My heart raced; my mind was set in motion.
The Hebrew word for glory is chabod. Its literal meaning is "weight," and its earliest references were to the weight and splendor of the royal clothes: Rich embroidered cloth, woven with gold thread, embedded with jewels. Then the crown! The glory of God referred to Godís splendor.
The psalmist saw glory in Godís creation:
And the poets, they have always had eyes to see. Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Or e. e. cummingsí "blue true dream of sky."2 Or Hopkinsí "Glory be to God for dappled things" -- which was another way of saying: If youíve got freckles, praise Ďem!
The creation account from Genesis says that God spoke all things into being, blessed them and called them good. Then it goes on to say that the crown of all creation was Godís making of the human person on the sixth day. We were made in the imago dei, the image of God, male and female; and when God saw us, God blessed us and called us good.
But Godís glory is found not just in nature; it is also seen in history, in Godís acts of justice and liberation, and in the moral wisdom of God which is embedded in the fabric of the universe.
Godís powerful presence in history and in moral wisdom was given a central symbol in ancient Israel: The ark of Yahweh, the ark of the Lord.
The ark was a bare wooden bos. It stood for the visible throne of the invisible God. You couldnít see God but you could see where God sat. Inside the box were the Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses. So it was also called, the "ark of the covenant."
This ark preserved the invisibility of God. There was no visual representation of God there. This God cannot be controlled, or whittled down to human dimensions. And it preserved the moral nature and purpose of God. The Holy is a moral force, not just a force.
To grasp the significance of the ark, you need to empty your mind of everything you saw in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The ark had one more important feature: It was portable. It had rings and poles so it could be carried. The presence of God could not be confined to a place. Israelís God was a traveling God!
Freed from Pharaohís captivity, the Hebrew people carried the ark of God with them through the wilderness. And when they arrived in the Promised Land, they placed it in the central worship place in the mountains, Shiloh.
Fast forward a few generations. Israel is at war with its perennial nemesis, the Philistines. Eli is judge of Israel, its key spiritual and political leader.
In 1 Samuel 4 there is a battle between Israel and the Philistines, and about four thousand of Israelís soldiers are killed. What does Israel do? They go to Shiloh and carry the ark of God back to the battlefield. With Godís presence with them they will surely win the next battle.
But in the second battle Israelís army is routed, Eliís two sons are killed and -- horror of all horrors -- the ark of Yahweh is captured by the enemy. God is carried off in enemy hands.
Five Times in twelve verses the terrible truth is announced:
When Eli hears all the news, the army routed, his two sons killed, the ark of the Lord captured, he falls over backward, breaks his neck and dies (v. 18).
But thatís not all. One of his sons killed in battle has a wife near full term in her pregnancy. When this unnamed woman hears the news of her husbandís death, Eliís death and the capture of the ark, she goes into labor. It is a difficult labor. The child survives but she dies. And before she dies she names her son. Call him I-chabod, she says; literally it means, "Where is the glory?" She explains the name: "For the glory has departed from Israel, because the ark of God has been captured."
"The glory has departed"; more precisely it says, "The glory has gone into exile."
Sometimes that is our experience too; The glory of God leaves us, goes into exile. In our lives we have experience the glory of God: in "the rapture of being alive," in the beauty, presence and goodness of God in life itself. But we can also experience those terrible moments, terrible seasons when for us the glory of God has departed.
It may come as we experience a terrible loss. The dearest thing in our life is gone, and it feels like God has departed with it.
Sometimes the glory of God departs the people of God because they have cheapened Godís glory and misused Godís name. So Ezekiel saw it happening in the life of Israel leading to their exile. Godís people had cheapened the glory, forsaken the covenant, used Godís name for vainful purposes. So the glory of God had upped and left, vacated the temple, gone into exile.
This is our story too, when we use God to bless our prideful ways, to justify our greed, baptize our injustices, confirm our bigotries, consecrate our hatreds. There is a photograph traveling these days around the World Wide Web. It is of an American flag stretched across the sky. It is made of a slightly translucent material. Behind it the sun has produced, in the blue square of the flag, the glowing image of a cross. Do the purveyors of this photograph want us to carry this Christianized flag into battle as an "ark of the Lord"? Will some dying widow have to name her son I-chabod: "Where is the glory?"
Perhaps the place where Advent truly begins is when we are able to name our losses, confess our emptiness, tell of those places where it feels like the glory of God has departed. It is from that honest place where we in truth sing "O Come, O Come Immanuel."
It is into such a place where the prophet cries and the tenor sings the beginning of Messiah: "Comfort ye." Advent every year begins there for me: In the sound of the strings and the call of the tenor voice singing the recitative from Handelís Messiah. And where it enters me is the empty places, where the glory of God has departed.
But the vision of Isaiah 40 goes on to glimpse a universalizing of the glory of God, the glory of God not confined to an ark or a nation or a temple, not confined to a church or creed, race or people:
And the glory, the glory of the Lord
shall be revealed
And all flesh shall see it together.
Here is a vision which encompasses and yet transcends both Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. The glory of God is meant for the whole human race. Godís glory has been given to us, but it is on its way to all people. In our world today, we will survive only as much as in our religions we are able to claim the particular and embrace the universal.
When I heard the chorus "And the Glory" this year, my mind went to the opening of Johnís gospel.
Johns recapitulates the creation story from Genesis Ė and brings it to a glorious new climax:
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and was God. . . .
All things came into being through the Word,
and without the Word was not one thing made
that was made ...
And the word became flesh and dwelt among us
And we have seen his glory
the glory as of a fatherís only son
full of grace and truth.
Irenaeus, the great theologian of the church in the second century, had been taught the gospel from Polycarp, who had been taught by John himself. He was captured by this universal vision. He saw in Jesus Christ not just Godís destiny for this one man, but the destiny of the whole human race. Here are his famous, startling words:
The glory of God is the human being
fully alive; the life of the human
being is the vision of God.
This is a thrilling vision Ė and also the greatest of all challenges. We can no longer say, in defense of our careless flaws: "Weíre only human." Christ is the one we live up to, live toward. The stakes are high. When we fall short of Godís glory, we lay waste to our lives and to the lives around us.
There is in each of us, I wish we could better see it, the glory of God. It is Godís signature upon you, the way an artistís signature is much more than the name placed there at the bottom of the painting, but is the undeniable style of the artist displayed in the painting itself, in its brush strokes and composition.
Your life can tell the glory of God. Do you know that? Do you want a guide? Christ is the guide. Our whole human race is on a journey toward the glory of God. What is the way? Follow this way.
And when it happens, those places and times when we become what God has made us to become, as persons, communities, nations: At those moments in time a dying mother does not name her child I-chabod, "Where is the glory?" But a child is born and we name him, name her: Immanuel, God with us. Here is the glory! Yes, here is the glory!
1. "God's world," Collected Poems, p. 32.
2. "i thank you god for most this amazing," 100 Selected Poems, p. 114.
3. I am indebted here to the exposition of I Samuel 4 by Walter Brueggemann, Ichabod Toward Home (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), pp. 1-23.