The woman went and told her husband, “A man of God came to me; he had the appearance of an angel of God, fearsome indeed. I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name.“Judges 13:6
And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”Luke 1:19-20
Today’s readings, as we spiritually await the coming of God into our lives and world, may give us pause. The messenger of God, who announces to the barren wife of Manoa and to childless Zechariah the great gift of a longed-for child, comes to them as “fearsome” or “terrible.” In the case of Zechariah the immediate effect of this visitation is that he is struck mute, unable to speak. He is quite literally unable to communicate in speech the experience of God’s messenger he has undergone.
Christmas is, in part, so appealing and consoling to us because we experience the love of God coming to us in vulnerability and gentleness. The crèche scene that St. Francis bequeaths to us is one that emphasizes the poverty and meekness of God, the God who comes to us in the poverty and vulnerability of our own human condition. As the angels tell the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” For God comes to us in a glory that is hidden beneath the poverty, homelessness, and dependence of a newborn infant.
It is important for us, however, to also recognize another face of God’s breaking through and into our lives. That is the “awe-full” and awful or fearsome experience we have when confronted with the presence of God. As Jesus asks in Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?” To be certain the “coming” of God to us will be in love, but this coming is also in judgment. At least in the United States, there is lots of talk about God in our public life and politics, but were Jesus really to return what would he find?
The great Rhineland mystic Meister Eckhart says that our “breaking through” “is nobler than our flowing out.” That is, we flowed out from God and so are God’s creatures. But in our “breaking-through” we come to know our true identity in and with God. What one is to break through is my “will of myself and of God’s will and of all God’s works and of God Godself.” It is our will and sense of ourselves that the true coming and presence of God annihilates. This is the source of the fear and terror for us. God comes in love, but it is a love that purifies and destroys all that is false in us, including that to which we cling as our very selves.
I love giving gifts to people that I care about and to whom I feel grateful for the love they bestow on me. And yet, I have also come to a certain tentativeness about giving gifts, because I have come to realize that we human persons most often never give a gift which does not also contain a request or demand. This demand is often very subtle and even hidden from ourselves. But it remains, nonetheless, and so I wonder, as I give the gift, what it is that I am demanding in return and what the one who is receiving the gift perceives as my demand. Jesus knows how deeply this transactional aspect of our giving is, which is precisely why he calls on us to give to those who cannot repay us.
I wonder if something of the terror of our encounter with God, what the tradition calls “fear of the Lord,” does not spring from our intuition of what the gift of the love of God demands of us. The demand is not to give God something back. Rather it is to allow God’s love to break through all that is false in us. Eckhart says that in such a breaking-through “humans achieve what they have been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit.”
Shame is among the most difficult of human emotions for us to bear. It is as if that in us which we have been most invested in hiding has become evident, and so we stand naked before others. I wonder if the terror that seems to be a component of the encounter with God is not really shame. For before God, who we “have been eternally and will evermore remain” is manifest — and so are all the ways we are not being faithful to who we truly are. To speak of God’s love for us is to recognize that the one God loves is in many ways different from the person we present to ourselves and the world. To become aware of that falseness, even in the face of love, evokes shame in us.
This is why the practice of silence, solitude and prayer is so vital in life. To be still before God is to cease performing. It is a potential place of “break-through” out of our illusions of our own willfulness and into the “most intimate poverty one can find,” that is to be only and truly who we are in God. So it is here, says Eckhart, that “God finds no place in humans.” For we cease to be a place we have created, and instead become one with God.
A great authority says that our breaking through is nobler than our flowing out; and that is true. When I flowed out from God, all things said: “God is.” And this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge that I am a creature. But in the breaking-through, when I come to be free of will of myself and of God’s will and of all God’s works and of God Godself, then I am above all created things, and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally. Then I received an impulse that will bring me up above all the angels. Together with this impulse, I receive such riches that God, as God is “God,” and as God performs all God’s divine works, cannot suffice me; for in this breaking-through I receive that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase, for I am then an immovable cause that moves all things. Here God finds no place in humans, for with this poverty humans achieve what they have been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find.Meister Eckhart, Sermon 52