Creation is Good (3)
So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Exodus 3.4, 5
The sacramental world
I have my own theory about God’s instructing Moses to take off his shoes because the ground was holy. Commentators tend to see this as a sign of Moses’ shedding his sinfulness before entering the presence of God, but I think there’s more to it than this.
Everything about God’s encounter with Moses in these early chapters of Exodus was designed to say to him, “I am with you. I am more powerful than anyone who might oppose you. I will do what I have promised. I will never fail you nor forsake you. And you will glorify Me.” Moses needed to be fully assured of this, because he was about to walk back into the lions’ den of Pharaoh’s Egypt, from which he had fled for his life forty years earlier.
Moses would not have been able to undertake that mission without the full and complete assurance of God’s presence and help. So, God appealed to Moses through all his senses, to convince him that His presence would go with him throughout this mission.
God appeared to Moses in a bush, not as a gleaming angel or in a vision, as with Jacob. Bushes are everywhere in that region of the world. Angels and visions, not so much, at least, not immediately to our eyes. Every bush Moses saw would remind him that God was with him. God burned with holy presence from within that bush, not because He was in the bush then, but because He wanted Moses to know He is always in the bushes. Moses heard the voice of God telling him to remove his shoes. And the reason God did this was to go “skin-on-skin” with Moses. God was in the bush, but God was also in the dirt beneath Moses’ feet, as He explained, and He wanted Moses to see and hear His presence, and to feel it with his skin as well.
God is still in the creation, making Himself known, and inviting us to experience His presence with all aspects of our being. And because God is in the world, the world, though fallen and groaning, is holy – holy, because the holy God is in it. And the holiness of God which we may discern in the world is good.
A means in itself
The problem with almost every one of us is that we do not see the world as holy. With respect to creation, holy does not mean perfect; it means set aside for divine use. We see the world as useful, but primarily for how we can advantage ourselves. Alexander Schmemann reminded us, “When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence” (For the Life of the World).
Schmemann insisted that the world is “the gift of God to man, the means of man’s communion with God.” What gift could God possibly give us that would not be, in some very real sense, holy?
The world is not an end to itself, but a sacramental gift – not a sacrament, but a sacramental gift – in which God displays Himself and His glory, so that the faint echoes of holiness, the background noise of God’s image in our souls, are amplified through the goodness we discern in the works of creation.
The world for holy purposes
The world is holy because God made it, sustains it, and is in it, and has given it to us that we might liberate it from its groaning through good works that glorify Him. When we regard the world as holy, we seek the good in it that expresses that holiness – its fecundity, beauty, generosity, whimsy, and, yes, utility. And that goodness teaches us how to use the gift of creation as God intends, for His glory and for the life of the world.
But we can only do this consistently through Jesus Christ. As Schmemann explained, “There must be someone in this world…to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again as full of divine riches, as the cup full of life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and to thank God for it. This ‘someone’ is Christ, the new Adam who restores that ‘eucharistic life’ which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am, and restores the world to me. And if the Church is in Christ, its initial act is always this act of thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.”
As we observe and experience the holiness of the creation, seeing it with the mind of Christ, we will, first, give abundant thanks and praise to God for the witness He provides of Himself, then take up the work of redeeming creation, and pressing its holiness against the skin of our neighbors by the ways we use this holy and good gift.
But we must be often with Jesus if we are to perform this work of discerning the goodness of our holy God in the world and holding it out for others to know. Fr. Schmemann was right to say, “It is only as we return from the light and the joy of Christ’s presence that we recover the world as a meaningful field of our Christian action, that we see the true reality of the world and thus discover what we must do.”
The true reality of the world is that it is holy, and being holy, it is good. And it is God’s holy and good gift to us, that the goodness of God may once again be seen in the land of the living.
1. Is it a stretch to say that the world is holy? Explain. In what sense does its being holy make the world good?
2. Does it make a difference if we view the world as a holy gift of God, as opposed to say merely a bank of resources to use as we like? Explain.
3. What does it mean for you to press the holiness of the world “against the skin of [your] neighbors”?
Next steps – Transformation: How many different ways can you see the world around you as holy, that is, as refracting the presence of God to the world?
T. M. Moore
What are you doing at 8:18 am? If you’re with Bruce Van Patter, you’re observing the goodness of God in your immediate surroundings. Take a look at Bruce’s column, and let your world come alive with goodness (click here).
Everything makes sense in life, and is good in its time and place. But only when we see things “under the heavens” rather than merely “under the sun.” Our book Comparatio shows you how Solomon struggled with this distinction, but ultimately returned to the place of seeing all goodness as of the Lord. To order a copy, click here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.