08 February 2016

Sublime Fear

When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
(Exodus 34:30)

The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
(Psalm 99:1)

But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.
(2 Corinthians 3:14)

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
(Luke 9:34)

The characters in bible experience fear on a regular basis, and frequently the first thing that God or an angel of God says is some variation on: 'fear not'. However, in the readings for this last Sunday after Epiphany this is not the case. Each of the readings touches on a fear of the Almighty that is not set aside. Even in Moses's case, a veil is required before the people can face him without fear.

The psalm calls on God's people to tremble and the gospel shows us disciples doing something that causes God to put the fear of, well, God, into them.

This idea of the experience of God having healthy fear at its heart, put me in mind of an art exhibition I saw in Pennsylvania in 2002. Called "American Sublime:  Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880" it was put on by the Tate Britain, London and toured to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Like many of the best experiences in my life, it was a complete accident that I got to see it.

I was in town to attend a fan convention and found that that was a terrible idea for an introvert. I spent most of the time instead touring the city and walked into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on a whim.

What I found there were paintings that overwhelmed my senses. They were on a grand scale-- many large enough to take up entire walls in the museum, all of them trying to convey something about the awesome power of nature.

The images and feelings they invoked in me have stayed with me through the years, not the least because they introduced me to a concept I had felt before, but never had a word for: 'Sublime'. I came away with the idea that something that is sublime and awesome has, at its heart, the power to not only overwhelm the senses, but to provoke fear.

The term 'sublime' descries this imaginative response to immensity or boundlessness, a 'delightful horror' when faced by phenomena of great magnitude, by potential danger or the unknown."
(Wilton and Barringer, 2002, pg 67)

Several times as young person, I had an experience of God that left me trembling in the aftermath. I had no words for this feeling but when I saw the enormous paintings on the wall of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts I felt that same sense of overwhelming awe, a feeling that I was a very small speck in a very large universe.

The 'cloud [that] came and overshadowed' and left Peter, John, and James terrified matches my idea of the Sublime: something so awe-inspiring, terrible, and mighty in its aspect that it leaves the observer shocked and spent in its wake.

In the readings appointed for this Sunday, I see a God who feels that the disciples needed a reminder of the awesome and terrible nature of God after months hanging out with human-seeming Jesus. This is a moment when God overwhelms the Peter, John, and James and seems to say that a little fear is a good thing now and then

For me, this puzzling moment of fear sets the stage for what is to come. The disciples have been following Jesus, experiencing miracles, and hearing the parables and may have been thinking (as humans tend to) that their life with Jesus would go on indefinitely just as it had been.  But in this moment, God brings them up short and reminds them just how high the stakes are. God comes right out and says: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" (Luke 9:35)

This revelation shows me that God is trying to get the disciples to take seriously all that Jesus has been saying about his upcoming suffering, rejection, and death.

Buried in that experience of fear, however, is one of hope. If God, the Almighty is trying to get the disciples to take this seriously by making them quake in their boots; God is also declaring God's unwavering support for Jesus and Jesus's message by making it clear that God expects Peter, James, and John to really listen to Jesus.

As we stand on the cusp of Lent, about to enter the dark times of the persecution and death of Jesus in our liturgical calender, it is a good time to be reminded that God the sublime and awe-inspiring has thrown God's weight fully behind Jesus in this moment.

Acknowledging that there is a very real reason to feel fear is the first step toward the courage to take up the message of Jesus.

As the writer of 2 Corinthians goes on to say:
...but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

May we all have our fears turned into sublime glory.


Bible quotes are from the NRSV on Bible Gateway

Wilton, A., Barringer, T. J., Tate Britain (Gallery), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts., & Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (2002). American sublime: Landscape painting in the United States, 1820-1880. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on February 7, 2016.

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