Make an adult visit to a long neglected childhood scene. Perhaps your primary school. You’ll know something of the sensation recorded in William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey.” The rooms and hallways, which once seemed so spacious, so imposing upon your youthful self, will have shrunk in size and splendor. You’ll wonder if perhaps the place diminished during your years of absence. It didn’t. You grew.
Wordsworth returns to the banks of the Wye River, a few miles above Tintern Abbey.
In his previous visit, the poet had raced about with “animal movements.” His younger self, more interested in subduing nature than learning from it.
The “wild secluded scene” is different now. It touches him. Time has changed the poet, not the landscape.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) helped to launch the Romantic Age in English poetry. Fueled by the advent of modern science, the Industrial Revolution was consuming nature. Farms were giving way to factories; clouds, to smokestacks; footprints, to railroad tracks. Wordsworth and his generation sought grace in a world that longer looked to Christian revelation. The once sacred Scriptures seemed to be thoroughly human products. If there was a God, perhaps nature alone could still intimate, mediate, God’s presence, just as it had centuries before the coming of Christ. The poet seeks the desert, looking for the divine.
Wordsworth believed that an encounter with nature changes us. Its grandeur works its way within as grace.
Of course the human heart is restless, and Romanticism’s belief in the restorative power of nature would itself decay. A world war ravished any hope that there was something beautiful, something good and something true in the world, still awaiting our discovery. Nothing, not even nature, could live in No Man’s Land.
Two millennia past, a man appeared in the wilderness, preaching that the promises made to Israel—human, limited and frail as they were—were yet to be fulfilled. The Baptist was unlettered. No doubt, he wove together a pastiche of the prophets in a manner that paralleled his roughhewn appearance. Luke simply tells us, “He preached good news to the people” (3:18).
The wilderness was a worthy backdrop, but it was to history, not to nature, that the Baptist pointed. Every liturgy of the church begins with an encounter. We hear the Word of God and ponder what God does in time.
Unless we are very simple folk, unaffected by modern scholarship, or fundamentalists, who actively reject it, we cannot simply hear this Word of God and receive it as though it had been composed—earlier in the day—by God for us. It is now distant, archaic. It bears an all too human scent, a thoroughly human descent.
So why do we still gather to hear this Word read aloud? Why do we stand when the Gospel is proclaimed as though Christ himself stood in our midst? Because we believe God’s Holy Spirit still moves among us. The Word is sprung from human minds, all too human limitations, and yet thoroughly sublime human aspirations.
We believe that when we hear this word proclaimed, the Word, who is Jesus Christ, still speaks to us. This is the cause of our joy: when heard with faith, the word is ever fruitful.
These days, many again beatify nature, seeking to enthrone an earth they have long since made their serf. They correctly sense that we must look to something beyond ourselves, lest we collapse in upon ourselves. But can a deity we devise truly save? Earth need not be our goddess. Mother is acknowledgement enough.
What if God foresaw all of this? Our ancestors’ worship of natural forces, the rise of revelation and its decline? Our desperate desire to rekindle divinity among us? What if God came to us, clothed in simple human desire, woven in all-too-human words? What if God became the very cousin of a foolishly beheaded prophet?
What a sense of humor such a God would have! If such a God existed, how else could one define this divinity, other than joy itself?
Zephaniah 3: 14-18a Philippians 4: 4-7 Luke 3: 10-18