Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In Our Image and Likeness

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Atheists often claim that man has made God in his own image, and not vice versa. Although we may disagree with the basic premise that God is merely a figment of our imagination, there is no denial that many actually do have a tendency to project their beliefs onto God, making their view of God a picture that is indeed an image of them. Most of us would certainly deny that we fall into this category. But as one author noted, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” We can also assume that we’ve made God in our image our likeness when He so conveniently seems to agree with whatever plans we have. I am perpetually bemused by people who know exactly what God thinks and are immensely comforted by the discovery that God thinks just exactly the way they do. We have made God into something that fits in best with our own self-reasoning - the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Our penchant for reinventing the Invisible Deity doesn’t stop here. We are also pretty good and have the habit of reinventing the Incarnated Word, Jesus, and reinterpreting his message to suit our cause and selfish needs. The re-envisioning or royal makeover of Jesus is most obvious when it violates actual historical fact. Anti-establishment proponents would often portray Jesus as a radical revolutionary whose sole mission is to resist and overturn the status quo. Feminist theologians would see him as a woman empowering religious leader whose mission and message eventually got hijacked by a misogynist chauvinistic Church.  Those who deny the existence of sinful lifestyles would clearly want to believe in a Jesus who is a feel-good, law-breaking, permissively liberal, politically correct, non-judgmental Messiah. Not surprisingly, most of these “Jesus-es” look much like the Christians promoting them. When Jesus set forth the rules in the New Testament, one thing was certain: being a Christian is tough. He definitely raised the bar. Yet, in spite of our best efforts to domesticate God and win Him over to our cause, God still continues to surprise us by not conforming to our usual expectations of Him.

In today’s first reading, we read of Elijah’s surprising encounter with God on Mount Horeb. The text obviously wishes for us to compare Elijah with Moses, thus the experience on Horeb mirrors that on Sinai (of course, it would be good to know that Horeb and Sinai are two variant names for the same mountain). While Moses had been called by God to Sinai to receive the law and to mediate the covenant with his people, Elijah fled to Horeb to bemoan the fact that his people had shamelessly violated the Law and had broken that very same covenant. Both Moses’ and Elijah’s experiences contained a time factor of forty days, a crevice in a rock and the standard properties for a theophany – thunder, earthquake, wind and so on. But the similarities end here. Indeed, the revelation of God to Elijah assumed an entirely new mode of communication altogether. Though there was the usual accompanying cataclysmic signs of a theophany: thunder, lightning, earthquake, fire, gushing wind; Elijah would not find the Lord in any of these. Rather, only in the tiny whispering sound was the Lord truly present. No longer would the cries of nature speak for the Lord. But with Elijah and through those who would, like him, be his prophets, the Lord would speak in the small, still silence of private inspiration.

So, does God speak with a loud thundering voice or in a breath of silence? I believe people who wish to come to a clear unambiguous conclusion would be missing the point. It’s never a choice between one or the other. God often chooses to speak outside of our familiar categories, where we would least expect Him to appear. If we were to imagine God coming to us in moments of consolation, we may actually miss the opportunity to discover him in desolation. If we are only able to see God in a favourable situation where blessings are apparent, would we be able to recognise him when he decided to appear in a troubling crisis, that seems to be a curse? When we create God into our own image He becomes a predictable and an easy-to-figure-out deity in our finite and fallible imaginations. Today, we have made God into a personification of something that is very palatable and "feels good." We constantly worship a God who will not allow bad things to happen to me nor condemn my chosen lifestyle, a God who will bless me with material riches and success, a God who will accept me unconditionally and not judge me. Yes, we have reinvented God into our image and our own carnality.

Together with the gospel story of mistaken identity, that is Jesus being mistaken for a ghost, the first reading and the gospel provide important lessons for our spiritual lives:

First, we must come to God on his terms and not ours. It takes humility to recognise and admit this. Instead of demanding that God meets our expectations, instead of reinventing God to fit into our little agenda, our relationship with him demands that we are prepared to not only be surprised by Him but also to be transformed by Him. It is God who sets the rules, draws up the plans, gives the direction, and tell us what we need to do. We need to allow God to be God and resist the temptation to make him conform to our image and likeness.

Second, mystery must always characterise our relationship with God. Mystery invites us to come before Him in reverential awe. It is the absence of mystery that leads to contemptuous familiarity. Today we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than in Christian antiquity. Our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved. And thus the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Mystery is that which opens up the temporal meaning of an event and gives it depth. Mystery allows us a glimpse of the invisible, though remaining invisible. It is a sort of revelation, of unveiling. Because of this, mystery should be savoured, respected, and appreciated.

Third, we are invited and challenged to not just embrace the revelation of God but to go beyond the comfortable, the familiar and tested. We are challenged to take risk with God. Often, we want to play it safe, thus relying on our personal strengths and known resources. Just as Jesus invited Peter to come to him over the water, Jesus also invites each of us to take risks when it comes to matters of faith. To trust in his abundant providence rather than on our scarce and limited resources.

That’s what makes the Incarnation both redemptive yet dangerous. On the one hand, God came near. He took on the frailty of human nature, making possible an unprecedented intimacy between Him and us. But there is also something dangerous about the Incarnation. The same humanity that enables intimacy can also become idolatry of the self. Each of us can recognise some aspect of our own humanity in Jesus Christ—and that is good news!—but we can just as easily fixate on that reflection and exalt it inordinately. When this happens, we are no longer looking at the complete person of Jesus, but only a mirror of ourselves. The beauty of the Incarnation is that Jesus resembles all of us while resembling none of us. That tension is the secret to really knowing Jesus. So the key to salvation is always to make our humanity into His, to conform our will to His and through Him be united with the Father’s will, to be so utterly transformed as to become another Christ; rather than to make His humanity into our own image.

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