No Christmas would be complete these days without at least one Indiana Jones film being shown on TV. In the first of them, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the climax comes when the German soldiers gather round to examine the contents of the lost ark of the covenant which they have supposedly dug up in the Egyptian desert. In typical Hollywood fashion God makes his presence felt through an impressive storm, earthquake and fire which mercilessly destroy those who dare to gaze upon the glory of the Lord.
It is reminiscent of the moment in the life of the prophet Elijah recounted in today's first reading. Despondent and depressed he flees to the desert and takes refuge in a cave where he is visited by an impressive storm, earthquake and fire. Elijah is told however that the Lord is not in any of these. Instead he recognises God in the sound of a gentle breeze or, as it is more properly translated, in ‘the sound of fine silence’.
This paradoxical phrase links up with a long tradition of reflection on the Bible which explains the variety of ways in which we can speak about God and name God. As creator of all things God can be named from his works. God is the ‘cause’ responsible for all that is and the ‘artist’ whose works we see all around us. These works speak positively about the power and majesty, goodness and beauty of their source. They reflect something of God and are validly understood as images of God.
But God is not any of the things we see around us nor is God just another thing alongside the things we see and experience. The reality and the presence of God are much more mysterious than that. What is called ‘negative theology’ teaches us that in naming God we must also deny everything of God. In other words while God is the creating cause of everything that is, God is not a mountain or a river or a star or an angel or anything else that can be named.
On the one hand we can use everything as a name for God because everything reflects something of the glory of God who is its cause. On the other hand we must deny everything of God and say that God is not any one of these things which God has made but is greater than any and all of them.
The Bible and philosophy together teach us that some names seem more suitable for God, names like being, goodness and wisdom. But even these names are used of God in a way that surpasses our ordinary knowledge and use of them. God is good, powerful and beautiful not simply in the way we experience and understand these names but in a way that is special to God.
To want to see God, know God and name God is a natural human desire. But it can very easily become a desire to ‘have’ God in a way in which God cannot be had and held. The Bible warned that no person could see God and live: a warning against trying to possess, comprehend or control the divine mystery. Whatever we say about God must be carefully qualified until we arrive at a moment which is fittingly described as ‘the sound of fine silence’.
God bursts all bonds, even the bonds of those images, concepts, names and experiences which human beings identify as ‘divine’ or ‘theological’. The adventure of seeking the names of God is like stepping out to walk on water. Very soon we realise that far from being able to hold and control God by knowing and naming God, it is God who sees, knows and names us.
It strengthens our faith to think a bit more deeply about the ways in which we can legitimately speak about God. It brings home to us something of the wonder and magnificence of God. It is important that we not speak about God in a way that is too easy or familiar. In time of real need, however, we all fall back on the name which is above all other names. As we begin to sink we call on Jesus and with Saint Peter we know who we mean as we cry out ‘Lord, save us’.
You will find here another homily for today.