Experience the Divine in Ordinary Time by Rev. Jim Ryan
We celebrate liturgically the move from Christmas-Epiphany to Ordinary Time. With reference to our early school days this move has the feel of ending Story Time and starting Math Class. The wonders of the Christ Child born in Bethlehem accompanied by choirs of angels and later adored by foreign visitors who bring gifts gives way to the time of no particular celebrations other than the rudiments of faith being passed along.
Well, some of us are glad to have undergone Christmas Story Time with its focus on wondrous details but even more glad to take a look at Incarnation apart from such details (particularly so, truth to be told, because many of the details are accretions and add-ons to the story anyway.)
The experience that we spend the majority balance of the liturgical year focusing on is the experience of the divine. What is the experience of the divine if it is not greatly influenced by the birth of an infant whom, we are told, is the Word of God become flesh? Beyond this question, though, what is the experience of the divine if it sees Incarnation as God embodying the universe in all its parts?
For some people to speak of a divinized humanity and of God embodying all is to speak of a depersonalized God. Such people take the critic’s stance and want to see opposition. After all, we are to believe in a personalized Incarnation, one that sees Jesus as that little child who grows to be a man who is rejected, crucified, and buried. This same man rises from the dead and so fulfills central questions of faith. Critics require the splitting of hairs, the competing of one with the other. It makes for great story. Critics like those who carried out the recent Inquisition of American Sisters for having the gall to say that God is not only the person of the little child of Bethlehem, rather God embodies all and is embodied in all creation. Thank God, Pope Francis had the good sense to call off the critics’ wolfish assault and pursued a wider reach for God!
However, to ask the question from the practitioner’s standpoint and not the critic is to open wide the experience of God among us. It is to allow experience and not texts to ground both awareness and conviction. It is also to open ourselves to others who may not hold to the same words but who certainly live by the divine life within them.
When we speak of salvation, for example, too often we limit ourselves to saying that salvation from sin is the scope of Jesus’s mission and ministry. Truth be told, salvation is so much more than wiping slates clean and turning us away from guilty pasts. Salvation, you see, is also about looking forward. Salvation is for acknowledging God who embodies godself in this creation. To say that God is all in all is to say that salvation for us moves us far beyond shame, self-accusation, and guilt.
The language of this experience of the divine is also much more far-reaching than aligning ourselves with the God who wants to constantly remind us of the limits of sinfulness . Because we experience the divine in all we see and do we look behind, between, and beyond all the rest of our life experiences – yes, we look for God in each corner and in all the stars. And while we may not have the words to explain this experience, it is this experience that holds us, grasps us, and does not let us go. Here is the presence of God among us – between, behind, beyond what is materially obvious and superficially evident.
This experience puts us on the journey that is so much more than one text or another – as inspiring as such scriptures may be. And once we are on the journey then we find the power of the language we speak, language that has less interest in getting everything specifically precise and literally correct. On the journey we find the metaphors of poets and prophets so much more enlightening. Metaphoric images like God as light, the divine as an all-embracing presence, the Spirit’s fire, the bruised reed that shall not break.
Such a love of language that enlivens, inspires, and explores is a grounding resource of a consciousness that is likewise grounded in conviction. This is a visionary and enlightening reality – this consciousness so full of love that people recognize the presence of God in its expression.
To experience the divine, then, is to see salvation as salvation from sin, salvation for fulfillment, and salvation to love. In all this wide universe (these universes?) language and texts are servants to the experiential because in experience we find what holds us fast and what propels us to risk.
So, it’s time to move from Story Time to New Math!