Wednesday 30 November 2016

SHADOW: An Ascended Place of Rest

Back in the early 80’s while still a young priest and going through a bout of depression, a friend sent me an article that he found in The Furrow. It was written by a religious sister who had also experienced depression and she trying to find meaning for her experience in relation to God. She wrote something like, “perhaps my gloom is the shadow of His hand caressing me!”

That made sense to me. When we are in darkness on a spiritual, emotional or mental level it can seem that God is absent when, in fact, He is very near, so near that His presence creates shadow or a sense of darkness.

Henry Vaughan wrote in ‘The Night’, “there is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness.” The dramatic experience of the light of Jesus on the road to Damascus left Paul in the dark of blindness for a few days. Moses, in Exodus, “entered into the thick darkness where God was” and in the darkness He met God face to face. Moses encountered the radiance of God in that cloud and emerged from the experience with brightness of God shining on his own face. At the Transfiguration of Jesus the three apostles heard the voice of God in the cloud that covered them with shadow.

 “The sages say that Moses wrote Psalm 91 as he dwelt in the secret place of the Most High God, in the midst of the dark cloud (Exodus 24:18), a place of sacred and holy concealment. The thick clouds are a hiding place for him (Job 22:14). Notice that the one who abides in the secret of the Most High dwells in an ascended place of rest…”

Covered with shadow! It’s a phrase in the Annunciation that I haven’t really paid much attention to. “The power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow”, Mary is told by the angel and this, together with the coming upon her of the Holy Spirit, is how Jesus is conceived.

So, the Annunciation is also an experience of shadow and divine darkness for Mary. She is sustained in the experience by the first words of the angel – “Rejoice you who enjoy God’s favour. The Lord is with you!” – words that foreshadow what the Father spoke to Jesus in His baptism and repeated in the Transfiguration. They are both the “favoured” of the Father, the apple of His eye, beloved. The knowledge of this, the reality of it sustains them through the mission given to them.

In the wisdom of the world, being so favoured, both Mary and Jesus would have lived happily ever after but in divine wisdom they are led as beloved to experience the shadow of the sword piercing the soul, the crucifixion, death before emerging again in resurrection, ascension, assumption into glory.
They are both held in the sacred and holy concealment of the Father, ascended place of rest through the darkness that enfolds their journey on earth. Knowing that in God darkness is not dark and night is as clear as the day (Psalm 139).

In Exodus, when Moses went to the people to tell them that God would deliver them from slavery, they were unable to hear, to accept the message "so crushed was their spirit" (Exodus 6). Some people's darkness is so deep, their hurt so great that they cannot actually believe in God. We know and believe that God is in their darkness and in some way we have to see and believe on their behalf, carry them in our faith. This is part of what it means for us to be the leaven, the light, the salt in the world.

I am into affirmation. I like building people up, helping them feel well about themselves but I discovered that affirmation can backfire. When Katie was born we were so excited that we saw her as the most beautiful creature and for the first two and a half years of her life she was told “you’re the most beautiful girl in the world!” And she knew it! When you’d ask her, “who’s the most beautiful girl in the world?” she would answer “I am!” It’s what she knew.

But when her beautiful sister Laura was born reality began to bite in the cruel way that it can. Laura was brought home and everyone gathered round her declaring to her “you’re the most beautiful girl in the world!” Nobody but me saw the look of shock on Katie’s face. And, being the sensitive soul she is, it hurt her deeply. Possibly still does! Unfettered and ill-considered affirmations need to be accompanied by reality. The Bible is the one place that will speak of favour and darkness in the one breath. In God they are the same reality.

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