Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Advent of our God

... shine forth and let thy light restore
earth's own true loveliness once more.

Last Sunday, when we sang 'On Jordan's Bank', these words leapt out at me—probably due to the Durban climate conference and the ominous ending of the Frozen Planet series.

While it is true that some parts of the earth have been spoiled beyond imagining—the tar sands in Canada, the pollution of the Niger Delta, the industrial sprawl in urban areas, the wasteland (not just sterile earth, but mountains of waste) in far too many developing countries—I don't think the restoration of the physical earth, as desirable as that is, is the focus of these two lines of the hymn.

Rather, it is our attitude that needs enlightening, our eyes that need to be opened, our perspective that needs to be changed so that we see the loveliness inherent to the earth. Such an opening of our eyes would make us recoil in horror at what we have done, undertake to repair the damage, and refuse further despoliation.

Recently I've been playing around with the pre-Socratics, and along the way have looked again at the Greek word logos, which is usually translated as Word in the prologue to the Gospel of John. Perhaps it is translated that way to emphasize the paradox, that the Word in the beginning is silent (God dwells in silence), in a way similar to the opening of Genesis, in a way similar to the name of God in Hebrew Scriptures that is not to be pronounced. The migration of the Word from the silence of God to manifestation on earth also is a way of talking about how language, optimally rooted in, and arising from, continual beholding in the deep mind manifests itself in our self-consciousness as speech without destroying that beholding—the beholding that was, of course, characteristic of our pre-lapsarian life in the Garden of Eden. 'We beheld (theaomai, θεαομαι) his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth'. (John 1:14 KJV)

Elsewhere in this blog we've already talked about behold as the first covenant word (Gen. 1:29), as an exchange of being: God who is beyond being, consents to have his creatures hold him in being in time and space, even as God is holding them in time and eternity. The notion of exchange is intrinsic to beholding. The Prologue of the Gospel of John recapitulates the beholding in the first chapter of Genesis, but it opens further to make explicit what is implicit in Genesis: that it is God's glory in which we share. Perhaps John's Prologue is one of the passages that stimulated Irenaeus to write: 'The glory of God is the human person fully alive, and the glory of the human person is the beholding of God'.

Glory, in Hebrew, has a sense of density; this carries over into the New Testament in Paul's statement about 'the eternal weight of glory' (2Cor 4:17). It is as if we are given not only direct perception but also the ability to see beyond the appearances to the divine radiance itself that we, in beholding, share with God. Our beholding of God imparts to us that radiance, which, if you like, gives added weight (a medieval theologian might say substance) to our being (the mundane image of a star or planet displacing the web of space-time comes to mind). St Benedict's Rule has a thread of this meaning of glory running through it, a thread that is usually ignored in the darker translations of the contemporary age.

But there is another aspect to this glory-bestowing Word which we behold: logos can also be translated as meaning, 'the inward meaning which is expressed in speech, the sense of something, its coherence; orderedness that is both implicate and emergent' [Mark Williams]. It is not unreasonable to think that the author of the gospel is using logos in both senses: it is in the divine exchange of beholding that meaning is given to us, and it is in listening for the Word in deep silence that gives meaning to our speech and enables our two kinds of knowing to work harmoniously together. Equally, the meaning our speech—always fragmentary, a gesture—is enhanced and amplified when it is returned to deep silence to be refined and trans-figured in the direct perception of the glory of God that consents to dwell there. [1]

God truly makes a home with us, to share the divine nature as Word, as Meaning, and as glory.

[1] (See blog post January 9, 2010 or the chapter 'Practical Adoration' in Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding.)


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