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Time and space – yet more dimensions to the truly amazing Mass.

February 24, 2013

Second Sunday of Lent                  24 February 2013  The readings today are:  Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18         Philippians 3:17-4:1     Luke 9: 28-36

Another of those “religious” words today: TRANSCENDENT. Find out what it means…… be inspired.

During the mass we’re taking part in something that goes beyond our world into dimensions that are way beyond our understanding. Don’t worry – just enjoy the experience!


There are two basic ways of looking at God:

  • You can see Him as very remote, up in heaven, separated from our sordid little world, which is beneath His dignity. This idea of God has Him creating the world and then standing back to watch from a distance. The idea of a remote, distant God is called transcendence – God is all-powerful, but distant, master over absolutely everything, but aloof, watching as events unfold.
  • And the other way of looking a God is to see God present in everything on earth, as a regulator of everything. God is present in the laws of nature, the laws of science. In this sense God is very close to us, in everything, but it is completely impersonal. To quote Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, “This view of God is the one most common among today’s watered-down believers….. when most people talk of mother nature… they mean, a God who is cloaked and veiled by instinct, quiet and indifferent to human activity, completely unresponsive to the pain of human tragedy.”[1]

The word used to describe this type of God is immanent. It means close

As Christians we hold to the original Jewish understanding of God, that He is both transcendent and immanent. We see this in all three readings from the Sacred Scriptures today. We firmly believe that God both created the world AND that since that time God has been present and intervening in events on earth.

In today’s story of Abraham from Genesis we see the beginnings of the restored, loving relationship between God and humanity, and we see both aspects of God being demonstrated. God is seen as both distant and close.

Let me take you through today’s story to highlight how God is described:

Although today’s reading starts at verse 5, verses 1 to 4 set the scene. Abram has a vision of God. A mystical experience. An experience that is very close up and personal to God. During this intimate contact with God Abram asks what God intends to give him, because he is an old man with no children. It is at this point that God promises Abram that he will indeed have many descendants of his own flesh and blood.

And then God Takes him outside and says, “Look up to heaven and count the stars if you can. Such will be your descendants.”

Can you see the contrast? From a private, intimate conversation with God, Abram is looking up into distant space, showing how powerful and distant God can be. The stars God created are millions and billions of miles away. It’s mind-boggling.

It takes 8 minutes for light to reach us from the sun. It takes 4 years and 3 months for light to reach from the next closest star, Alpha Centauri. The light from other stars doesn’t get to us for millions of years.

And so here is a weird thought: when we look up at the stars, we are actually seeing a snapshot of the history of the universe – we don’t actually know what the galaxy looks like NOW because we can only detect the light that left those stars millions of years ago.

So in the story from Genesis, at one moment Abram is the most important thing in the universe, speaking intimately with God – the immanent, close God, here and now; and the next moment, Abram is looking up at something that sums up the mind-boggling power of God, the transcendent, unimaginably distant God – Abram gazes at the stars, looking at things God has created which are really beyond our human comprehension and imagination – we are just too feeble to really be able to appreciate the extent and timelessness of God.

There’s something else to notice about what God said to Abram: Taking Abram outside, the Lord said, “Look up to heaven and count the stars if you can. Such will be your descendants.”

If you can. And actually Abram can’t possibly see the stars, because he is looking at the sky during the day – stars can’t be seen during the day because they are masked by the strength of sunlight. And secondly, we do not really see the stars during darkness even, because, as I’ve explained, we’re not seeing the actual stars, we’re seeing something that happened millions of years ago. So when Abram looked at the stars it was an act of faith in God. He is believing in something he cannot see with his human eyes – that’s called faith.

But Abram, being human, like us, wants something “real” to reassure him that he was not being fooled by a false promise, that he was going to receive his inheritance from God, despite being a very old man. And God made him a sign to convince him. Through sacrificing animals, that were miraculously engulfed in a blazing fire.

Let’s now turn to today’s gospel – the very familiar story of the Transfiguration. Like Abram before them, Peter James and John are privileged to experience a wonderful encounter with God, a vision of God. They are with Jesus, who has deliberately chosen them to go up the mountain to pray. Climbing up the mountain is symbolic of getting closer to the distant God who is in the heavens – getting closer to the unimaginable, transcendent God. Yet the three disciples are already with Jesus, who is God. Jesus, their personal friend, someone, as John later said, whom they had heard, seen with their own eyes, watched and touched. You can’t get any closer to God than that. The disciples, like Abram, had faith in Jesus; in fact, it was only ten verses earlier in Luke when Jesus had asked them, “But you, who do you say I am?” It was Peter, inspired by God, who had famously replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Can you see how, once again, the distant and the close God is being miraculously revealed to human beings (but only to human beings who have faith.) The disciples see something made of bright shining light, and which (like seeing the stars), is something that actually happened one and a half thousand years earlier: they were seeing and hearing characters from another era, Moses and Elijah, talking in their own time with Jesus. This Transfiguration is an echo of Abram’s burning sacrifices – a sign that confirms that they will receive what has been promised to them by Jesus – eternal life.

All this is deeply, deeply mysterious. The idea that God distant from us and close to us; that God is also master of time. And the fullness of the mystery of our distant and close God and his timelessness is also present for us in this Mass.

We are in fact helped in appreciate these mysterious aspects of the mass by the new translation we now have – it really emphasizes the liturgy as both transcendent, linking us with God in heaven, and immanent, or transformative, making God truly present in our world today. The words of the Mass repeatedly remind us that in our worship here we are joined together mysteriously with the worship of heaven.[2] The Gloria and the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ are moments in the mass when this is emphasised. But it also happens during the Eucharistic Prayers.

I hope what I have said will help you make sense of some of the words we will hear Canon John when we use the Second Eucharistic Prayer. The priest says:

“Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.”

Like the dewfall. What a strange expression. This is the Jewish idea of condensation, something that happened when, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[3] The idea of condensation, of dewfall, is that the transcendent, timeless, infinite presence of our all-powerful, distant God, who, so to speak, fills the empty space of the cosmos beyond our understanding, is transformed during the mass, as at the first Creation, in a New Creation, making God present amongst us, present but concealed, a sudden concentration, a sudden focusing of God being made present in our world and in our time, despite God being also being both everywhere and timeless. This is what is actually happening at the sacred consecration of bread during the Eucharist:  Jesus Christ is miraculously invoked and made truly present among us, close to us, for us to touch, to see, to eat – to become part of our very physical being. This is what God’s solemnly promised to Abram in the Old Testament, to be present with him and his descendants.

The mass of the New Testament is the truly mysterious sacrament given to us at the first Easter by God, through Jesus Christ, making Almighty God close to us, intimately part of us, with us forever.

[1] Schmuley Boteach. An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism. Duckworth, London, 1999, 35.

[2] c.f. Bishop James D. Conley (Auxiliary Bishop of Denver).  ‘A Universe Brimming with Fruitful Spiritual Life’: Reflecting Transcendence in the Liturgy. Address to the Midwest Theological Forum, Valparaiso, Indiana April 25, 2011.

[3] Genesis 1:1

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