The finger of God : the power of touch

Roller-coaster ride

We have moved in two weeks from the Christmas baby to the Epiphany and now to (the adult) Jesus’ baptism.  It’s perfectly normal to feel out of breath at the speed of the Church’s narrative at this stage!

Wheeeee!
God (almost) on-stage

One of the things I especially like about the accounts of Jesus’ baptism is the almost-appearance of God himself.  I’ve talked before about how the words God speaks, here and at the Transfiguration (coming up second Sunday of Lent), sound to me like every proud parent : ‘Look, this is my very own son; isn’t he lovely,  pay attention to him’.  God does not appear or intervene much in Jesus’ life on earth.  We know Jesus often talks to him, goes off to be alone with him, talks about him a lot and clearly trusts him utterly;  but God is not visible or tangible in the Gospel accounts, except as an occasional voice.  And the same is (mostly) true for us in our human lives.

Father and Son (and John the Baptist, and towel-carrying angel)
God’s touch in the sacraments

This is one reason why the sacraments are so important and so different from everything else:  they are the moments when God the Father can put out a hand and intervene in this world which he created.  They are moments when we are literally ‘in touch’ with God.  At any child’s baptism, you can hear the voice only with the ear of faith, but God says again,’Look at this lovely child; from today it is one of my own.’

God’s touch in (our) creation

In Genesis 2, in the second account of the Creation, God ‘fashions’ human beings out of the mud. He moulds them like a potter, or like a child playing with sand or mud. His familiar touch is described in the psalms, and he knows his creatures so well because he knitted them together in the womb, the one who can search their hearts (Ps 138/139). Knitting is not the work of a moment; this is a slow job, a labour of love.  Above all, it’s a very physical relationship.

Couldn’t find a good knitted version, but here’s a tapestry one, another labour of love
God hidden from our sight

In the narrative of the other books in the Old Testament, especially the early ones, after his earliest appearances, walking in the garden and chatting to Adam etc., God operates without visible presence, although other things stand in for him (clouds, burning bushes, a fearsome voice like thunder, and so on).  Prophets are there just to pass on the messages which God wants to give to his people;  the idea of foretelling comes much later.  No one but Moses can look upon him and live, so the Chosen People are happy not to try and see him in the flesh.  God comes to talk to Job, but this is a book of poetry rather than history, and the encounter is not sited in the world in which we live.

Just like me, /they want to be /close to you

But we remain physical beings, bodies as well as souls, and we crave the touch of those whom we love.  Babies need to be touched, if they are to grow up healthy.  Luckily, there is also the phenomenon of what you might call ‘transferred touch’: if you can’t be with someone, you can give them something which represents you, a blanket, a toy, a necklace, a pebble – almost anything can be one of these magical objects if we choose to make it so.  It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s a lot better than nothing, and there is enough comfort in it to keep us going till we are together again.  Many love poems focus on the touch of the beloved; many of the psalms are love poems; how do the psalmists talk about touch, when they talk about God?

God’s touch in the Psalms

We can manage without physical touch to some extent, if we have the perception of presence.  God shows his presence in the psalms through his creation.  He’s always doing something which shows his effect upon the physical world he has created, either with his voice (‘The Lord’s voice shatters the mountains, and stripping the forests bare’ Ps 28/29) or by the movement we feel as he passes (‘He rode upon the wings of the wind’ Ps 17/18).  But the psalmist goes further than this.  God is so real a presence to him that he imagines him actually touching him physically (Lord, you search me and you know me ‘ Ps 138/139….’My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast’ Ps 62/63).   This intense nearness is striking.  There’s an early poem in one of G. K. Chesterton’s notebooks, called ‘The Prayer of a Man Walking’, where he thanks God for several things ‘but most of all for the great wind in my nostrils/ as if thine own nostrils were close’, which again uses an acutely carnal metaphor to indicate the nearness of the relationship with God, who obviously doesn’t have nostrils.

God and the human touch

The impression is strengthened by the way that the psalmist portrays God in his own image (‘the heavens the work of your fingers’ Ps 8, ‘Sit at my right hand’ Ps 109/110).  He calls on God not just to save him but to beat up his enemies and smash their teeth in (cf Ps 4).  This is an almost shockingly physical God, because his presence is overwhelmingly close to us.  And he’s a lot bigger than anyone else’s god (Pss 76/77, 88/89).

What god is great as our God?

God is much more present in the Psalms than in many other Old Testament books (it’s partly because of all those second-person verbs, not ‘he’ but ‘you’), and this is one reason why Christians count the book of Psalms as almost part of the New Testament, which must annoy the Jews slightly.   But people only adopt poems, prayers or plays for love, and that tends to be forgiven.

Jesus’ hands were kind hands

In the New Testament, of course, the question of touch is completely different, because Jesus touches people all the time to heal them, and seems to do it completely freely and unselfconsciously (even, remarkably, with women).  He takes a girl’s hand (Mark 5.41), he washes his friends’ feet (Matthew 26). He picks up a random child to demonstrate a point (Mark 9.36).  Indeed, as the woman with a haemorrhage (Matthew 9) perceives, he doesn’t even need to touch you, you just need to touch him, even his garment.  This is an indication of the enormous power of Jesus’ physical presence, and he can do it with no more than a word if he chooses (the ten lepers, Luke 17 ) though sometimes he uses spittle and mud in what seems almost a self-parody (healing the blind man, John 9).  He tells stories where people touch each other : the man in the Good Samaritan takes good physical care of the victim before confiding him to someone else (Luke 10); the prodigal son is greeted with embraces before he even reaches home (Luke 15).  Jesus is not squeamish about touch, even about touching his wounds, which he encourages Thomas to do (John 20).

God’s finger, the Holy Spirit

There are two more conclusions I would like to draw from talking about God’s touch.  The first is, as Saint Teresa says, that we now have to be Jesus’ hands, since he is no longer here with us on earth and God has no other body.  Just as we can be angels, bringing his messages, so we can do his work in our physical bodies, bringing the feel of his touch.  The second is that we should always be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit.   Look again at the picture of Jesus’ baptism.  The Holy Spirit is there, in the form of a dove, and you can see God’s finger just above.  This is an old idea in the Church.  The beautiful ninth-century song about the Holy Spirit, the Veni Creator, calls the Holy Spirit  ‘Finger of God’s right hand’ in the standard English translation, which is exact.  The Holy Spirit brings God’s touch to us.   God wants to touch us just as much as we want to touch our children or the people we love; the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments or elsewhere, is how he does it.  And it doesn’t even strike us as strange; and that is because of the way the psalmists sing about it.

God’s touch at the Annunciation (Lippi)

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

The Lord is my light

Essential light

All we have to do is shut our eyes in order to realise that it is difficult to overstate the importance of light.  It is the first thing God creates (Genesis 1), because without it, how could anything else happen, or be seen to happen?  As it says in Psalm 36/37, ‘In your light, we see light’.   God creates light first of all things, and then later the sun and the moon, because that is how he creates time for us to occupy.

God creating earth
Creating the light, the planets and the world in the middle
Jesus the Light of the world

Christian imagery is full of light.  Everybody knows ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ even if it isn’t their favourite hymn, and there are lots of others (Walk in the light, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, Morning has broken, Lead, kindly Light… and I haven’t even reached for a hymn book yet).  Particularly in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified with light. He is the light of the world, the true light which enlightens everyone (John 1). When he speaks, he calls himself the light, repeatedly. It seems like an obvious image, especially to dwellers of the northern hemisphere, but in this, as so often, Jesus is actually being quite novel, and making a huge claim.  The word light is not used so freely in the Old Testament.  God is more often (in) a cloud, or a pillar of cloud, a fire or a fortress; he is a giver of shade (Ps. 120/121), sometimes protection from the sun, but mostly as a way of keeping someone in danger concealed from his enemies.

Light-radiating baby Nativity
Light-radiating baby (Reni)
Picturing light
Two light sources, one focussed, one radiating

It is always worth spending time working out where the light in a painting is coming from, and in pictures of the Nativity it is often coming from the baby, to reinforce the image.   These are topical as well as gorgeous, so I have scattered them through my text.

In Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, the adult Jesus is holding a lantern, but the light is also coming from the halo around his head.  In the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus is too bright to look at, his clothes more dazzling than any laundry could make them (Mark 9).  He has become a being of pure light, but when God speaks a few minutes later, he speaks from a cloud which overshadows the apostles.  Just like in John’s vision of the kingdom to come, there is ‘no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb’ (Rev 21.23).

Radiance beams from thy holy face…
Light in the Psalms

The psalms talk so often about ‘the light of your face’ that this is clearly an idiom, similarly ‘the light of the living’, ‘the light of my eyes’; but the emphasis in the psalms is more on the contrast between night and day, darkness and light, God stepping in to rescue the sufferer from peril or darkness.  God is described as ‘my light’ far less often than he is addressed as ‘my strength, ‘my song’, ‘my fortress’.   I wonder if this is partly a result of when the words were written.  The psalms date back a very long way,  we don’t even know how far;   but certainly to nomad times, when light was rare and precious,  and mostly you went to bed as soon as you couldn’t see any more.   The Gospels date from a later time of settlement, when people were (mostly) living in little towns or great cities, and candles and lamps were less unusual.  Jesus can call himself the light of the world because light is something we all grasp the benefit of, as well as something everyday.  You would not want your Saviour to be steak or caviar; you need him to be bread.  ‘He makes the blind see’ would not mean anything if everyone were blind and no one understood the joy of sight.

Darkness: absence of light, absence of God
a wonderfully dynamic God separating the light from the darkness (Sistine Chapel)

Darkness can indeed mean in itself the absence of God (see the psalm of despair Ps 87/88), but it’s also a practical problem for the psalmist because he is worried that God will not be able to see him or know where he is so as to rescue him (one of Job’s comforters also talks about this, Job 22.13). Job himself is afraid of the darkness (23.16), but does not make the mistake of thinking that God cannot see through it.).  One feature of God which impresses the psalmist is that he can see to do things even in dark places (‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ ,  ‘You know when I wake and when I lie down’ Ps 138/139).  God can use the darkness to conceal himself (‘I answered, concealed in the storm cloud’, Ps 80/81).  What the psalmist fears is the dark valley in Psalm 22/23.  Darkness is scary and threatening, but God controls the darkness, and this means that God’s faithful child does not need to be scared even in the dark (‘I lie down at night, and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety’ Ps 4). ‘You, O Lord, are my lamp, my God who lightens my darkness’ (Ps 17/18).

More of a luminous baby this time (Le Nain)
The One who lights my lamp

God gives light to the psalmist, sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical.  ‘Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path’, sings the author of the longest psalm, which is all about the Law, 118/119.  God is regularly described as ‘shining forth’, which again I think must be an idiom (Pss 50/51, 75/76, 79/80, 96/97), but many of the psalms describe a need for real light, not metaphorical, and long for morning to come.  God will help at the dawning of the day (Ps 45/46).  Joy comes with the morning (Ps 30/31).  God is even better than the coming of dawn:  ‘Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord’ (Ps 129/130).

Musical light

Haydn’s stunning portrayal of light in The Creation is probably the best-known, because it is so effective.   What does he do?  He shows us darkness and chaos with deep rumblings of the orchestra, masterfully portraying disorder and formlessness by an artful use of perhaps the most formal of the arts.  He keeps the sound gentle and hesitant, almost groping.  And then light is created; we have a huge major chord which just keeps reverberating.  The pitch goes up, everything is bright and noisy.  I’ve added that particular link because it’s in rehearsal, so you can see very clearly how the tension is all in the music, not in the occasion, or the dress, or anything else.  So exciting.

You can’t do that every time the word ‘light’ is mentioned in a psalm, but I have noticed that I tend to place it on an upper note comparatively and give it some stress (I think this must be the musical equivalent of not putting your light under a bushel).  It helps that it’s a strong, monosyllabic word (in both German and English).   And where there is light in a psalm, the music tends to be major rather than modal or minor; it just feels right.

The light shines in the darkness

We are in the dark part of the year at the moment, in the northern hemisphere, and Christmas is a feast of light-in-darkness.  (So is Hannukah, which happens at a similar time, and Jesus would have celebrated it.)  The next few Christian celebrations after Christmas are different ‘epiphanies’, ‘showings-forth’, ‘shinings-forth’: Epiphany itself, and then Candlemas, which used to be seen as the last feast of the Christmas season, when the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple and Simeon greets him as’a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.  This is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah.  ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’; here he is, and the darkness is over.

Lovely early spiky-light baby (Monaco)

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.