Are desire and fear the foundations of faith?
Epistle Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
For Sunday, August 22, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 21
God first speaks to Moses as the fire that burns, but does not consume. When God moves onto the mountain to come closer to God’s people, God descends upon it in fire, with smoke pouring out of it like smoke from a kiln, as the whole mountain shakes violently. God repeatedly warns Moses not to let the people come too close for fear that the-fire-that-is-God will break out against them and consume them.
God is the fire that consumes, yet does not consume. But even God is not so sure God can keep this up forever.
Dis-ease in God’s Nature
This dis-ease in God’s nature is recalled (reinforced, re-visited, reread) in this week’s Epistle. The author of Hebrews juxtaposes Mount Sinai with mount Zion. “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…”
Things are different, the author, assures us. There is a new covenant. Blazing fire has been replaced with innumerable angels. And Jesus is on Zion, the Word of grace and mercy. This pericope concludes, however, with a flashback to Sinai. “For indeed our God is a consuming fire.” Why?
Categories of Opposition
James Alison says that God gets Moses’ attention with the burning bush because of the impossible nature of the event, “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’” Moses sees two things that should be in opposition two each other, which exist simultaneously—consuming fire and the bush that is not consumed.
Alison goes on to say that this is possible because nothing can be in opposition with God since God is not contained in any categories; God is more like no-thing than another among things, or more like not-god than one of the gods. The possibility of this impossibility, when glimpsed or revealed, compels us to turn aside, to gaze up on it and in us wells up a desire for this Unknown.
But in that same moment we do not forget the categories of opposition. One or another might prevail. The fire will burn out or the fire will consume. This triggers panic or fear. What I am attempting to describe is a deep existential moment. The most basic of moments, like the fight or flight instinct, but I think this is more primal to humanity than that. It is the want or flight instinct, or the desire or fear compulsion.
The Hardest Question
The Author of Hebrews gives us a seesaw of images, first describing the blazing fire and tempest on Sinai and then reminding us of Zion and this new covenant in Jesus. Then he concludes, But don’t forget that God is a consuming fire. Is this an attempt to get at the most basic tension of what it means to be human? To be fully human as we were created to be? Are desire and fear the foundations of faith?