But I want God to be somewhere!
Exodus 19:10-19; Job 38:1-23,42:1-5; Isaiah 50:4-11; 1 Cor. 11:23-32; Matt. 26:2-20; John 13:3-17; Matt. 26:21-39; Luke 22:43-45; Matt. 26:40-27:2.
Great & Holy Thursday.
Solemn Vespers & Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.
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9:28 PM 4/21/2011 — Early in my priesthood I was assigned to a big parish with a school; and one of my duties was to teach religion to the third grade—I guess the pastor figured I could do the least amount of damage there. So, one day in class we were talking about God; and at one point a little girl raised her hand and asked, "Father, where is God?" And I said to her, "Well, God is everywhere." I could tell right away that she wasn't satisfied with my answer; but, I continued with the class watching her out of the corner of my eye, knowing that the little wheels were turning. And finally she just blurted out, "But Father, I want God to be somewhere!"
She didn't realize it, but in her own childlike way she was voicing a longing as ancient as the Bible. Since the time that God first revealed himself to Abraham, men have longed for God to be somewhere. A God who is pure spirit, who permeates all of nature, who lives up in the heavens, who dwells in the hearts of every man;—however else it may have been said—this kind of God has never satisfied man. He has always tried to confine God to this physical world.
The ancient Hebrews sent Moses up Mt. Sinai and he came down with the tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments. They believed God was in the Law, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And so they built the ark; and they placed the tablets of the Law in the ark; and they carried the ark around with them everywhere they went. They believed God was in the Ark, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And so they built the tabernacle: a great tent in which to keep the Ark. They would pitch the tent everywhere they settled. They believed God was in the Tabernacle, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And as Israel became a great nation under King Solomon they built a great temple. The Bible says it was the greatest building in the world, the envy of all the kings of the earth. And in the middle of the temple, the Holy of Holies and the Altar of Incense, where God dwelt in majesty and splendor. And from all over the world the Hebrews would come, to celebrate the great feasts and Holy Days of the Jewish year. And when the temple was destroyed, they built another one, so they could know where God was. But even the great temple in Jerusalem could not satisfy them; and when our Lord went into the temple to pray, he could sense the hunger of the people for God. Why?
Well, you see, God is pure spirit, but we are not. We are physical creatures; and we relate to the universe around us in a physical way. I know this pulpit is here. Why? Because I see it, I can touch it, I can read from it. I know it is here because I experience it with my senses. How do I know that God is here? Can I see him? Can I touch him?
All of these places where God is said to have dwelt—the Law, the Ark, the Tent, the Temple—all of them were defective. You see, all of these different places were made by men. Nothing made by man could ever contain the infinite God. The only place where God could really dwell would have to be a place built by God, himself. And that's exactly what he did when he took upon himself the flesh of the Virgin Mary, and became man. And for the first time in the history of God's people, God had a place to dwell that was truly worthy of him, a place so perfect that it was, in fact, God himself, in the person of Jesus.
In St. John's own words: "The word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth."
We have a temple. Jesus is the temple of the new covenant. A perfect temple built by God's own hand. A temple so perfect that it is God himself. A temple that cannot be destroyed; as our Lord himself said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again...," which is exactly what he did on Easter Sunday. For thirty-three glorious years that temple walked among us. He preached in the synagogues, he healed the sick, he forgave sinners; he gave sight to the blind and caused the lame to walk; he made the deaf hear and the dumb speak; he cast out demons and raised the dead. But the most glorious thing he did was this: “He took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body, which will be given up for you.’”
You see, God knows us so very well. He knows that we are physical beings, that we can't just relate to him purely on a spiritual level; that we need a God whom we can see and touch and feel. That's why he gave us Jesus; and that's why Jesus, before leaving this world, gave us his greatest gift: He have us himself, under the humble appearances of bread and wine, so that we, too, could know where God is.
I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him (John 6:51,55-56).
St. John begins his account of the Last Supper with these words: "Jesus, having loved his own in the world, loved them to the end." That's what the Eucharist is all about: love. Not the kind of love that you or I know. When we speak of love we so often mean possession, satisfaction, fulfillment. For us, love so often becomes an obsession in which we try to own another person, to make that person ours. For our Lord it's just the opposite. For Him, to love another means not to possess but to be possessed. We so often characterize love as a hunger for another person. But at the Last Supper our Lord shows us the true character of love; and by the act of washing His disciples’ feet he reminds us that our destiny is to love one another as he has loved us. And He has loved us not with a hunger that seeks to consume, but which seek to be consumed, giving His own Flesh and Blood as food and drink. I wonder how many of us actually believe that. How many of us actually believe that the small portion of bread and wine given to us in Holy Communion is not bread and wine at all, but the Lord? Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of Jesus, Jesus is not present in the bread; but that it actually is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is God. Think about that for a moment: God created the universe and everything in it, and he created you; and you can see him and receive him right here in this church! And there's absolutely no reason for it, except that he loves you!
That little girl in the third grade might have just as well spoken for a lot of people when she said, “Where is God?” Because there are a lot of people running around with empty hearts. And they try, so futilely, to fill the emptiness with created things, all the while missing the fact that the only thing that can fill their hearts is in front of them always in the sacrifice of the Holy Table. That is where the priest, standing in the person of Christ, unites his own flesh and blood to that of his Divine Master, and offers both as an expiation for sin, his own sin as well as his people’s. That is where the creator places himself in the hands of the creature as a proof of his love, as if his love needed any proof.
The love that requires proof now is our own. And our Lord has shown us how, as he commanded us at the last supper: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
Father Michael Venditti