From the Book of Exodus:
As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 16:10 (NRSV) – May 1, 2014.)
Two days ago we celebrated the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist and the Gospel lesson for use at the Eucharist was the opening of his Gospel which relates the story of Jesus’ baptism following which, Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” (Mk 1:12) so the word “wilderness” caught my attention today.
Years ago I read a commentary on the book of Revelation in which the author asserted that the wilderness is the true home of the People of God, that it is in the wilderness that the People find their true identity. Here in this verse we find the Hebrews looking towards the wilderness where they find the glory of God. Is that our true identity? St. Irenaeus wrote, “Gloria Dei est vivens homo,” which means “The Glory of God is a living person,” sometimes translated as “The Glory of God is the human fully alive.” Is that what the Hebrews spied in the wilderness? Is that what the Redeemer was compelled by the Spirit to discover out there with the wild beasts?
Yesterday I read an essay comparing the scientific theory of “dark matter” and “dark energy” to the doctrine of Original Sin, and suggesting that both spring from a human “primal desperation to make sense of our overwhelming ignorance.” The author suggested, “Truth lives in a lot of places – but we often just cannot seem to find out exactly where.” In the wilderness, where there is an absence of distraction, where our ignorance becomes more evident, where the Spirit drove Jesus, where the Hebrews encountered the Glory of God, perhaps truth is more readily apparent. And the truth will make us free (Jn 8:32), free to be truly alive.
I am a member of the Masonic fraternity (although these days not a very active one). In Freemasonry, the tools of stone masonry are given symbolic meanings. Among the first tools to which a new Mason is introduced is the common gavel. We are told that in operative masonry this tool breaks off the rough corners of the stone to better fit it to the builder’s use. Freemasons are to use it metaphorically to divest ourselves of the “vices and superfluities of life,” thereby becoming better fit as “living stones” to be used by the Supreme Architect of the Universe. The reference, of course, is to the First Letter of Peter in which the Apostle admonishes us:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 2:4-5)
It seems to me that in the wilderness those “vices and superfluities,” which I think are all those things we use to cover up or deny our “overwhelming ignorance,” naturally fall away — the work of using that gavel to remove them is much easier. The wilderness is a sort of quarry where we are cut away from all that we have accumulated, all that we have used to deny our ignorance; we are trimmed of that excess to become the building stones of that “spiritual house” of which Peter wrote. Little wonder that the Hebrews looked to the wilderness and saw God, little wonder the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be fitted for his ministry, little wonder we find our true identity there. Stripped of the doctrines, theories, and metaphors with which we cover our ignorance, we find that we don’t need them. Without them we are living stones, living human beings, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, truly alive, the glory of God.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.