|Revelation is less a matter of God’s emergence from obscurity and more of our coming out of hiding into the light of the divine presence.|
Fr. William Reiser, S.J., is rector of the College of the Holy Cross, Worchester, Massachusetts. His most recent book, Into the Needle’s Eye, was published by Ave Maria Press in 1984.
THINGS are not always the way they seem, and a good example of this is the idea of revelation. For if revelation refers to something hidden coming into the open, then in the Christian experience of God it is not always God who emerges from hiding; we do. Revelation is not exactly a matter of God’s coming out of concealment towards human beings. Rather, revelation describes our coming out of hiding into the presence of God. But people do not generally think of this when they hear the word “revelation.”
To reveal means to unveil or uncover; it means emerging from darkness and shadows into the light. Understood theologically, revelation would mean that God (who is hidden from us either because the divine mystery is so incomprehensible that our finite minds could never grasp it or because the human mind, weakened by sin, has been deprived of its natural closeness to God) breaks through our finitude, our ignorance, and our sinfulness. In doing so, God draws us into the divine mystery. This view of revelation will tell us several things. First, we begin to understand that the mystery of God is love. Second, this love desires to draw us into union with itself. And thirdly, if we are willing to allow God to come close to us, then we shall be changed in the process to become more like God.
God, of course, does not dwell in shadows, and God has nothing to hide. The light of God’s glory, the mystery of God’s love, might indeed so overwhelm our minds and hearts as to cover them with a kind of darkness. But as the Psalmist says: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:11-12).(1) Our minds, so distracted by many things, so unschooled in the proper manner of thinking towards God, have to struggle to achieve clarity and wisdom. Yet the light which the mind seeks, the light which somehow guides the mind in all its efforts at genuine comprehension of what it means to be human, is nothing less than the divine mystery itself. “Light from light, true God from true God”: the mystery of Christ is the mind’s hidden but real love. Coming to learn about this secret love which each of us carries inside belongs to the process of revelation.
HIDING FROM GOD
The story which provides our clue as we look for deeper insight into the meaning of revelation is told in the Book of Genesis:
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said,”Who told you that you were naked?” (3:8-11)
Notice from the story that the man and the woman are the ones in hiding. Crouched among the trees, they want to avoid God’s seeing them and talking with them. God is the one who calls, “Where are you?” What a telling question! Here God is asking Adam where he is, and the “where” is not simply a place, some dark spot in the garden. In that “where” we should also hear God asking about Adam’s state: “What has happened to you? What is this unnatural condition of being afraid of me into which you have fallen?” Adam is closing his ears to the voice of the one who made him, the one who knows him thoroughly, the one whose breath brought movement to Adam’s limbs. Adam hides from the one who gave him life. Few scenes portray so vividly the sadness and twisted vision of that reality which is human alienation.
And yet, if only Adam had remembered the truth: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . . My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body’ (Psalm 139:7, 15-16). Adam is afraid of God — that says it all. Some terrible disorder has inserted itself into creation if men and women feel they have to conceal themselves in order to escape the spirit — creating gaze of the Lord.
What is intriguing, however, is God’s question to Adam: “Who told you that you were naked?” The question seems to imply that being naked is man’s natural state. Being uncovered and totally open to God’s view is the state God intended for us; it is the basic condition of our creaturehood. What reason is there to hide from God? And even if we had a reason, where on earth could we flee to avoid the divine presence? What dark place would remain dark to God’s eyes? What is there about us that God does not know? No thought, no matter how secret or unformed, no desire, no fleeting fancy, no word or action whatsoever could escape God’s hearing. Perhaps this strange need to hide lies at the root of most human sin. Why would we lie, except to keep someone from knowing what we have really said, thought, or done? How much of our arrogance, our stubbornness, or our greed “covers up” our inner poverty and loneliness?
And why do we think we must try to hide our real condition from God, or from one another, or even from our own selves? People deceive each other; they attempt to deceive God; they may even succeed in deceiving themselves. But why do we hide? The anger towards others which frequently disguises some past hurt, the stubborn pride which often cloaks self-doubt, the materialism which masks inner emptiness, the excuses we invent for not praying, the way we rationalize why the words of a gospel passage do not apply to us — these are the signs that something has gone desperately wrong. “Who told you that you were naked?” In other words, what has led you to believe that your protection consists in running away from God’s view? The whole mad story of alienation and sin begins with the effort to escape the presence of God. Flight, of course, is impossible, because God refuses to surrender Adam and Eve to the dominion of fear. They should not be afraid; they should not be in hiding. So the Lord God seeks out the creature, and the story of salvation is nothing less than the divine effort to uncover the creature, to unclothe it of all the pretense and deceit with which, in its fear, it has dressed itself in order to lie concealed from the eyes of God.
Thus, we might conclude, fear has disordered creation. Because of fear, men and women have sought to hide, and the Lord God will not permit fear to imprison Adam and his descendants. Perhaps that explains why Paul wrote: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’ ” (Romans 8:15). Realizing Paul’s fondness for the parallel between Christ and Adam, one is tempted to ask whether Paul was here envisioning Adam hiding in fear from the voice of God. To know God as Jesus knew God is to stand in the divine presence and to experience the freedom of the children of God. God, for Jesus, was not someone from whom we have to hide. For Jesus, God is the one who could be trusted absolutely, and this trust enabled Jesus to be fully human and free.
What, therefore, is revelation? Revelation means God’s uncovering Adam so that he can experience God’s love in his innermost self. Adam no longer has to steal into the shadows. Rather, Adam is drawn out of hiding into the presence of God. Adam does so because God refuses to leave him alone. The story of revelation is essentially the story of men and women coming to learn, to accept, and to prize who they really are. For we are daughters and sons of God. It is our nature to be, as Jesus was, completely uncovered to the eyes of God; to reject this would be to reject the possibility for any genuine and lasting joy.
There are more technically theological definitions of revelation available. One might consult, for example, Avery Dulles’ book Models of Revelation (2) for a more detailed analysis of the various concepts of revelation. Writers have elaborated on one or several aspects of revelation — what it is, how it occurs, how it is passed along from one generation to the next, the relation between revelation and Scripture, or between revelation and doctrine, and so forth. Theologians have raised questions about whether divine revelation has been given to the human race only through the Judaeo-Christian tradition, or whether the divine mystery has also revealed itself to people who belong to other world faiths. Some religious thinkers have distinguished special revelation from general revelation in order to safeguard the uniqueness of Christian faith. Others have regarded divine revelation more holistically. Revelation, they would urge, has been given to the entire world in a variety of more or less adequate ways. Basic to nearly every view of revelation, however, is the belief that God has drawn mercifully close to human beings; that God has “spoken’ to the world and made known the divine saving will for us. And equally central to many views of revelation is the conviction that the flesh and blood symbol, which in an unsurpassable way communicates the great truth about God’s coming close to us, is Jesus Christ, the divine word made flesh.
But the view we have been sketching here leans on the way we experience the process of revelation. For revelation does not so much consist of God’s making Jesus known to us, or Jesus’ making God known to us, but rather of God’s making us known to ourselves by leading us into ever more familiar companionship with Jesus. Therefore, to develop the point that revelation consists in God’s drawing Adam out of hiding, let us ask what truth God is so urgently trying to persuade Adam to believe in. For Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, that truth appears to have been the doctrine of justification. Permit me to try to explain what this means by way of an example. Suppose someone came up to us, spotted a necklace or a ring we were wearing, and announced that he would give us a thousand dollars for it. We would probably protest that the piece of jewelry was not worth such a price. Imagine that the stranger then went on to offer a hundred thousand dollars, or even a million. We would look at him with astonishment and very likely insist that the item was not worth so much money. But what does the concept of worth tell us? Is the worth of a thing determined by what people are willing to pay for it? The worth of a thing is dictated by the buyer, not by the one who sells.
CHRIST: REVELATION OF GOD AND HUMANKIND
Suppose God wanted to teach us how much we are truly worth. What “price” might God offer? Our real worth, after all, can only be determined by God, and in God’s sight we are priceless. God is the buyer; it is God who “redeems” us. Thus, God decrees the price; God dictates our value. Our true worth, therefore, has nothing to do either with our sinfulness or our virtue, with our mistakes or our obedience. God unilaterally pronounces what our genuine value is: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Our worth can only be measured in terms of the life of God’s own Son. In drawing us to believe this profound truth about ourselves, God is justifying us; as we accept this truth with the obedient trust which characterized the life of Jesus, we are made righteous. After %all, something may be priceless, but to the untrained eye it may appear worthless. So too in our case. We are invaluable in God’s sight, but until we realize that fact, we will terribly underestimate who and what we are. We would not lead our lives with that sense of wonder and freedom, that sense of personal honor and responsibility which comes from knowing that we are indeed God’s children; that the Spirit of God has been poured into our hearts; that we matter so dearly to God that only the crucified Jesus could tell us to what lengths God would go in teaching us of that love. Now, if this is how God proves the meaning of divine justice — a justice so extraordinarily rich that it must at the same time be called mercy and grace — what could we possibly be afraid of? Hence Paul writes:
What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31-35, 37-39).
In Romans 5:10 Paul speaks about our being God’s “enemies”: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” But, strictly speaking, God has no enemies, and therefore I would suggest we rethink this verse so that the sense reads “when God was our enemy.” Again, this sense accords more with our theme.
If we could listen in on Paul’s thinking, perhaps we would hear him wondering about what happened in Eden such that, as a result, human beings believed that God had become hostile to them. Furthermore, Paul would continue, what did Jesus do for us7 Jesus has reconciled us to the Father; or rather, God reconciled the world to himself in Christ. God would not permit hostility to be the determining note in the divine-human relationship. In order to show this, God would become vulnerable to human sin, vulnerable to the disordering fear which, because it cannot avoid the divine gaze, seeks instead to blind it. In the crucified Jesus God uncovered the face of sin so that we could see what we have done to ourselves. God sees us through the cross of Jesus, and through the cross of Jesus we contemplate the face of God. In this double vision — God’s seeing us, our seeing God — the fearful urge to flee the divine presence is finally overcome. The story of our creation finishes on Calvary, not in Eden: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ . . .” (2 Cor. 5:17-18). It is the light of the cross which finally chases Adam out of hiding. The twisted figure of the dying Jesus captures the long bloody history of human beings trying to pretend that God has been their enemy: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). With the crucified Jesus, the pretense, the running away, is over at last.
One is tempted to add that there may be good reason for us to be afraid of coming out of hiding. The story of Jesus shows us that when a human being, freed by the love of God to be fully human and trusting, does live in the light and openness of faith, he or she might well be drawn into the mystery of the cross, the suffering which human beings inflict on one another when they run from the love which could set them free. Jesus naked on the cross, uncovered to God’s view in the obedience of his faith, awakens us to what can happen to those who are not afraid to hear and respond to God’s voice.
THE CHURCH AS SITUATION IN WHICH REVELATION OCCURS
Human community is the natural and normal context in which the grace of Christ given to each one of us unfolds. By “the grace of Christ” I mean that power at work in our mind and affections, our desires and fantasies our will and imagination, which creatively fashions us into the likeness of Christ. The grace of Christ rightly refers to other realities also — to the mercy and forgiveness of God which Jesus has made available to us, to the experience of being loved and accepted by the Father. But here I want to describe grace from its dynamic side, for the grace of Christ is the holy mystery unfolding in our midst; it uncovers us, and in doing so it forms who we are and shapes what we shall become.
From a religious point of view, not every gathering of men and women is a community. People may live and work together; they may eat and sleep together. But this does not guarantee that they really live for one another, that they are mindful of each other, or that they are helping each other to become fully human and free. Given the fact that so many fail in their promises to remain faithful to someone else, and that people often deceive, take advantage of, or rashly judge friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, we cannot presume that most human beings are actually living a communal existence. That is why the church can (and ought to) be a clearing in the world’s wilderness. The Christian community becomes the place where men and women can begin to experience belonging to others, existing for others, and being drawn personally and caringly into one another’s life stories.
The reality which the church is requires continual renewal; it also presupposes that people really want to belong to one another. And in Christ one sees what that belonging to others means. One finds the way to ongoing renewal; one finds the style of being human without which genuine community will remain forever impossible. If to be human means to live with and for others; if it demands service, the readiness to forgive, and the willingness to let others help shoulder our burdens and share our hopes; if these are things which cannot be accomplished without God’s assistance; if it is true that we need others to teach us about being human and to liberate us from our fears and pretenses; then the church, the Christian community, is that situation in which our coming out of hiding takes place. In living and building the reality which is Christian community, we enable one another to take off whatever masks our true selves and to be the free human beings which God intends for us to be.
UNCOVERING: SACRAMENT AND BLESSING
In a short article I cannot do more than sketch several applications of this perspective, which I shall do in terms of sacramental blessings. For whenever the church blesses, it uncovers to the eye of faith that original blessing which God conferred upon creation when, surveying and approving the divine handiwork, God saw that everything was good (see Gen. 1:10, 12, 1$, 21, 25, 31). Each sacrament recovers the original goodness of some created reality; it enables us to appreciate and thank God for the inherent goodness of things close to us whose value we should not forget but which, whether on account of sinfulness or the tedium and routine of life, we have come to take for granted: family life, community, friendship, food, meal-taking, our desire for God. The liturgy of each sacrament draws our attention to the conditions which must be met if that original blessing is to appear: commitment, trust, reconciliation and forgiveness, service, obedience to God, prayerful recollection, gratitude, reverence for the earth.
Baptism, for instance, uncovers the fact that we are daughters and sons of God. Baptism does not make us children of God for the first time; we are so by virtue of the fact that God has created us, and whatever God does is good and blessed. But baptism is the occasion when the church helps us to understand and acknowledge who and what we are, that we have come from God, that we are loved by God, and that our ultimate destiny transcends our existence on this earth. All this is gift, of course; original gift. The baptismal blessing unveils it. Yet baptism also inaugurates something new. Through the sacramental rite the Spirit creates a relationship between the individual and Christ, a relationship which marks and seals the person’s life with the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising. For those whose faith lets them perceive it, this relationship uncovers the profoundest human possibility, namely, that men and women can become like Christ, the one with whom God was so well pleased (Matt. 3:17). In addition, baptism initiates a relationship between the individual and the Christian community. The church sees this relationship as permanent and unbreakable because it reflects and uncovers God’s permanent, irreversible love for us. But Christian community itself is a new, distinct human possibility which will exist only if men and women freely decide to follow Jesus together. Christian community is different from other human gatherings because it is comprised of people who know they are sinners, who believe they are loved, and thus who have no reason to be afraid. The church — the believing community — always stands in need of conversion and renewal. The church does not exist apart from our willingness to forgive and accept one another, to live according to the teaching and example of Jesus, and to recall faithfully and regularly the meaning of his death and resurrection. In other words, baptism uncovers the conditions for true and lasting community. Baptism tells us that there can be no real communion apart from the Spirit of God and that genuine community is always God’s blessing.
Whatever baptism uncovers, the Eucharist uncovers all the more; the Eucharist is the church’s continuing celebration of baptismal grace. Eucharist recovers the fact that we are made for communion, that we do in fact desire to be one with others, and that God is the source of this life-giving desire. The conditions for community are again laid bare: a common acknowledgment of sinfulness and dependence upon God, the forgiving and accepting of others as our brothers and sisters, the readiness to take food together as a sign of our shared need for bread, and the remembering that we belong to one another because we belong to Christ. Eucharist uncovers the reality of our being church, for at the eucharistic assembly the community calls the individual out of hiding, out of isolation, out of any refusal to admit that he or she belongs to Christ and to his brothers and sisters, away from fear. The community lures the individual away from the lonely security of private faith into that welcome freedom which arises from being known, forgiven, and loved by someone else.
We could make similar observations with respect to the other sacraments. Marriage uncovers human friendship at its most personal level, for the one thing which God declared not good was that Adam should be alone (Gen. 2:18). This sacramental friendship draws people into community and solidarity so strongly that, for most Christians, the marriage relationship becomes the clear, lighted space where they will experience God and become like Christ. Reconciliation, like baptism and the Eucharist, exposes human sinfulness and uncovers the heart’s yearning for healing, for love, and for acceptance. But the sacraments also reveal what we are hiding from. Through them the church signals where we might be tempted to escape the challenges of being human: the flight from commitment, the flight from being known, the flight from forgiving others, the flight from intimacy, the flight from sharing and service, the flight from those things that spell diminishment and suffering. We flee these things because we are afraid. We may even run away from intimacy with God, as Adam did. For it is one thing to want God to be available for us in our needs, in our hour of struggle, in our rejection and hurt; to be enlivened with a sense of divine beauty and goodness. But it is quite another thing to be available to God, to be prepared to be drawn into God’s concerns, and to listen to the divine lament over the world’s grief, its poverty, and its self-centering greed; to be pulled into an awareness of how much the world pleads with us for help in its hunger and thirst for justice.
In revelation God takes the first step towards us. But, as I have suggested here, that step consists in our being invited to come out of hiding into the light of God’s presence. Revelation is the mystery of our being uncovered. It is the mystery of our consenting to become luminous and transparent to the eye of God. The one who loves God is known by God, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 8:3); and again, “Now that you know God — or rather are known by God . . .” (Gal. 4:9). Even after Christ, or perhaps precisely because of Christ, God remains unspeakably more than our minds can understand or our hearts can embrace. But that we should experience ourselves as men and women who have been known, whose inner being has been penetrated by the healing, creative gaze of the one whom Jesus called “Abba,” whose most secret words never escape the Fathers notice, this belongs to the mystery of our being revealed. And the church? The church is that place where we learn to let God see us, to hear us, and to make us free; it is the place where we meet the love that casts out fear.