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Terrance KleinFebruary 28, 2024
Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash.

A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-17 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 John 2:13-25

A group of kindergarten and first-grade students came running toward me and my two chihuahuas, Coco and Lilly. The other children wanted to see the dogs, who were quite grateful to be separated from the kids by a fence. Blair, however, wanted to speak with me.

“Father, I figured it out!” She pointed at the sky. “Is God up there, above the clouds?”

There are reasons we call her “Blair with a flair.” She has never been shy; she is always inquisitive.

My on-the-spot theologizing, however, lacked any polish. “Well, he’s not in the sky, but that’s not a bad way to think of it.”

First-graders in general, and Blair in particular, are not into nuance. “He’s not in the sky? Then where is he?”

“He’s right here with us now.” Blair looked around at the trembling chihuahuas and her ebullient classmates. So I added, “But in another dimension.” This was going nowhere, but I persisted. “Another dimension means that God is here, but we cannot see him. He’s here and not here.”

Blair gave me what was at least a tolerant look, as if to say, “You did your best, but I can see that I am going to have to figure this out on my own.”

I suspect that she will, being Blair. There are two truths, true statements about God, which I will add when she is ready. It is impossible to grasp the first truth without grace, and it is even harder to accept the second one because of sin.

There is a God, a fullness of goodness, truth and beauty from which we come: That is the first truth.

The second is this: We are not God. We cannot even adequately picture or understand God. St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that we can only say that God is, we cannot say what God is (ST I.3). Or, as St. Augustine put it, “If you comprehend it, it is not God” (Sermon 67.3 on the N.T.).

Consequently, the atheist and the prudent believer have more in common than one might imagine. The atheist, whether by a gift of nature or grace, realizes that so much of what we say about God is full of holes. God is not in the sky. God is not some all-powerful being on a throne invisible to us. To say that God is invisible or in another dimension is essentially to say that God does not exist.

In this regard, atheists are a step ahead of shallow believers. They have shunned a seductive sack of idols. But atheists must still come to the deeper insight of mature believers. We are not going to find God, because God is not something to be found. Any possible communion between heaven and earth must be God’s gift.

To believe in God is to know that we are incomplete within ourselves. There is always a truth, a goodness, a love and a beauty beyond what we can identify, much less claim as our own.

The real issue, the earnest task of believers and non-believers, is to turn from all the little notions and agendas that we cannot help but raise in the place of God. To profess belief in one God is to reject all the possible substitutes for God. It is to dethrone and refuse primacy to all that is less than God: theories, cultures and agendas.

Jesus cleanses the temple. He must do this, but not because God is opposed to religious goods retailing. The temple and its commerce are good enough for what they are: our way of struggling towards the light, towards our betterment. But they become idols when we settle for them, when we believe and act as though they can deliver God to us.

St. John wants us to know that Jesus is himself the temple. He is the fulfillment of the promise made to Israel. He is the place where God dwells among us. The fourth Gospel never lets up on irony: In Jesus, God is now imminent, yet God remains elusive. God is with us, but not to be grasped by us.

Though only in the first grade, Blair has begun her search for God, and with grace, she will pass through some necessary stages, which I’ve numbered below, for clarity.

  1. There is more to reality than we can grasp.
  2. Because the world itself is true, good and beautiful, so too must be the “more” from which it comes. The “more” cannot be less than we are. God is free, intelligent, creative and communicative: what we call a “person.”
  3. We call this more “God.”
  4. Every time we think that we have grasped this “more,” we must negate our notions. (“Atheist” comes from the Greek, meaning to negate God.) Of course, we are not negating what truly exists, we are only canceling our insufficient conceptions about what is.
  5. Finally, every self-made idol that we reject readies us for the whole that stands beyond the partial, for the horizon in which each truth is posited, for the source of our insatiable desire for beauty and love. In short, for the life yet to come.

Ask on, Blair, ask on!

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