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The God of Particulars Who seeks to dwell with us

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

"Our God is not an abstract, remote God who cares little about the world, or who takes a back-seat approach. Far from it. He is intimately involved."

[The following post is based on a morning reflection I gave to a group of young people travelling on the Brentwood Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes in July of 2015. The reflection was given on the morning of the Blessed Sacrament Procession.]

[Exodus 40:16-21,34-38]

Moses did exactly as the Lord had directed him. The tabernacle was set up on the first day of the first month in the second year. Moses erected the tabernacle. He fixed the sockets for it, put up its frames, put its crossbars in position, set up its posts. He spread the tent over the tabernacle and on top of this the covering for the tent, as the Lord had directed Moses. He took the Testimony and placed it inside the ark. He set the shafts to the ark and placed the throne of mercy on it. He brought the ark into the tabernacle and put the screening veil in place; thus he screened the ark of the Lord, as the Lord had directed Moses.

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the cloud that rested on it and because of the glory of the Lord that filled the tabernacle.

At every stage of their journey, whenever the cloud rose from the tabernacle the sons of Israel would resume their march. If the cloud did not rise, they waited and would not march until it did. For the cloud of the Lord rested on the tabernacle by day, and a fire shone within the cloud by night, for all the House of Israel to see. And so it was for every stage of their journey.

The Church offers to us in the Mass today a reading from the Book of Exodus. We read that ‘Moses did exactly as the Lord had directed him’, namely, to erect the tabernacle. Moses is given precise details of how the tabernacle is to be built, from the sockets, frames, crossbars, and the tent to cover it. God chose a particular man—Moses—for a particular task—to build the tabernacle—and required particular items in a particular arrangement. What we learn is that the God of Israel—our God—is not some remote presence of mysterious spiritual soup or ‘goo’, out there, somewhere. No. He is interested in what happens in our world. His interest manifests itself as His being involved with the world, with His creatures. Not only does He call a people—Israel—together, He is also at ease with calling particular persons for particular purposes, in this case the person of Moses. He interacts and speaks with him; God makes Himself present in a particular way to this particular man.

Moses’ task here was to construct a visible reminder for the People of Israel of God’s immanence. The tabernacle was to serve as a reminder of His dwelling among the people. God was not content with being seen as utterly other so as to appear distant and removed from His people; rather, he wished for them to know that He was close to them wherever they were to journey to.

We are told that the Divine Presence, which filled the tabernacle, was too overwhelming for Moses to approach; in a sense he and the people were not yet ready to fully encounter the Lord. There’s no mistaking God’s wanting to be close to His people—He wanted Moses to construct a dwelling place for Himself; yet Moses and the people were not quite ready spiritually for the intimacy which He wished for them to have with Himself. God was still preparing them. The tabernacle was a prefigurement of what was to come.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God’s relationship with humanity became more intimate. Taking to Himself a human nature, He dwelt among His people in a way which can still seem jarring to many; for non-believers the Incarnation can often be the stumbling block to faith. On one level it is so completely mad that the ineffable God could—let alone would want to—take to Himself a human nature; and yet on another level, if we look at the Old Testament as God progressively drawing humanity closer and closer to Himself, communicating something of Himself to particular characters, then forming a people around particular laws He decreed for them, perhaps then we shouldn’t be surprised that His love was capable of bridging that seemingly great gulf between Himself and ourselves. Jesus was very much the living, walking, breathing tabernacle, not only journeying with His people, but also drawing peoples toward Himself.

God deigned not to dwell among His people as some sort of immortal human being who would never suffer the fate of death; rather he deemed it fitting to die as all of us will, though in a manner which all of us, God willing, would never have to experience. 

And yet death would not be the end of Him, nor mark an end to His being intimately close to us. In a way only God can be, He was one step ahead. It was all planned out. Before Jesus died He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Jesus, knowing that His earthly life was to come to a end with the crucifixion, wanted to assure His disciples that He would remain with them and us, their successors through faith. Not only would God remain with us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but also through particular means which we call Sacraments. The Eucharist was one of these means, and the greatest of all. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ. You might be thinking, 'Well it's only a metaphor, because what I see and eat at Mass is bread'. In a sense you are right. What you taste is bread. However what your senses detect does not match the reality of what is actually on the altar and what you receive in Holy Communion. We can use an (albeit imperfect) analogy here. Think of a star. It is potentially billions of light years away and so it takes time for the light to reach us here on earth. What we see is in fact the light from the star from a previous time. It could be that the star you see this evening is in fact dead, that it exploded and now ceases to exist, and yet what your eye sees is a beautiful shining star. What your senses detect doesn't match reality. This is the same with the Eucharist, or the Blessed Sacrament by another name. Your senses say 'Bread' but in fact what you should be saying is 'Jesus, my Lord and my God’. God now comes to each of us individually to dwell in us. Stop and ponder on that fact for a moment. God comes to each of us individually to dwell in us. I do not think it would be out of place to say that each of us experiences Jesus in a much more intimate way than the people who lived during the earthly ministry of Jesus. The God whose presence dwelt in the Tabernacle constructed by Moses, and who took to Himself a nature and became the man Jesus, now becomes food for us in the Eucharist. Generally when we eat, our food becomes a part of us: our body absorbs the nutrients contained in the food. When we eat the Eucharist, what actually happens is that we become more closely united to God: we become more intimately a part of His body. This is an incredible event. Let us never forget this when we receive Holy Communion.

This afternoon we will have the Blessed Sacrament Procession, which almost ten years ago now for me was the first time I realised that the Eucharist was more than just a piece of bread. I began to realise God was really and truly present in the Eucharist. For those of you who do not know, the Blessed Sacrament Procession is when we walk together with Jesus present to us under the appearance of bread in a precious vessel called a ‘monstrance’. You will hear trumpets sounding at the beginning of the procession and the chanting of songs of praise to God. None of this would be appropriate if we were just walking around with a piece of bread. Remember, what our senses detect in this instance doesn't match the fullness of reality. We detect the fullness of reality through faith, trusting Jesus when He took bread and said to His disciples, 'This is my body given up for you’. We will process with Jesus who is calling each of us as particular persons whom He cherishes and holds in existence by love, to follow Him. He calls us not only to imitate how He lived on earth, but He calls us more deeply to share the life He lives as God. When we walk this afternoon we are reminded that we are on pilgrimage on this earth to our final destination: eternal life with God. When we look at the host as incense is offered and songs are sung, we remember that Jesus has given us food for this journey: His very body and blood. This food will draw us closer to Him each time we share in His body and blood at Mass. 

So to conclude this reflection, remember that Our God is not an abstract, remote God who cares little about the world, or who takes a back-seat approach. Far from it. He is intimately involved. He is the God who communicates with us as a people united in faith, and as particular individuals. He took a particular interest in Moses and asked him to construct a tabernacle for His presence to dwell. When we process this afternoon, listen to the Lord who calls us to leave all and follow Him. When we go to Mass later this morning, and on every other occasion, God asks each of us as particular individuals whether we will make of ourselves a place for Him to dwell. How will you answer Him?

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham O.P.

Br Joseph Bailham is a deacon working in the parish of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Dominic, London | joseph.bailham@english.op.org


Anonymous commented on 09-Aug-2015 12:40 AM
Excellent and inspiring!
Anonymous commented on 02-Sep-2015 01:25 PM
Beautiful! Thank you.
Anonymous commented on 16-Sep-2015 07:47 PM
The vastness of a creator being has struck me and scared me.
Br Joseph Bailham, O.P. commented on 28-Sep-2015 09:20 PM
In response to: 'The vastness of a creator being has struck me and scared me.'

The thought certainly can instil in us an appropriate degree of holy fear. Fortunately God is not only Creator, but a Creator who is Love. Now that is truly awesome and the cause of much rejoicing and thanksgiving on our part.

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