I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree. — Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887–1916)
Ever since I first heard Archbishop Fulton Sheen recite this poem, I have always been drawn back to it. Shortly after I had experienced a life-changing “faith awakening” back in 1987, someone gave me several sets of Sheen’s sermons which I promptly devoured. I recall the thrill of discovering in Plunkett’s poetic imagery a view of life that I had never before imagined was possible or desirable, one in which the world around me was alive with the mysteries of faith.
I loved nature as a child (from the age of 6 to the age of 14 I had successively “decided” to be an entomologist, ornithologist and meteorologist!), and though I had always sensed in it something more than an object of empirical science, I would never have thought of it as related in any way to the presence of Christ. The world for me had always been, in the words of Charles Taylor, an “immanent frame” in whose self-contained godless insularity God played no active or evident role. God remained safely outside the frame — in the ethereal bubbles of church, religion class at school or bedside prayers at night — but would never dare venture into the framed world in which “transcendence” had no place. Though I believed in God, and certainly was raised in a home where faith was present, I was a child of modern Western culture’s version of a “secular world” which, for all intents and purposes, had so radically privatized and marginalized the transcendent realm of angels and demons, saints and the poor souls, God and Christ that one could function in life largely without any reference to that “spooky” realm.
The modern world in the West, though ever-broadening, was flat, devoid of eternity’s heights and depths. And even when God was invoked by the inhabitants of this frame, it was not as the all-pervasive, radically enmeshed, everywhere revealing and incarnate God that Plunkett celebrates in his poem. The God outside the frame was, rather, what you might call a “therapeutic deity” that stayed at a safe distance from the “religion-free zone” that governed most of daily life, but was always there, somewhere out there like a celestial Santa, ready to be invoked in targeted moments of need when the mechanisms that governed the immanent frame failed to suffice. This was the crutch-God, the God of the gaps, not the God who holds all things is existence at each moment by His all-loving and merciful will, making Him, as Augustine memorably says, “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” There’s nothing very threatening about these idols of modernity, though They can be disappointing if They don’t live up to our capricous expectations or meet our occasional demands.
But then of sudden, in my little 1987 world, that harmless, aloof deity, like the god Dagon in 1 Samuel 5:3, was handily displaced by the living Christ who “fills all things” (Ephesians 1:23) with His Risen Body. The idols in my shrines were felled by a God that was not only God-with-us, unspeakably present and fearfully near, but a downright invasive and trouble-making God, more like a swirling firestorm than a serene porcelain statue. And though this flesh-and-blood God did not promise me safety from His sway, He also was no dehumanizing Thief threatening to take from me all that made life joyful and good, beautiful and great. I say that because, lurking deep in my culturally shaped subconscious was a dark, ominous voice that warned me — before the radiant face of this Christ — of what Algernon Swinburne (1837 – 1909) deftly articulated in his poem, Hymn to Proserpine:
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
As I met this Christ, He at once exhilarated me and threatened me by leading me to pray, “O Lord, invade my stayed and steady space with Your raucous and unsteady grace” (to use the memorable words of an AME Pastor I met in Florida). I was afraid! I had lived my whole life safely distant from God, safe in my world’s immanent frame, but now, before His Face, the existential fabric I had woven of my life looked only to be a tangled mess. What a crisis! How I wish I had had those words of Pope Benedict’s Inaugural Homily to read!
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.
The crucified-dead-risen-ascending-Spirit-breathing-knocking Christ seeks admittance into our “immanent frame,” seeks to enter in and render translucent its boundaries, smash its ceilings and inhabit all of our safe-zones. This is the incarnate, sacramental God-with-us who hangs with prostitutes and tax collectors, makes muddy salve from His spit, drives out demons from men who live in graveyards, sleeps in the hull our wind-tossed boats, heals filthy lepers by touching their decaying skin and falls face first into the terrors of our night that we might not be afraid. This is a God who reverences our freedom because He designed it, who in truth loves us without measure and expects that we do the same. He is a God who loves best to be called a Bridegroom, a lover who pursues His adulterous bride down the ages to win back her affection and be oned with her in faithfulness forever. “Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover” (St. Maximus the Confessor). He can be found everywhere, anywhere, from the heights of joyful ecstasy to the dungeons of hopeless despair. Hebrews 4:15. Luke 10:21. John 11:35. Matthew 27:46. Philippians 4:4. He has tasted it all, redeemed it all and left nothing of human life — save our freedom to reject — opaque to His all-sufficient grace.
This is the God who is the Christ, the God who “delights to be with the children of men” (Proverbs 8:31). The God who poked the universe full of holes through which we can, if we but learn to love, catch a glimpse of His Fatherly gaze. This is the God whom French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal “met” on 23 November 1654. On that night between 10:30 and 12:30 at night, Pascal had an intense experience of God and immediately recorded it on a small piece of paper: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16, “I will not forget thy word. Amen.” He seems to have carefully sewn this document into his coat and always transferred it when he changed clothes; a servant discovered it only by chance after his death.
This is the God who is inescapably everywhere, the Christ whom the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. collided with as an agnostic undergrad studying at Harvard:
…in 1939, one grey February afternoon in Harvard’s Widener Library, I was irresistibly prompted to go out into the open air…The slush of melting snow formed a deep mud along the banks of the River Charles, which I followed down toward Boston…As I wandered aimlessly, something impelled me to look contemplatively at a young tree. On its frail, supple branches were young buds…While my eye rested on them, the thought came to me suddenly, with all the strength and novelty of a revelation, that these little buds in their innocence and meekness followed a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing…That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.
The is the Christ who has come to make a flat earth round, to set a cold world ablaze and dapple a grey world in the spectrum colors of His glorious grace.