Day 8: The Ascent to God
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
Do not hang back then, but labor in it until you experience the desire. For when you first begin to undertake it, all that you find is a darkness, a sort of cloud of unknowing; you cannot tell what it is except that you experience in your will a simple reaching out to God. This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do…so set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.[i]
The Cloud of Unknowing (14th Century)
Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son, our Savior. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
Moses’ ascent to God to receive the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai solemnizes the covenant wherein God promised that he would make Israel ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ This covenant is solemnized with the “ten words” of the Decalogue. In addition, Moses receives instruction (Torah) and commandments, which summarize what it entails to live in a covenant relationship with God. Yet this text is also one of the foundational passages for western mysticism.[iii] When Moses ascends to meet with God in the midst of the cloud on Mt. Sinai, he ascends into a mystery enshrouded in mist. Thus, following this text, the great Christian spiritual writers will often see the spiritual life best described as an ascent to God. The God we meet is beyond human comprehension. Thus our task as spiritual seekers is simply to sit quietly in His presence and wait for Him to reveal himself to us, just as Moses did.
12Then the LORD said to Moses, “Ascend to me towards the summit of the mountain and, while you are here, I will give you the stone tablets with the instruction and the commandments that I have written to teach them.” 13So Moses arose (along with Joshua, his servant) and Moses began to ascend to the summit of the mountain of God.
14Now he had said to the Elders, “Wait for us in this place until we return to you. Look, Aaron and Hur are with you. If anyone has matters of dispute, let him approach you with them.”
15So Moses ascended unto the mountain while a cloud-mass covered the mountain. 16And the glory of the LORD dwelt on Mt. Sinai and the cloud concealed the mountain for six days. Then He called for Moses on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud.
17And the glory of the LORD appeared like a devouring fire on the summit of the mountain in the sight of the sons of Israel. 18Then Moses entered into the midst of the cloud after ascending the mountain. Now Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
New Testament Lesson
This passage follows several sections of threatened judgment on the Pharisees. Jesus warns the Pharisees against the ‘unforgivable sin’ of claiming the work of God is actually the work of the devil. He also admonishes the Pharisees that they would have to account for every idle word on the Day of Judgment. Indignant, the Pharisees demand a sign from Jesus to confirm what he was claiming was true (thus reinforcing their lack of faith). Jesus refuses to give a sign, suggesting with his language that they have broken the covenant. Then Jesus’ family appears “outside,” suggestive of distance and separation. In Mark’s version of the story (Mk 3.21), Jesus’ mother and brothers appear because they think Jesus has gone nuts. Jesus, claiming that his disciples are his true family, demonstrates the great care and protection he shows to those who genuinely follow him as disciples.[iv] This contrasts symbolically with the separation promised to those who do not recognize his Lordship. Thus, for Christians, the true family is the Church, which carefully safeguards its abiding relationship with Jesus, as opposed to unbelievers who have forsaken their love for God.
38Then some of the Scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39Answering, He said to them, “A degenerate and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. 40For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so too will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.”
41The people of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, since they repented at the preaching of Jonah and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42The queen of the south will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it since she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, but now something greater than Solomon is here.
43And when an unclean spirit goes out from a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest and does not find any. 44Then it says, ‘I will return to my abode from whence I came.’ And when it returns, it finds the abode empty, swept and having been put in order. 45Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits even more wicked than itself. Then, going in, it dwells there, so that the last of the people is even worse off than the first. This is what it will be like for this wicked generation.”
46While he was speaking to the crowds, His mother and His brothers had been standing outside wanting to speak with him. 47So someone said to him, “Hey, your mother and your brothers are standing outside wanting to speak with you.” 48Answering, He said to the one who had told Him this, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” 49Then, stretching out his hands over his disciples, He said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers. 50For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
Questions for Reflection
- How do you approach God? Is it with reverence and fear or with casualness? How do you guard against the tendency of our informal culture of turning God into your “buddy”?
- One of the best aspects of Anglicanism is our embrace of mystery. How do you grapple with mystery in the Christian life? Consider the Sacraments, assurance of salvation or what happens after we die. How do you live out your Christian life in the midst of an American culture that values certainty?
- Do you demand to see signs and wonders from God? Do you demand rational proofs that God exists or are you comfortable with the uncertainties faith entails?
- The Bible claims that Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived. People came for miles to observe his wisdom. What does this say about the efficacy of the wisdom of the culture? Does it seem like we have the wisdom of Solomon in our midst?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Both of our texts today are often interpreted as allegories for the spiritual life. When Jesus’ mother and brothers stand outside wanting to speak with Jesus, early Christian interpreters often see this as representing those outside the Church. Since Jesus is not at all trying to disparage the traditional family in this passage or trying to cast aspersions on His mother, interpreters took this as a clue that this story was to be read more allegorically than literally. For example, St. Jerome writes the following:
They are my mother who daily give birth to me in the souls of believers. They are my brothers who do the works of my Father. He has not denied his mother…he preferred the apostles to his relatives, that we too, in terms of degree of affection, might prefer the Spirit to the flesh…The Savior is speaking to the crowds. The inner meaning is that he is instructing the nations. His mother and brothers, that is, the synagogue and the people of the Jews, are standing outside. They desire to enter…whenever they ask and seek and send a messenger, they receive the response that they have free choice. They can enter if they are willing to believe; but they cannot enter unless they ask the others.[v]
But Jerome also shows us the danger of pointing fingers against those outside the covenant community. For centuries, our NT text was used as a club against the Jews.[vi] To many Christians, Jesus had threatened judgment against the Jews and many Christians used this as justification for anti-Semitic persecutions.
In the aftermath of World War II, hating Jews has become unfashionable among Christians in the US (although anti-Semitism still exists in the Middle East, and, more alarmingly, in Europe). Yet all some have done is switch the object of their scorn.
Today, Muslims and homosexuals take the place of Jews in the rhetoric of some Christians. It is very easy to reject groups perceived to be beyond the pale because of some sin or grievance, but Jesus is reasonably clear that it is not for us to judge others’ sins or shortcomings.
Whenever we feel the urge to do so, we should probably examine ourselves first. Are we condemning others for sins with which we do not struggle (while giving ourselves a pass for the ones with which we do struggle)? Do we hate various groups despite having no personal knowledge or relationships with them? Would God approve of our scorn and hatred?
Part of the self-examination of Lent requires us to come to grips not only with personal sin, but also with our involvement in structures of injustice and sin in our society. Do we eagerly oppose immigration despite the clear Biblical warrant to welcome the stranger? Do we look upon people from other religious traditions with suspicion and blandly assume that they stand condemned despite the clear Biblical command to love our neighbors? Do we turn a blind eye to human suffering among the poor or among the sick and argue their suffering is self-inflicted? I suspect none of us would want to try to justify such attitudes on the Day of Judgment.
One of the reasons taking Lent seriously will help us is it enables us to think hard about where we fall short. When we do, we will start to see that each of us deserves to stand condemned, but by the grace of God, we are offered forgiveness.
So each of us harbors hatred, ill-will and malevolence in our hearts. What’s the answer for this? Our OT text describes the answer well: ascend to God. Climb the mystical mountain. Sit in God’s presence, and ask him to purify you so you can “enter the cloud” and visit with him.
It’s likely no coincidence that our Exodus text is traditionally positioned here, one full week after Ash Wednesday. Moses waited six days up on the mountain, patiently praying and purifying his soul so that he could be in the presence of God and not be consumed. Only on the seventh day was he invited in.
So here we are, a week later, being invited to come in and visit with God. Will you stand on the outside scoffing or will you come into the cloud, embrace mystery and meet with God? The choice is yours.
- The Prayer of Fantasy
Sit in a quiet spot and focus on your breathing to quiet your soul. Then imagine that you are in a beautiful meadow on a warm spring day. (You can alter the scene to whatever you’d like.) Imagine that Jesus comes and sits down beside you. Simply have a conversation with Him and see what He says.
Spend time meditating on how you have been involved in the unjust systems of the world. By living in the richest country in the world, how have your everyday activities caused harm to others (economically, environmentally, socially)? Ask God to show you how you have aided and abetted injustice, and ask him to help you amend your heart.
Traditionally, Christians have fasted from meat and rich foods on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. Consider doing the same.
[i] The Cloud of Unknowing (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), III, pp. 14–15.
[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, 816.
[iii] Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism: 1350–1550 (New York: Crossroad, 2012), 404.
[iv] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 223.
[v] Saint Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 2014), 12.49, p. 151.
[vi] Luz, Matthew 8-20, 222.