Last month national newspaper columnist Michael Gerson gave a most remarkable sermon at Washington National Cathedral.[i] Gerson begins by acknowledging that he’d originally been slated to preach weeks prior, but that a conflict caused him to reschedule. He then surprises the congregation by revealing that the conflict was that he had been hospitalized for depression. Gerson poignantly and painfully carries the congregation through his experience of a deep depressive episode. “The brain experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it,” Gerson explains, “Over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.”
Michael Gerson uses his experience as a launching point to say that one need not have a chemical imbalance in one’s brain to lapse into despondency. Gerson says, “All of us—whatever our natural serotonin level—look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness. A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent. If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair. By all objective evidence, we are arrogant animals, headed for the extinction that is the way of all things. We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.”
With regard to his depressive episode, Gerson acknowledges that he was fortunate to have had access to mental health services that shepherded him back to and through the surface of his depression. He credits medicine and medical professionals as agents of his restoration. But he is also preaching, and from the Cathedral that is his own spiritual home, and he offers in faith that, for each of us, whether clinically depressed or merely at risk of despair as we observe our individual worlds and the world round about us, the first moment of freedom and hope comes when we “begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of [our] sadness…some shred of beauty or love.”
In Exodus today, Moses comes down Mount Sinai, where he has been in the immediate presence of God, and Moses enters into the midst of the people of Israel. But the Moses who comes down the mountain is not the same Moses who ascended. Being in God’s presence has changed him. Now, Exodus tells us, “the skin of Moses’ face was shining, and the people were afraid to come near him.” The Hebrew word for “shine” used here is not used elsewhere in scripture, and it seems to mean that something like a ray of light or an aura emitted from Moses.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out the peculiarity of this passage.[ii] Whereas the chapters just before and after it focus on God revealing Godself through words and commandments, in this passage God’s disclosure is different. While today’s passage mentions in passing that, upon reaching the foot of Mount Sinai Moses shares God’s law with the people, its overriding emphasis is that God conveys Godself simply through God’s palpable, teeming presence. On the mountain Moses has, Brueggemann says, “entered deeply into God’s own life.” Moses has been immersed in God—he has been enveloped by God’s beauty, and wonder, and grace—and once that has happened, Moses cannot help but bear the presence of God in himself and through himself. Moses is changed in a way that all can see—he emits that aura of light—and through that change, before and beyond any words that are spoken, the presence of God is communicated to those Moses meets.
That fascinates and tantalizes me. As many know, I am a student of the ancient Celtic Christian tradition. The Celts believed that heaven and earth are only three feet part, and that there are some geographic places on this earth where even that distance collapses.[iii] The Celts called these thin places. As I often say, a thin place is where the veil between the spiritual and material realms is stretched so thin as to become porous. Spiritual reality flows into the material world, sometimes as a trickle and other times as a torrent. In such places, the presence of God is often palpable. As Walter Brueggemann says of Moses on Mount Sinai, in thin places people sometimes realize to their surprise that they enter deeply into God’s own life, or, better yet, God enters deeply into theirs.
And often, at that point, there is a transference. The encounter strips away from the person all those layers of defense that we accrue over time to prevent God or other people from entering into the deepest recesses of our lives. Where we were thick, so to speak, we are laid bare before God’s presence, and the thin place of geography becomes a thin place of personhood. This is what happens to Moses in Exodus today. He encounters God in the thin place of Mount Sinai and is himself rendered a thin place. And when he descends to the people, we read that they are afraid to approach him.
Why might that be? Walter Brueggemann says that Moses “goes deeply into the mystery of God with all its danger and receives guidance for the ways in which presence can be mediated and made available.” What is the danger? They danger is that the encounter with God will change us. It has changed Moses, clearly, and any who then commune with him run the risk of being stripped thin themselves, of having God come to reside in them and through them. Becoming something different than we are, even if we don’t particularly like who we are, even if our present reality is despondent and near despair, is a frightening prospect.
Michael Gerson knows this personally. He knows the despair; he knows the fear; and he knows that the encounter with God is salvation. Gerson says, “The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument, [not words]…It is the experience of transcendence we cannot explain, or explain away. It is the fragments of love and meaning that arrive out of the blue…[the] experience of pulling back the curtain of materiality, and briefly seeing the landscape of a broader world…There was Paul’s blinding light on the road to Damascus. There was Augustine, instructed by the voice of a child to ‘take up and read.” There was Teresa of Avila encountering the suffering of Christ with an ‘outpouring of tears.’ There was John Wesley’s heart becoming ‘strangely warmed.’” Today we can add, there was Moses coming down the mountain, his face shining with the presence of God.
But we can also add the innumerable anonymous instances in which we have encountered thin places of both geography and personhood. We, too, have encountered in places and in people transcendence that we cannot explain, or explain away, where the veil is so thin as to be porous, where the curtain is pulled back and we briefly see the landscape of the broader world. Those encounters push through the despondent surface of the world. Those encounters are the really real. They can be fearful, and we can run from them and back into the material world of our familiarity. Or, we can recognize that such encounters are the first moment of freedom and hope, when we begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world, some shred of beauty or love.
This is the last Sunday of Epiphany. On Wednesday of this week, we liturgically leave behind the season where we are attuned to epiphanies of God’s presence and enter into the introspection of Lent. But epiphanies do not cease with a turn of the liturgical calendar, and revelations of God are especially gifts in Lent. We may be, like Moses, the one who encounters God on the mountain, or we may be, like the Israelites, the ones who meet that person as he descends. Either way, God communicates Godself through God’s presence even before words. Through thin places God seeks to render us thin places, and if we will respond we may find that from us shine forth rays of light.
[ii] Brueggemann, Walter. “Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, 953-954.
[iii] Weiner, Eric, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012.