at the time of the Incarnation.

See, Fire and Spirit were in the womb of her who bore you; see, Fire and Spirit were in the river in which you were baptized. Fire and Spirit are in our baptismal fount; in the Bread and Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit (op. cit., 231).
St. Ephrem's teaching in these matters, as in so many others, was faithfully followed by the Syriac speaking church through the centuries. Like St. Augustine in the Latin church, Ephrem planted the seeds of orthodoxy and oriented the thought and spirituality of his people during succeeding generations. We find an instance of this influence in the Commentary on the Liturgy by the 12th century Syriac writer, Dionysius bar Salibi.
Just as Jesus was seen by the physical eye as man, yet he is also God; similarly the mysteries are seen outwardly to be bread and wine, but they are in fact the Body and Blood. And although the Spirit makes the mysteries the Body and Blood, they are nevertheless [the Body and Blood] of the Son. It is like what was done in the virgin; although the Spirit embodied the Son, it was nevertheless the Son who was embodied.
The role of the Spirit in the consecration of the bread which is stressed here by the 12th century author, is likewise given a prominence in Ephrem's doctrine. He speaks of the Spirit being "kneaded into bread and so it becomes the sacrifice." This Spirit, he tells us, is symbolized by fire, as we saw in the text above where he states that "Fire and Spirit are in our baptismal fount; in the Bread and Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit". As a result of the epiclisis that calls down the Spirit upon the offering, the pieces of bread in a number of Syriac texts are called "gmuratha", that is, "embers" or burning coals". Ephrem in one of his Hymn on Faith speaks of the coal taken from the heavenly altar by the Seraph and touched to Isaiah's lips as symbolic of the consecrated particles.
The Seraph could not touch the fire's coal with his fingers, the coal only just touched Isaiah's mouth: the Seraph did not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it, but us our Lord has allowed to do both!... The new miracle is that our mighty Lord has given to bodily man Fire and Spirit to eat and to drink (Griffith, op. cit., 232, 233).
The Eucharist as Ephrem understood it rendered Christ visible and easy of access to those with faith, as his birth from Mary made him physically accessible to his contemporaries. He stated this belief in another poem.
Let bread depict you,/ the mind too./ Dwell in the bread/ and in those who eat it./ In the visible and the invisible/ your church will see you/ just as your mother does (op.cit., 234).

That God is present and active in our world is as true today as it was in Ephrem's time. However, the modern sensibility is much less sensitive to images and symbols which played so large a role in the society in which Jesus first preached the Gospel and in the closely related Syriac culture in which Ephrem was formed. We are favored in our spiritual search for the God who is present yet hides himself by our Cistercian spirituality with its Benedictine heritage of Scripture reading, Patristic study and life lived in the countryside where we are more exposed to the changing seasons and the alternations of nature. Sensitivity to the mysteries of nature and to the imagery of Scripture, the symbolism employed so largely by the early Fathers and the Cistercians of the middle ages can be cultivated and enhanced by meditative practice and by heeding the mysteries of the world that surrounds us. Above all by attentiveness to the elusive Presence of our Lord who has called us to walk with him day by day, we are gradually transformed into the image of him who accompanies us all along the way, active within us by hiding himself to bodily eyes. May we persevere in this work of the heart until we reach the end of our journey in this world, and enter, into that world where the glorious presence of the Father of lights will forever be visible to those who belong to him in his divine Son.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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