The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
My dear brothers and sisters, I stand before you today in “shock and awe.” Last week, we passed two deadlines: one of diplomatic effort, one of non-combative surrender. Both were defied by Saddam Hussein. Our forces then invaded Iraq and were attacked ineffectively with weapons Hussein had denied having. Suspicions of his mendacity are beginning to be vindicated.
Our own weapons—these precise and devastating bombs—have been shocking and awesome. But if these images shake us on this side of our globe, I cannot imagine the shock and awe of those overwhelmed by them. Sudden and stunning, apparently effective, exact, and elegant—so gods are always conceived: Apollo and Artemis with their bows, Odin and his spear.
This is the point: shock and awe are characteristics of divinity. While our response in these days is a reaction to violence, what we feel before God has a more subtle name: God is the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the Mystery we fear and desire, which causes trembling and fascination.
Our lessons today present us with this God. The passage from Exodus is the centerpiece of a tremendous and fascinating scene. Moses has brought the people of Israel to Sinai, the holy mountain, to meet God. There God descends to pledge Himself in love to the children of Abraham. Listen to what comes before today’s lesson. “On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended on it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.” When God does finally speak directly to the people of Israel, He says, “I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
These are the words that guided Jesus in today’s Gospel passage. The violence of a single man, armed with a whip of cords, also caused shock and awe, as he blazed through the Temple to purify it. In this moment, we see what it means for the Divine jealousy to take human flesh and to demand due reverence, insisting that human beings not appropriate the courtyards of holiness for their own use, but that they respect the prerogatives of God.
It is telling that Jesus’ disciples, John says, at the time did not understand either the event or Jesus’ promise to rebuild the destroyed Temple in three days. Only after he had passed through death did these matters become clear to them. In fact, Jesus’ promise is precisely that he can and will pass through death. Jesus effectively claims that his right to purge the Temple is grounded in his being life-giving Love, the “absolute sole lord of life and death.” What is present in Him is the God who cannot be confined or comprehended, who stretches beyond us on every side, whose immensity causes us both to tremble and to draw near with fascination, just as those who saw the dead Christ risen reacted with shock and awe.
You see, our shock and awe at divinity’s transcendence of us grows out of our knowledge of the transcendence of death. Death also transcends us. Some would say that our awe of death is what causes us to articulate notions of divinity. Death fundamentally pulls us beyond our self into what we cannot conceive and cannot control. Death is always the heart of shock and awe, the moment when we are forced to face the fragile arbitrary contingent nature of our existence. Our knowledge that we are ephemeral is tremendous and fascinating. We dare not look at how brief and trivial we are; we cover our faces in horror when we imagine the portal of pain that awaits us; we, death’s prey, tremble. We also wrestle, as with an assailing stranger in the night, to discern and accomplish what we can within this decay; we struggle to find what will overcome death’s disjointing of us, contradict death’s contradiction, and leave behind something that defies oblivion; in that effort, the rules death gives us to play within fascinate us.
Our Christian mystery grows out of the life and death and resurrected life of the Son of God. Every Sunday we acknowledge that death is the price of life. We give thanks knowing the cost of salvation: we depend for life on a broken body and spilled blood. The religious torment is to know simultaneously that life is sacred and that life must feed on life. God has not so much forgiven this deadly exchange as made it the vehicle of forgiveness. We are not released to kill with impunity and indifference. God does not approve of the destruction of life. But God can be known as the One who has used death to extend life. This primal root of our prayer pushes down into strata below Christianity, below Judaism, deep into the primitive awareness that we are more like the animals around us than different from them. And God used this to forgive us, because we do not know what we do, and yet know we can do no other.
We Christians, however, locate that deadly exchange in a person, who consciously and deliberately lay down his life for our life. At the most solemn moment of the prayer in which we are shaped as Christians, the Eucharistic prayer in which we rehearse how to be thankful, we repeat the words of a young man in his early thirties, about to be sacrificed as a political expediency, who stopped on the verge of the catastrophe to say, “don’t forget me. What you eat is my body, which I give for you by being faithful to my call; what you drink is my blood, which I pour out for you by loving you to the end. Don’t forget, ever, the appalling price of life.”
But we have not accepted that sacrifice, Jesus’ reception of violence into himself that was intended to end our need for violence. We have not yet outgrown our primeval ancestors’ intuitions that, though we are death’s prey, prey can outwit the predator. So we try to measure ourselves against death, to control it, to deploy it, to think of it as “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,” and if slave, then obedient to us. We ought to shudder at violating an immense taboo by appropriating so sacred a thing as death. No one who has seen combat thinks lightly of it. This respect facing death, whose depths we cannot plumb, is at the heart of our revulsion at the obscenities of Hussein’s regime and his abuse and violation of his own people, and our determination to rid the world of the dangers he holds and hides. This respect is also, I trust, at the heart of whatever fear and trembling we feel, when we take our creaturely limits into our own hands and set up a weapons shop in the courtyards of the Temple of the Lord of life. There—hardening our hearts, because we must at these times—we broker transactions in shock and awe, and overlook the rent we must pay to occupy that sacred space, the jurisdiction of death, which is to forget the fundamental pity of things.
Death is what we human beings share. Death is the boundary marker at the edge of every human life. Our abjection before death is what unites us—though we have not yet transformed it into our mutual humility before God. To see each other in the mirror of death, as fellow passengers on this slave ship from which there is no escape, can soften our hearts. To think of the person next to you today as one whose time is short, who flies through this life as a bird flies in and out of the open windows of a hall, and who is no more powerful against this darkness than you are, can awaken in you an urgent tenderness and a godly intention to be very careful not to waste what will soon be lost to you forever. To know our fragility can increase our goodness. As Buddhists say, “contemplating emptiness, compassion arises.”
Yet the primal undertow of fear and rage and grief and self-deception always pulls against us. Paul, in his anguish, says it as few have—and we understand his words, in times of military conflict, more clearly and poignantly than we do at other times—“I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. … I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Over fifty years ago, the British playwright, Christopher Fry, wrote a play in the aftermath of the Second World War called “A Sleep of Prisoners.” In it, four British soldiers are locked into a church overnight by their German captors. The play moves back and forth from this world to the world of the men’s dreams. Each one has a dream in which the others participate, and every dream is about humanity’s history of violence. One dreams of Cain and Abel: the first murder, a man killing his own brother. The second dream is of David and Absalom: the son rebelling against the father and being killed. The third, and most terrible in its implications, is Abraham’s call by God to bind his son Isaac and sacrifice him on an altar. Finally, in the fourth dream, they see themselves bound and cast into the fiery furnace. This is the human condition, these blistering dreams of our pervasive bondage to violence, and in our fire, the men writhe to escape.
We want to escape shock and awe. We want to turn away. The Israelites at Sinai, at the end of the Ten Commandments, turned to Moses terrified and said, “You speak to us, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses went up the mountain then to hear the rest of what God had to say. While Moses was gone, refusing to face what shocked and awed them, the people built a Golden Calf, and worshiped this handy deity, transportable, manageable, visible, potent molten metal. We will be tempted to turn from our new devastating awareness of tremendous and fascinating power, to forget life and death, and to prefer the screens and buttons, pictures of explosions, and radar grids that make it possible. Our technology allows us to believe that all this is containable—the metallic object we claim freed us from bondage. But we do not see the tremendous rage rising against us around the world, though we may be shocked to know it. Your work, your urgent work, is not to forget where true awe resides. Do not turn your back on the fascination that forces you to be humble. One of the soldiers in Fry’s play cries out, towards the end, “O God, the fabulous wings unused, folded in the heart!”
So I urge you to take on these three things.
First, pray for all those in our armed forces, the men and women who, because they love this country and are obedient to their orders and loyal to their comrades, face exhaustion and terror and death. Their honor and dignity deserves our respect. Pray also for the Iraqi people, caught in a conflict not of their own making.
Even today in the Persian Gulf, we can hear, “don’t forget my body and my blood, don’t forget my willingness to risk it, whether I seemed cynical or loyal, blind or brave; remember me.” Some there will know, in a way we cannot know as we sit here today, what it means to look down at themselves in pain or terror and say, “this is my body, this is my blood, and now it is given.” They will not all be Christians. They will not all be citizens of the United States. They will not all be on our side in this conflict. Remember them all. And pray for the leaders of our nations as well.
Second, do not forget the things that make for peace. In his speeches, our President has insisted that this is not a war against the people of Iraq nor against Islam, and he has pledged the rebuilding of that country. We are called to support him in that subsequent effort. Our nation’s integrity requires it. Human solidarity demands it. Christian compassion longs for it.
But this means also that on a daily basis we must practice what makes peace where we are. Jesus, on his last night, stood up, stripped, and tied a towel around himself; then he washed the feet of those he had traveled with. Each foot was lifted and cared for. He did not skip Judas. Perhaps that last moment of physical contact was an unspoken attempt at reconciliation. But even if it was not, Jesus washed the feet of the man he knew would betray him, and in that act of service, did what makes for peace. You know who the Judases of your life are; it is urgent that you do what makes for peace.
Third, engage in interfaith work. Some Iraqis say this invasion is the work of militant Zionists. Millions of Muslims believe our military effort is anti-Islamic. Self-defined Christians in this country slander the prophet Mohammad and label Islam as demonic. These are not tangential elements in this conflict, however much we wish to deny and disavow them. Our response must be a clear repudiation of them. This work for us as Christians must be entered into humbly and equally with both our Abrahamic cousins, not favoring one over the other, finding ways to pray and study together.
Perhaps the image of Jesus crucified is the one to keep in mind. One of our collects says Jesus “stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross, that all might come within reach of his saving embrace.” You, my sisters and brothers, must find your own cross and take it up, stretch out your hands to Jews and Muslims equally, fix your reach with whatever nails your understanding of God’s love gives you, not to convert, but to find together the understanding that brings peace and the peace that passes understanding.
In Christopher Fry’s play, one of the men, bound and burning in the fiery furnace of our species, finally brings words of comfort. He says this:
“The human heart can go to the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
is no winter now. The frozen misery
of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
the thunder is the thunder of the floes,
the thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
comes up to face us everywhere,
never to leave us till we take
the longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul-size.
is exploration into God.
Where are we making for? It takes
so many thousand years to wake,
but will you wake for pity’s sake?”
May these shocks wake us. May God empower us for the work he has given us to do with the awesome love he bestows on us from the depths of the Holy Trinity, whom we adore this day and hope to praise forever.