Vicar's Musings for Easter 3
22 April, 2012
As faithful church-goers and consumers of many years of Easter sermons we all, clergy and laity, run the risk of being inoculated against the profound reality and truth of resurrection. Do you recall times in your life when the mystery of the Risen Christ has broken into the mundane? Perhaps a spiritual awakening, an experience at mass, or something seemingly ordinary that was transfigured into the divine; a kind stranger, a loving embrace, a piece of music.
I recall a conversation I had a few months ago with one of the Heads of House at Geelong Grammar School. He is an atheist I think, or at least agnostic, but he experienced a God-moment. It did not involve one of my breathtaking sermons, sadly, and did not even take place during a chapel service; although it did involve the chapel. My friend shared with me an existential experience he had one morning of God in the vast emptiness of the sky above the chapel. God was not in the chapel, or the classroom, or the boarding house absent, or even the chaplain's study. God was 'out there'. Absent.
The paradox of God's presence in absence is a strong theme in both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. The nomadic ancient Hebrew people were unusual; unlike the followers of other gods they were allowed no carved images. Their God was unseen and spoke to them from a space above what they called the mercy seat, placed on top of the ark of the covenant. If you have ever seen the Harrison Ford film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, you may have an image in mind of the mercy seat. It is described in the Book of Exodus (24:17-22): 'Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold ... you shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings . . .. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.'
One of the great Christian writings on this theme of God's presence in absence is a book from the Middle Ages in England entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. The anonymous author writes for those seeking to find God through meditation and the discipline of contemplative prayer: 'When you first begin, you may find only darkness — a cloud of unknowing, as it were. It will seem incomprehensible, meaningless, except that in your innermost being you will feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out to God' (chapter 3). In an age where science reigns supreme, and instant global communication seemingly transforms our computer or phone into an all-seeing-eye, this wisdom is as radical now as it was for the ancient Israelites. God cannot be seen, pinned down, proved, carved in stone, face-booked, or even described adequately in words. God is profoundly other; seemingly missing and yet inexplicably present in this very absence.
You can probably imagine my joy when, at my farewell last month from Geelong Grammar School, my friend presented me with a magnificent painting of the very scene he had earlier described. I was lost for words; and I remain deeply grateful. Leaving Geelong Grammar School has been a most painful decision. It was an honour to be asked by the Archbishop to take up the Incumbency of St Peter's Eastern Hill but I love the school and I have been genuinely torn as I have sought God's will for the future. Martin's picture holds such poignancy as it hangs on the wall of my new study. It is a beautiful reflection on presence and absence, endings and beginnings, death and resurrection. God out there.
The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster
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