The Glory Around You

Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds.  By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds. By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)

There are two ways of not seeing something.  One way is for the object in question to be so far away that our eyes can’t distinguish it from the surrounding environment.  This is what happens when we try to look for distant stars and galaxies with the naked eye.  We can squint as hard as we like but, without the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we still won’t be able to see the millions of galaxies that surround us in every direction.  They’re just too far away.

The other way of not seeing something is for the object in question to be so close up that there’s no way for us to see all of it at once.  Such is the case with our own galaxy.  We are part of it.  It’s all around us.  If someone were to ask you where our galaxy is, you wouldn’t be wrong at all to say, “it’s right here” without pointing to anything in particular.

When it comes to thinking about invisible things like the reality of God, most modern philosophers have argued for the first option: God, if there is a God, is simply too distant from our everyday reality to be seen or experienced directly.  From one point of view, this was a most useful idea.  It helped modern thinkers to move beyond the old mythical and superstitious ideas about God as “the old man in the sky” inherited from their ancient and medieval ancestors.  This was a good thing.  It needed to happen, especially once science began to debunk so many of the old superstitions.  In place of “the old man in the sky,” modern people began to think of God as a kind of cosmic clockmaker: a rational mind which was responsible for the machine-like order we observe in creation.  The Creator, according to this way of thinking, designed the laws of nature, built the universe, set it in motion, and then sat back to run under its own steam.  Compared to ancient mythologies, this idea of God seems very plausible, rational, and consistent with the discoveries of science.

On the other hand, this way of thinking has also made God seem more remote and distant from the concerns of everyday life.  God, according to the modern mind, doesn’t exist in this universe.  Some would say that God doesn’t even care about us or creation.  “The clockmaker may have got everything started,” so they say, “but hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”  The clockmaker idea of God might be more rational and less superstitious than “the old man in the sky,” but it doesn’t inspire our hearts toward worship and devotion.  The clockmaker God is little more than a mental concept that can be either accepted or rejected without consequence.  It didn’t take long for modern philosophers to dismiss the clockmaker concept itself as irrelevant and unnecessary.  Like the distant galaxies, such a God was simply too far away to be seen or experienced by human beings.

In recent years, those of us who still feel drawn toward worship have come to realize that both the “old man in the sky” and the “clockmaker” ideas of God are wholly inadequate.  Neither one captures the essence of what we mean when we use the word “God.”  In contrast to the modern thinkers who say that God is too far away to be seen, we say that God is close: so close, in fact, as to be all around us… too close and too big to be fully seen and understood by any one person.  The Bible tells us that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God.  God is like our own Milky Way galaxy: if someone were to ask, “Where is God?” it makes perfect sense to say, “Right here!  All around us!  We exist in God!”

For me, this idea of God being all around us, too close to be fully seen, is expressed most beautifully in the story of Christmas.  That story begins in a fairly mundane way: with regular, working class people being pushed around by the powers that be.  This has been the story of humankind in every age of history.  In this case, the Roman emperor wanted an accurate count of the population in occupied territories for tax purposes, so people Mary and Joseph were shuffled around like cattle and treated like animals to the extent that they even ended up sleeping and giving birth in a stable like animals.  Likewise, we see shepherds working the night shift.  Two thousand years of nostalgia and Christmas pageants have romanticized the shepherding profession, but it was a despised and disgusting job in the first century.  No one liked shepherds, no one trusted them, and everyone saw them as little better than the animals they tended.  Yet, it was to this band of ragamuffins that the angels came.  No outsider or passer-by could have known that the pathetic, mundane scene playing itself out before them was one of the most significant and miraculous moments in all of human history.  Even the key players themselves were shocked and amazed as “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and the heavens themselves seemed to break out in song.

The God that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds encountered that night was neither “the old man in the sky” nor “the clockmaker.”  Theirs was an incarnate deity who “took on flesh and dwelt among” them.  They experienced this God in “the glory” that “shone around them.”  Contrary to the conclusions of modern philosophers, their God was too close to be seen, not too far away.

God is here.  God is all around us.  I can’t point to one place, or time, or thing and say “this and this alone is God” because the God I believe in can’t be so easily contained or limited.  We “live, and move, and have our being” in God, whose glory can be seen, shining all around us, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Like so many mystics and sages before us, we can see the glory of God shining in the wonders of creation, in the discoveries of scientists, in the guidance of teachers, in the healing of medical professionals, in the courage of those who risk their lives for others, and in the compassion of those who help the suffering.

The glory of the Lord is shining around us tonight, no less than it did for those shepherds on the first Christmas Eve, if only we have eyes to see it.  The poet Girard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and St. Augustine of Hippo reminded us that “God is closer to us than our own hearts.”

The task of the believer in all this is to take these momentary flashes of glory and learn to see them, not as random, isolated events, but as parts of a whole, individual threads in a great tapestry, woven through the ages.  That’s what Mary, the mother of Jesus, was doing that night when it says in the text that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  She didn’t let her moment of glory just pass her by, she grabbed hold of it and kept it with her.

In the same way, if we want to become the kind of people who can see the glory of God shining around us, then we need to start paying attention.  We need to find those little moments of joy, wonder, peace, and compassion in a day and remember them.  Maybe for you it’s the silvery beauty of snow on tree branches or the golden light of an Adirondack sunset.  Maybe it’s as insignificant as someone generously giving you the right of way instead of cutting you off in traffic.  Wherever you see these little moments of glory, don’t let them escape before you give thanks for them.  If you find it helpful for you, try keeping a daily journal of thanksgiving where you keep a record of these little happenings.  Develop this into a habit and I think you might be surprised at how easy it eventually becomes for you to call these moments to mind.  If that journal idea isn’t exactly your style, don’t worry about it.  Find whatever works for you, but find something.  Don’t let this life pass you by without seeing the glory around you.  Like Mary did: treasure these things and ponder them in your heart.  As you do this, may the glory of the incarnate mystery of God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being,” shine around you and become ever more real to you.

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