Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Human Failure to Recognize the Elusive Face of Divinity

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Human Failure to Recognize the Elusive Face of Divinity

Article excerpt

The Washington Post recently reported on a seasonal pop song, now making the rounds, that reflects the ancient human thirst to see the face of divinity for oneself.

Never mind that the lyrics are a bit tinny. It fits the season and it reminds me of a story about the novelist Thomas Wolfe. It is said that during his long nighttime rambles through Brooklyn, Wolfe would occasionally knock on a strange door and ask for a glass of water. "I'm a carpenter from Nazareth," he would explain.

This tall, gangling youth with long Byronic locks would hardly be mistaken for a divinity. But the story raises an interesting question. When do we recognize divinity, even when we see it?

Confused identity is certainly a major theme of the Christmas story as we have it in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The powers and potentates of the time - the wicked and jealous King Herod, in particular - are shown to be utterly confounded by the rumored birth of competing royalty, bolting off on false scents. It is the pure in heart - credulous shepherds in the fields, or austere magi following a star - who truly discern the patina of divinity and understand the value of the gift.

The situation in the two Gospels suggests that the divine, in its ever-problematical earthly visitations, is rarely seen face to face or promptly recognized. It must be mediated through the reports of those few who are privileged to see from the start; and for most of us its significance transpires only long after the visit has ended.

In that elusiveness, it mirrors more mundane events. Who at any time can say just what, in the welter of a day's or year's or age's crowded events, will later emerge as truly momentous?

No claim, moreover, quite rivals the claim of messianic significance that is at the heart of Christmas. It is the ultimate claim, dwarfing all others. Biblical scholars tell us that in the great age of the Roman imperium, the time of the first Christmas story, the messianic expectation was of a less exalted character. It was political and secular, lacking metaphysical radiance.

His kingdom, the Christ-child would say later in his ministry, was not of this world, not physical, and still less political and therefore in its nature invisible to eyes clouded or dazzled by worldliness and pride. …

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