In the last couple of years, we've seen a strange phenomenon: fear of good news.
When the surge in Iraq actually worked, not many antiwar activists exulted in the fact that violence had actually diminished. When Barack Obama was elected President, many black activists still kept grumbling about an incurably racist America. When the stock market climbed recently, prophets of the "coming economic collapse" still had nothing good to say.
In each case, of course, good news exposed some fallacy around which these groups had framed their lives. That's also and especially true when it comes to extraordinary events — like encountering God in his glory. It's not always good news.
The Genesis story tells us that God was walking in the Garden apparently the day after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. He was looking to get close to the guilty couple. But when they discovered that God was in the neighborhood, they hid themselves.
In the New Testament we read that Peter, after hauling in a great catch at the command of Jesus, found himself confronted with the glory of miracle and the power of God. He tells Jesus, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!"
This Sunday, we will be reminded of another such moment: When the women realize that Jesus has been raised, they run in fear.
There is something about the great news of encountering the very glory of God that scares the spirituality out of us. There are many reasons for that, but one is this: Divine light exposes something in us that we do not like to look at.
Paint a room in normal lighting, and when you step back, it all looks pretty good. You pat yourself on the back, and start cleaning up. But shine one of those 500-watt high-intensity lamps on the walls, move the lamp up and down, and get a sideways look at it. That high-intensity light exposes all the places where the old paint still bleeds through.
To experience Christ in his resurrection glory can be something like that. The one whom the Nicene Creed calls "Light from Light" has a way of exposing all the old paint that still bleeds through our lives. So some days, the last thing I want is to meet the resurrected, glorious Christ. He just exposes too many flaws.
These days, we spend a lot of ink and electrons wondering why God does not manifest himself like he did in biblical times. We write eloquent books and preach powerful sermons on the absence of God in modern life, feeling sorry for ourselves, living as we do in an alienated age. But I wonder if God is trying to plug the lamp of his glory into our lives, but we just keep hitting the breaker switch in the basement, making sure no electricity whatsoever gets to that outlet.
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On the other hand, the very light that exposes also heals. "And we all, with unveiled face," wrote Saint Paul, "beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV).
The parents of Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510) forced her at age 16 to marry a young nobleman who proved to be an ill-suited match. He not only neglected the things of God, he also squandered their funds so that the couple was ruined.
To take her mind off her unhappy circumstances, Catherine drifted into small diversions. If she attended church, it was more out of habit and duty. Still, she prayed desperately for relief. Her sister, a nun, urged her to go to confession at her convent. Catherine agreed, although she didn't really want to do so. Her sister said, "At least go to obtain the blessing of our confessor," who had a reputation as a holy man.
So, on one March day in 1473, a miserable, 26-year-old Catherine knelt in the confessional. Something remarkable happened: a ray of light burst in from who knows where. A medieval biography (Life and Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa) describes what happened to Catherine, whom is called "the Soul" here:
Touched by this ray, the Soul saw and felt a certain flame of love proceeding from that divine source, which, for the moment, left her like one bereft of sense, without understanding, without speech, without feeling. In that pure and simple love, as God manifested it to her, she remained at that moment wholly absorbed, and never more did this sight depart from her memory; always she beheld that pure, divine love turned toward her.
All well and good, except that ray of light and drink of pure, divine love revealed something ugly in her. But she did not flinch:
She was then shown how she had lived without the knowledge of this great love, and how great were the faults in which she saw herself, and what she could do to correspond to this pure love; and so humbled was she in her own eyes that she would have publicly proclaimed her sins through the whole city, and could do nothing but incessantly repeat these words: "O Lord! no more world, no more sin," with a cry of inward anguish which came from the depths of her heart.
Instead of running from the extraordinary encounter — "No more light, no more glory!" — Catherine submitted to the painful light of purification. She had a saint's instinct to know that all love comes wrapped in pain, and all pain, when accepted in faith, delivers the gift of love. One cannot have the love of God without pain any more than one can have the sun's light without the sun's heat.
Catherine realized that not only the Cross but also the Resurrection comes with two beams.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker) explores a variety of spiritual themes on his blog.
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