Occasionally I will enter this space early on a weekday morning, when the lights are off and all is still, and the spiritual presence of a dozen generations Episcopalians across one hundred and eighty years seems almost palpable. I sit in a pew on the lectern side, about eight rows back, and allow myself to settle into the quiet. Increasingly, these days my prayers are without words, and during my time in this sacred space I most often look to the Resurrection window above the altar as the locus of my meditation.
I can tell you a lot about that window.[i] It was installed after the great 1938 fire that destroyed the Cathedral chancel, and it is dedicated to the memory of George Alfred Taylor. There is some dispute as to the window’s manufacturer. Either the Gorham Company or Payne Spiers of New York created this work of art. The window depicts Matthew’s rendering of the Easter story. Matthew’s is the only one of the four Gospel accounts in which an angel meets the women outside the tomb of Jesus. Matthew tells us, “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone…”
I can tell you all of these things about our Resurrection window, but none of these things enters my mind during my early morning meditations. Rather, when I sit in the stillness of this church, I am captivated by an optical illusion the window presents. You may have noticed it yourself. Because of the greenery that flanks the base of the tomb of Jesus in the background and covers the angel’s wingtips, it appears as if the angel’s wings have been clipped.
For over six years now, I have been preoccupied, and concerned, and curious about that notion. What would it mean for an angel to have clipped wings? What happens when an angel descends to earth but cannot return to heaven? How does one destined to soar in starry skies make his way when the beating of his wings is only noise and folly?
Have you ever felt that way, like an angel with clipped wings? Have you ever in your life felt as if you were supposed to soar but couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Or, have you felt as though you should know God, and that God’s presence might make the very difference in your life, but that the distance between you and God, between you grounded on earth with clipped wings and God high in God’s heaven, is just too great?
I think many of us, perhaps most of the time, feel like that angel and are acutely aware of our distance from God. We may have some deep intuition that we are created to be in close communion with God, that somehow God intends us to soar like angels. But often that intuitions seems like a cruel joke. Loss, and disappointment, and a world so skewed that fairness is a farce seem to be the normal markers of our days, and we catch ourselves wondering whether there is any transcendent meaning to life at all.
Other times, if we’re honest, we know that we clip our own wings. We can be petty and small when we’re not being grandiose and self-absorbed. We know the actions we take can be compromised by mixed motives. We feel acutely the guilt and shame that accompany our decisions. Or else, we are apathetic toward the issues in this world that are of concern to God, preferring to keep our heads down, not even glancing up at the light of God’s heaven, and focusing on our individual, circumscribed present.
For those of us for whom none of this is operative, it may be because we’ve spent years willfully blocking out these thoughts, so that we’ve habituated ourselves to be blithely untroubled by our earthboundness and by God’s distance from us, almost convincing ourselves that if there’s a God at all, he doesn’t really matter.
The distance between God and humanity is the central motif in all of the theistic world religions. God is “up there,” and we are “down here” metaphorically if not literally speaking. Another common religious image is that we are separated from God by a great chasm, with no way to bridge the distance. In fact, the very purpose of religion—all religion—is to bridge that gap. The purpose of religion is to provide a conduit between God and humanity, and then to broker that contact. We see this in ancient Judaism in the Jerusalem temple’s Holy of Holies, the space where God dwelt and into which the high priest entered once per year to intercede for the people. We see it in native religions, in which the shaman with good medicine speaks to the spirits on behalf of the people and then foretells the outcome of events. Even in Christianity, in the very design of our basilica-style churches (of which the Cathedral is one), the distance and elevation of the altar from the people was originally intended to emphasize the distance of God from us, and especially in the Middle Ages the priest was seen as the necessary intermediary between the people down there and God “up there” at the high altar.
Since the dawn of humanity, religion has provided an important coping function for the distress I described at the outset of living in the world with clipped wings, both the distress caused when the world acts upon us and the distress we cause when we act upon the world. Religion, whatever the variety, has provided a means for us to plead with God for help or beg God’s mercy. But here’s the thing: Jesus has no interest in religion. Wait, that’s not quite accurate. Jesus has great interest in religion, and his interest is to disrupt it entirely. Because, Jesus says, the whole idea on which religion is predicated—the idea that we are distant from God and need a system to connect us from earth to heaven or across the chasm—is bogus. In every act and every teaching, Jesus claims that religion’s very premise is wrong. God is not distant from us. God is as near to us as the very air we breathe. God is never absent. If we were fish, God would be the water.
On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, the tearing of the temple curtain in the Holy of Holies from top to bottom is the sacramental sign that nothing ever separates us from God, least of all the pretensions of religion. In Acts today, through St. Peter’s vision of all animals being made clean, God declares that the ancient purity rules that gave some access to God and denied others are invalid. And St. John the Divine, in his grand vision on Patmos, understands the full implications of Jesus’ truth. John’s sees what the world can and will be when God’s children fully recognize that heaven is not a place far away, and God does not reside across a chasm. John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
In other words, when we recognize that God is not up there, or over there, or absent altogether, but right here, always, surrounding us and permeating us with love, then the old world of distance, and loss, and disappointment begins to evaporate as the illusion it has always been. And with the illusion, our despair evaporates, too. It is impossible to remain petty or small, self-absorbed or apathetic, when we abide in the very presence of God. There are no clipped wings in an Easter world. The Church Jesus birthed is not intended to be another religion, brokering a distant God. This is the end of religion. The Church is to be the people who swim and soar through the very presence of God, both here in this sacred space and out there where God also is, and share this Good News in wonder and joy with all those we meet.
At the table of the Lord’s Supper, in our fellowship, on the streets toward our homes, we live and move through the God who is right here, always, making God’s home among mortals so that we need not reach for God, nor fear any chasm. God is here, enveloping us in love.
[i] The Windows of Christ Church Cathedral