Show Me Your Ways
One of the most impressive features of the Chateau of Versailles in France or the Ancient Papal Apostolic Palace in Rome (which nowadays is part of the Sistine Chapel), is the succession of huge halls originally conceived with the sole aim of leading to the throne room. Delegations visiting the pope when he still was the head of the papal states would have walked through the Gallery of Maps, then the Tapestry Gallery, and finally the Candelabra Gallery, all designed to impress them and build up their expectations. The more prestigious the monarch, the more elaborate the etiquette visitors had to follow. Once they finally reached the throne room, the scene expecting them must have not been very dissimilar to that which is described in the Greek version of book of Esther, where we are told that “she stood before the king[Ahasuerus], who sat upon his royal throne, and was clothed with all his robes of majesty, all glittering with gold and precious stones; and he was very dreadful. Then lifting up his countenance that shone with majesty, he looked very fiercely upon her: and the queen fell down, and was pale, and fainted, and bowed herself upon the head of the maid that went before her” (Esther 9.6ff). Arguably, not all pope’s visitors were expected to faint on being introduced to his presence, but they had to be in awe. Hence the deployment of halls, thrones, clothes, gold, precious stones to enhance the majesty, that is the greatness (‘majesty’ comes from maius which means ‘great’) of the monarch, to display his glory (suggested in the book of Esther by the expression “shine with majesty”).
Many of the Old Testament depictions of God represent him as sitting on a throne (Ps 47.8), and resplendent with majesty (Ps 76.4). When the prophet Isaiah describes his first encounter with God, he too uses this imagery: he sees “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filling the temple”, there are angels proclaiming his holiness and his glory, and the prophet fears for his life because he thinks that he has seen the Lord and knows that nobody can survive this experience (Is 6.1-5).
Awe sometimes can be too much.
When John, at the beginning of his Gospel, declares that nobody has ever seen God (John 1.18), he sums up the belief of most of biblical authors: if the glory of Ahasuerus was such that Esther fainted, how much more would God’s glory overwhelm any human being to the point of causing his death – just as, for example, the brightness of the sun is such that if we look directly into it, we are blinded.
Characteristically, however, the Old Testament reconstructs this worldly notion of majesty and glory when it applies it to God and nowhere this process can be seen at work more suggestively than in the 33rd chapter of the book of Exodus where Moses pleads with God not to give up on his people despite its apostasy, after the episode of the golden calf - and God accepts this request out of friendship for Moses. It is a moment of great proximity between the two and this emboldens Moses to put forward the two questions he had been burning to ask him: “if I have found favour in your sight, please show me now your ways” (33.13) and “Please let me see your glory” which, as the rest of the passage makes clear, is synonym with “let me see your face”, that is “Let me see who you really are” (33.38.20).
And God, who by this stage cannot refuse anything to Moses, however cryptically, complies. To the question about his way of doing things, God replies “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (33.20) which confirms what he had declared elsewhere: God’s ways are forgiveness and hesed, that is tender, passionate, and affectionate love. As for seeing his face or glory, God replies “you cannot see my face, for humans shall not see me and live” but let’s find another way: “while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back” (33.29-23). Rabbinic commentators suggestively interpret seeing God’s back in this way: we can perceive what God has done only retrospectively, looking back at the events of our life and of history.
This is the background to the apparent innocent request by some Greek pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Easter: “We wish to see Jesus” (12.21). The rest of the passage is quite disorienting: Jesus seems to ignore the request and instead talks of seeds, death, and especially glory: first he declares "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”, then he tells the Father “Glorify your name”, and the Father replies to him “I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again" (12.xx). In what way is this talk of glory an answer to the request of the Greeks to see Jesus’ face?
From God’s answer to Moses’ request we know that seeing God’s face and seeing his glory are the same thing.
So what is this ‘glory’?
In the case of an earthly kings, glory is prestige, power, wealth and greatness signified by halls, thrones, clothes, gold, precious stones, elaborate etiquette.
In God’s case, glory is the synonym of his ways or dealing with us. Which means that for John too we can see who Jesus really is only by paying attention to the way he behaves with us, especially in his passion.
The Hebrew word for glory is kabod and its primary meaning is “heavy in weight”. The glory is the weight people carry in a community, the impact they have on others. Giving glory means acknowledging this and manifesting it with our deference and respect. This is a metaphor common in our daily language: we refer to those who are able to influence people and affect their lives by saying that “their opinion carries weight”. The implication is that these people do not simply possess power, whether coming from a political office, or wealth, or strength. They also have what we call ‘authority’, that is: they do not owe their impact on us to coercion, but to their personal and relational qualities.
Power can be conferred by law, by appointment, or by inheritance: as soon as someone is sworn president of the United States, she is invested with executive power and can act accordingly. Authority on the contrary needs to be deserved, conquered over time, and depends on the authenticity of a leader, her wisdom, her ability to establish a connection with people, her steadiness. Most of the ability of a head of state even as powerful as the president of the US to lead the world depends on her moral authority. We are drawn to listen, trust and follow people with authority. We are glad to acknowledge that their views carry weight.
As a result, if we ask someone ‘Show me your power’, the demonstration can be provided straight away: the person in question can have me arrested, or overpower me physically, or force me to do something without delay. On the contrary, if I ask someone: ‘Show me your authority (or your weight, or your glory)’, I will get an answer similar to what God said to Moses: ‘I am afraid, you will have to wait and see’ – which is the same answer Jesus gives to the Greeks who want to see him: my glory, my authority, my weight, the way I will “draw everyone to myself” will be dying like a grain of wheat, losing my life, loving and forgiving until the end.
As we enter into the yearly celebration of the Lord’s passion, we should not assume that we can easily (or at all) make sense of it. However many times we might have thought about this, meditated on the passion narrative of the Gospels, read the theologians who have wrestled with this mystery, once again we find ourselves in the same position of Moses – that is we can only ask the Lord to give us some insight into his ways. This year too, just like the Greeks, as we come “to worship at the festival”, “we wish to see Jesus”, that is we would like to understand how today, 2000 years after the execution of this obscure preacher from Palestine, we are still drawn towards him, we are still in awe of his glory.
I ask this question to myself quite often, especially considering our contemporary western secularized world where the default option is non-belief. How can the whole of my life be so impacted by him? How is it that I keep trusting that the story of how he gave his life for us is worth being re-enacted once again in our liturgy? What is the secret of such weight, such impact, such glory?
The answer we are given is that we cannot really fathom this mystery and we never will – and yet we are not left with nothing, we are given another option: we can look back, to our lives, to the history of Christianity, and maybe learn to perceive a bit better the ways in which, however slowly, God is indeed writing his law in our hearts, he is indeed drawing all of us to himself.