The Absent God – Introibo ad altare Dei

jonahaltar

Children in Church have a marvelous innocence – one that often sees past the barriers which we adults erect in our own ignorance. One of the children in my Church, young daughter of a Catechumen, has what I can only describe as a “devotion” to me as priest. I’ve never questioned her to see precisely who she thinks I am (some children, early-on, can make the mistake of thinking that the priest is God). Recently I missed a Sunday liturgy on account of sickness. My second priest presided at the service. This dear child, unbeknownst to everyone else, was eagerly watching the altar for any sign of my presence. When the service was over and there was no Father Stephen coming out of the altar, she began to cry. That was when her mother discovered she had been looking for me all morning.

The other day the child pointed to the altar and said, “That’s where you live.” I was at a loss to respond. I could not look at the altar and say, “I do not live there, I only work there,” for the altar is not that sort of place. Indeed I do “live” there, and more fully than I live any other place. But it took a child to point it out to me.

That said, I want to raise the important question of “where does God live?” Of course the question can sound childish, or can easily be answered by saying, “God is everywhere.” God indeed is everywhere, and yet our hearts do burn with the question, “Where is God?” The question can sometimes be all-consuming, especially if the omnipresent God is only theoretically everywhere, but in every practical sense we have no awareness of His presence with us.

The Psalmist prays, “Be not far from me” (22:11).

Christ said to those around him, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).

I have written numerous articles on what I have termed the “two storey universe,” that is, a view of the world in which God dwells in one place (heaven) while we dwell in another (earth). Imagined in various ways, it is something of a hallmark of our secular age – not that we do not believe in God – but we do not find Him to be particularly present in our daily lives. Churches may be exempt from this rule of absence. It also may be true that the idea that God is present everywhere has become such a statement of banality that it is tantamount to saying that the universe is big. To be present everywhere can be as empty as being nowhere.

For the question of God’s presence is far more a question of “how” than it is a question of “where.” How God is present also carries implications for how our world should be seen and understood. If the Kingdom of God is among us, then the world may be quite different than we perceive – indeed, it may be that we are absent in the presence of the present God. Which also raises the question of “how” we are here.

Despite imagery to be found in Scripture that would suggest that “heaven” is somewhere else – Christ’s location of the Kingdom of God affirms otherwise. Christians should not confuse imagery used for one purpose with a statement of geographical literalism.

St. John (of Revelations) says that “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” and begins to relate what he saw. He does not say that he was caught up to some other place – simply that he was “in the Spirit.” St. Paul speaks of being “caught up to the third level of heaven,” but admits that he has no idea whether this occured while he was “in the body or outside of the body.” It is not an experience he could attach to geography, despite the language of being “caught up.”

I had an interesting experience in the Holy Land – one that flows directly from Orthodox theology but occurred in such a manner that it brought me up short. We were standing by the Jordan River, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was celebrating the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters. It is the same service used everywhere in the Church on the feast of the Theophany, but also anytime Holy Water is blessed. It begins, “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there are no words which are sufficient to hymn Thy praises.” I hear the echo of Metropolitan Kallistos’ Oxford accent still ringing in my ears. But at one part of the prayer a specific blessing of the water is invoked, “Send down upon these waters the blessing of Jordan.” This statement has made sense to me everywhere else I have celebrated the blessing of water. But here, standing at the Jordan, we were calling on God to make the Jordan be the Jordan. It is like calling on God to be present.

The Jordan is always the Jordan and God is always and everywhere present, but in the blindness of our heart we consistently reduce the Jordan (and all waters) to just so much water. We reduce the presence of God to an absence. With God it is easy. We can exile Him to some other place we imagine and call it “heaven.” With things like the Jordan, however, we have to remove all significance, any suggestion that there is more to reality than meets the eye. Secularism is not an objective view of reality, but a view of reality as mere object.

This is a very difficult problem if you happen to be part of a Church in which the sacraments play a major role.  Indeed, I would argue that the decreasing role of the sacraments in many Churches is precisely because they have little or no place in a world of “objects.” Their presence is problematic. It is for this reason that many versions of Christianity go to great lengths to explain how the Body and Blood of Christ are not the Body and Blood of Christ, or are only the Body and Blood in some very carefully nuanced sense. It is easier to explain how someone becomes a Christian by making reference to a decision they have made than to make reference to something that involves being immersed in water.

For some, the Incarnation of Christ, His coming among us in the flesh, was for the sole purpose of offering Himself as a sacrifice, a payment, for the sins of the world. Resurrection is job completed, awaiting only the Ascension so that He can go back home and celebrate a successful work here on earth. All that remains is for His followers to market “faith” in Him as a means of enlisting others in eternal life in heaven.

In such approaches there is nothing integral about the Incarnation – nothing revealed in the fact of God made man. It is little wonder that for many Christians the Virgin Mary holds no place of particular honor. By the same token, other saints are themselves only isolated objects of decision – they in no way have a share in the life and work of Christ. In such a world of isolation, Orthodox Christianity is strange indeed.

But it is at such moments that the Orthodox would dare to say that they possess a “fullness,” an understanding and indwelling of the Gospel that is complete. Thus in the Orthodox Church, the world is a “single storey”: “God is with us.” God is not only with us, but is with us as our salvation (in answer to the question “how” is He with us). He sustains all that is and works for the salvation not only of all human beings, but of the entire created order as well.

Thus when we pray for the blessing of Jordan to come down on the Jordan, we are praying for creation to be creation – something more than a self-referential, closed universe. For the world to exist as creation, by its very name is for it to exist by virtue of a Creator. The life of the Church is well described by St. Paul:

For [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:9-10).

Christ Himself is the union of heaven and earth – He is the fullness of time walking among us. In the sacraments we see manifest the union of heaven and earth, the transformation of life from “object” to “creation” and more than creation – the union of created and uncreated.

It is a false life for the Christian to live as an object among objects. It is poor theology to separate the world into “sacred and secular.” We were not created to live as an object but as a person – the very image of God. The world was created for us to inhabit – to live.

I live in an altar. The one at Church reveals itself easily – even to a little girl. But it also reveals the whole world as the altar of God. And if I am to live – then I must learn to live in the abiding presence of the altar of God, who is blessed forever.