When the weather forecast screen turned to red, I began to pay attention. When I received a message from the Town of Hull describing the approaching storm and encouraging evacuation along the coast, we decided to leave while it was still possible.
I kept in touch with people and events during Winter Storm Riley via telephone, Facebook, and text messages. Several people expressed concerns about being alone and stranded, especially those who had decided to shelter-in-place. As I sat in the motel working on this message I was grateful for forecasting technology that allowed us to evacuate, but I also felt isolated from the community.
When the power went out at the place we were staying in Rockland, I was profoundly reminded of another kind of power- the power and unpredictability of nature, so awesomely and forcefully demonstrated by winter storms on the Atlantic Ocean. Living in Hull and experiencing the ferocity of these storms only amplifies my awareness and appreciate of the wildness and unpredictability of life.
I am grateful that we are here together, and I thank God for this day of life.
People living in ancient civilizations were equally fearful of being alone in a wild and unpredictable world. One response was the creation of rituals around a host of gods and goddesses who could be safely located in designated shrines and temples. It was important that these deities have both faces and voices. Temples were decorated with elaborate statuary and pictures of what the god looked like. Oracles spoke the god or goddesses’ message to those who paid the right price or curried the right favor. For centuries this was the predominant religious worldview across many cultures.
Without understanding this background and context it is difficult for us today to realize just how radical Israel's call to monotheism was. In a world where designated deities controlled events like earthquakes, thunderstorms, illness and death, the rejection of idols and practices associated with them was dangerous and scandalous in the ancient world.
Although worship at the ark and the temple were also infused with ritual, there was a profound difference. In the heart of old Jerusalem was the temple. In the heart of the temple, within its innermost sanctuary, was the "Holy of Holies," to which only the high priest had access. In the heart of the "Holy of Holies," separated by partitions and curtains, sat the ark itself. In the heart of the ark was the mercy seat.
The kapporeth or "mercy seat" was a flat slab of gold resting on top of the ark. Guarding either end of this slab, and of one piece with it, were the golden cherubim, their faces turned inward toward each other, and their wings arching over the mercy seat. Here between the cherubim and over the mercy seat was the dwelling place of the God of Israel (Exodus 25:22; 30:6; Numbers 7:89). On the Day of Atonement it was on this "mercy seat" that the high priest sprinkled sacrificial blood, for the forgiveness of sins.
God's presence was nowhere portrayed within this "Holy of Holies"--or anywhere else within the temple. All that greeted the high priest was a blank slab of open space, a void, "the great speaking absence between the images" (Rowan Williams).
In other words, the most sacred space where God was in the midst of the Hebrew people was silent, empty. As one colleague remarked, “What the Israelites carried with them through the wilderness and protected with their lives was a seat with nothing on it but everything in it.”
To go to Jerusalem to visit God, to make a pilgrimage to find mercy and comfort, was to visit this silent, empty space—and it is precisely because there was no gilded statue, oracle, or talking idol that the Israelites were able to experience the living presence of God's holiness in their midst.
Within this framework, Jesus' rampage in the temple was partly a reaction against the intrusions of unholy noise, unholy images, and unholy practices into this sanctuary of holy silence. Jesus saw how the temple site was gradually being transformed from a center of spirituality that leads one to greater silence and greater space for holiness--into a place of commerce and dutiful, but perfunctory ritual. The crush of crowds and commerce threatened to fill in the space of holy silence.
By cleansing the temple of this noise, religious and economic pollution, Jesus sought to restore the transparency of the temple. Only by regaining the sanctity of silence and the silence of the sanctuary could the people, like Elijah, hope to hear the still, small voice in their midst.
The raging, relentless crashing of waves and the debris scattered throughout town may invite us to ask: what kind of noise have we let into our "temples" to avoid listening to that "speaking absence"?
What doubt, fear, addiction, current situation or anything else prevents us from finding the mercy seat of help and healing?
-In daily life, in activities like our work, school, appointments, or play; do we allow peer pressure, insecurity or fear drown out the "speaking absences" of God all around us, inviting us to say/do/be something different?
-In our communities, do we let fear, pride, prejudice or despair drown out the "speaking absences" we might otherwise hear through risking relationships with other people in the community; people not like us?
When Jesus became the new temple, the new mercy seat for God's presence, Jesus asked those who would follow, i.e. each one of us here, to also become temples.
Jesus became a "holy place" so that we might each become a holy place; a place where the speaking absences of God are heard in our willingness to be silent before the mercy seat of grace…
Jesus became the new mercy seat that we may each, through the living of our lives and through the things we experience, become a mercy seat, too.
By taking God's "Holy of Holies" out of stone temples and bringing it into the center of his own human life, Jesus makes relationship with God, with the Divine Presence possible for all people.
In the words of Anglican Bishop Rowan Williams, "Jesus is our holy place, which also means that Jesus is the promise of a new kind of holiness. Here is a life in which the detail, even the triviality, of a human story becomes the word and name of God to us, so that we know that the contours of a human story can be the presence of God. If we are so drawn into the words and acts and passion of Jesus that (as Paul said) his life and death are at work in us, we become sanctuaries to each other, holy places, mercy seats" ("Holy Space" in a A Ray of Darkness [Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1995], 87.)
In this life there are earthquakes, storms, and violent winds, and Nor’easters, but as God reminded Elijah in a very personal way, God is not found in these things, but in the silence that is beneath and beyond all sound and fury:
1 Kings 19:11-13 New International Version (NIV)
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It is in the silence of absence that we hear God’s voice, that we experience the risen Christ; and that we, too, are transformed.
Angeles Arrien tells a story in which she witnessed a moment of deep soulfulness between two strangers that powerfully displayed the ability of holy silence to transform the human heart:
I was at a bus stop, sitting next to a woman reading a newspaper, but I was totally engrossed in the performance of a 14-year-old boy on a skateboard. He had his baseball cap turned around with the bill in the back, and he was skating beautifully and very fast. He buzzed by us once, then twice. When he came by a third time, he accidentally knocked the woman's newspaper out of her hands. She said, "Oh, why don't you grow up!"
I watched him glide down to the corner of the block, where he stood talking with his buddy. The two of them kept looking back over their shoulders at the woman. She hesitated for a moment, then rolled up her paper, tucked it under her arm and walked into the street, motioning to him. "Won't you come here?" she called. "I want to talk to you."
Very reluctantly, he skated over to her, turned his cap around with the bill in front, and said, "Yeah?"
She said, "What I meant to say was that I was afraid that I might get hurt. I apologize for what I did say."
His face lit up, and he said, "How cool!"
In that moment, I witnessed what is called in Spanish a milagro pequeno--a small miracle. This small miracle was a holy, healing moment between generations, between two human beings who had just become important strangers to each other. The woman chose to shift the shape of her experience by moving out of reactivity into creativity. This kind of shape shifting is possible when we allow ourselves to speak directly from our souls.
"Walking the Mystical Path With Practical Feet,"
in Nourishing the Soul,
eds. Anne Simpkinson, Charles Simpkinson and Rose Solari
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 104.
In every storm and circumstance may we be silent enough to hear the holy "Speaking Absence"- the empty space of God's presence in the holy temple of our lives, and through the empty grave of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
I saw no temple in the city.