Too Brilliant a Darkness (159)

One way to understand a piece of literature is to look for patterns. There are several patterns in the gospel of John. One pattern relates to belief. Someone hears about Jesus, but the hearing is not enough. They need something more. They need some kind of validation. Fake news is not new. One instance like this is found in the very first chapter of John. It involves a man named Nathanael. Nathanael’s friend tells him that he has found the one whom Moses and the prophets were expecting. The expected-one’s name is Jesus. He the son of Joseph and a rabbi from Nazareth. Nathanael is not convinced: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If you’ve ever spent time in Alberta, you may have heard similar misgivings about Ottawa. 

In John 4 a woman meets Jesus. They talk. The woman goes back to her city and shares the news that she has met a man with special insight into her life: “He told me everything I have ever done.” Some believe her. Not all.

Our reading today comes from John 20. Jesus has died, but Mary has seen him since. Our reading (vv. 19-31) is about one of Jesus students named Thomas. Thomas wasn’t in the room the first time Jesus showed up. He didn’t believe the story the others told. He said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails . . . I will not believe.

Good news can be fake news—then and now. A logical question, then, might be this: Does God give us what we need to believe?

Does God give us what we need to believe—in God’s existence? In Jesus’ special anointing? Does God give us what we need to believe in other things we can’t see—in forgiveness, in grace, in love, in the meaning of our lives? Does God give us what we need to believe that continuing on is worth it—taking one more step is worth it, struggling for another day is worth it? Does God give us what we need to believe?

Thomas needed to put his hands in Jesus’ wounds. That was what he needed. What do we need?

* * *

There is a set of mysterious Greek writings from fourth of fifth century that are often read at the beginning of a course on medieval philosophy. One is called “On the Divine Names,” another “The Mystical Theology.” We think these were written in Syria, but we know precious little about the author. The author goes by the name “Dionysius.” This name is an allusion to Acts 17, which tells the story of Paul’s visit to Athens. In Athens Paul had tried to convince the people that the intuitions and hunches they had about God made more sense if they were integrated into the story of God’s revelation through Jesus. That story ends with two names: Damaris and Dionysius. Whoever wrote these texts took up the name Dionysius to suggest he was continuing the tradition of the Jesus story meeting the indigenous philosophy of the Greeks.

The reason you would read these specific texts in a philosophy course is that more than most, this mysterious writer recognized that God is too much.[1] God is too much for words. When we say what God is, we must inevitably go back and undue everything that we have said. God is not exactly that. God is too much. Even when we say that God exists, we must grapple with the fact that God doesn’t exist like other things do.

Pseudo-Dionysius points out that if everything originates in God, than it can all be used to describe God. He is fond of verse 65 of Psalm 78, which describes God as a grouchy, drunk soldier waking up from a nap. Everything can provide us with language to speak of God, but every word, every picture (save one), every analogy falls short. When we encounter God, we encounter something or someone that overflows with meaning. Our words are too small, our analogies are too trivial, our theological sentences always have premature periods.

Imagine that you had a week to peruse the National Gallery here in Ottawa. You stood in awe of a Brian Jungen sculpture. You poured over the work of Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven. You took in paintings done by Monet and Carr. And after a week of this your assignment was simply to sit down and describe—in words—what it was that you saw. You weren’t supposed to describe your experience of the gallery, but the art itself.

What you would find, what we would all find, is that your words would come up short.

This is precisely what Dionysius found about God. God is too much. God is found somewhere beyond knowledge and light in the “brilliant darkness.” Dionysius prays,

Lead us up beyond knowing and light,

Up to the farthest, highest peak

Of mystic scripture

Where the mysteries of God’s word

Lie simple, absolute, unchangeable

In the brilliant darkness of hidden silence.

Like many Christian mystics, Dionysius speaks of finding God in darkness because this was how Moses met God on the mountain. We call this “apophatic theology.” This kind of theology acknowledges that God is so mysterious and so different from what we know that we can speak only of what God is not. Perhaps we speak of God best by saying nothing at all.

In Psalm 133, one of our other assigned readings today, the poet says that living in good community is rich and lavish. It is like expensive oil poured on the body. It is a blessing that can’t be contained. It spills off the hair and runs down the beard. It drenches the body, infusing it with moisture. It fills the air with luxurious aroma. It is too much.

So is God. Too much to see. Too much to absorb. Too much to fit into our little categories of proof and cause. Like putting our nose to a work of art and trying to ‘see’ it, God’s very nearness makes God impossible to describe.

God is too much. God is a brilliant darkness. Being drawn to God is like being led toward “a ray of divine darkness.”

* * *

I recount this bit of the Christian theological tradition in an effort to reset, even just a little, our idea of what it is that we need to believe.

Let’s turn back to John’s gospel. Nathanael, the one to whom Philip told the news about Jesus, eventually meets Jesus himself. It happens just a few verses after Nathanael disses Jesus’ hometown. Jesus, then, tells Nathanial that he saw him under a fig tree earlier in the day. Nathanael is amazed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!”

In John 4, the Samaritan folks to whom the woman spoke of Jesus, eventually hear Jesus for themselves. They say, “we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

In John 20, a week after the first encounter between the no-longer-dead Jesus and his disciples, Thomas is with the group. All at once Jesus shows up. He offers his hands and side to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas’s responds in almost 21st century idiom: “My God” or more specifically, “My Lord and my God!”

In each of these three situations the question wasn’t whether or not God existed. That was assumed. Their question was about Jesus. But the pattern is that God gave them what they needed to believe.

The questions that bug us may be different. When we hear that in Jesus has defeated the powers of sin and death, our questions may be different. When we hear that Easter is the celebration of God reconciling us to each other, reconciling us to creation, reconciling us to God’s own self—our questions may be different. When we hear that the empty tomb means God has flipped the script on power and glory—that God has put humility, peacableness and wisdom at the top—our questions may be different.

Does God give us what we need to believe? Our answer might shift from day to the next.

Maybe we could put the question in different ways. Are there spaces in our lives where we find the perspective to see that the great overflowing, brilliant darkness is divine holiness and not a void? Or, more simply, where do we find God? Or, to echo a sermon we heard last week, where does Jesus find us?

Consider this. In Isaiah 45 there is an explanation of how a king who knew next to nothing about God ended up being used to do God’s work. Here’s verse 15, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel.”

A God who hides?

Part of what amazes Thomas and the Samaritan woman is that they encounter God’s wisdom in a poor rabbi. God’s wisdom is wrapped up in flesh, and not particularly auspicious flesh. Jesus has no obvious power. His entourage is made up of players no other team wants. He does not appear well connected. He never touts his education. He may not have even been able to read the dominant language of his day. God hides. How else could we find the brilliant darkness?

I fear that for many of us, by the time we’ve become adult, are almost impossible to amaze. The Atlantic recently posted a video in which a guy sets up a giant telescope on the street. He lets people have a look at the moon. They squint to look into the eyepiece:

“Oh my God.”

“I had no idea.”

“That’s so amazing.”

“What?”

“Incredible.”

“No way.”

“I want to see more.”

If God hides. This means part of the adventure of life is finding God. There’s no reason to think it might not be like Thomas’s experience when we catch a glimpse: “Oh my God!”

There’s no reason to think it might not be a little like playing hide-n-seek with a child: laughter, fun, joy. There’s no reason to think it might not be like oil running down the hair, dripping off the beard. An overflow of excitement.

And there’s no reason to think too, that in addition to the surprising places we see God, there might be the usual ones too. Part of the fun of hide-n-seek is the playfulness of finding a child again and again behind the chair or under the blanket. The seeking and learning to see, the playfulness, these are not preparation for a relationship, they are the relationship.

If God gives us what we need to believe, it will probably come, occasionally, in the surprising and new. More often, though, we will encounter God in the same old places. The ones that make us laugh and smile: in the old stories of scripture, in the love of a friend who gives God’s faithfulness flesh, in the sharing of bread and cup.

There we glimpse the ray of darkness, the incomprehensible hidden in cracked wheat, crushed grape and broken flesh. We smile. God is too much.

[1] I’ve been prompted here by a chapter in Lauren Winner’s book Wearing God (HarperCollins, 2015); the full text of Pseudo-Dionysius’s writings can be found here.

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