by Tim Belben
from Signs of the Times  No. 34 - Jul 2009

Human notions of glory are mostly based on the cultural context of monarchy: a person is exalted in rank and dignity, therefore their possessions must be more 'magnificent' than any competitors'.

Indeed, our notions of magnificence are equally flawed: jewellery, fine clothing, wealth; humans unconsciously worship possessions and power. Lip-service is paid to the virtues - honesty, humility, truth, courage, and so on are admired (at least in print) but not considered glorious!

What warrant do we have to imagine God to be magnificent in the trappings of wealth and power? A multitude of saints casting down their golden crowns would be noisy (and damage the metalwork) but would this glorify the recipient? The Book of Revelation's description of the heavenly throne sounds like an out-of-control Aladdin's Cave! Is this really what we think God admires, or are we attributing to him our secret longings for wealth and position? Admittedly, the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel and others suggest earthly magnificence. May that not be because they are experienced and interpreted in the only terms which they and their hearers could understand? The divine had to be at the top of the heap, and throughout history top people have marked their supremacy by being elevated, and by collecting possessions, fine clothes, admiration. But God has not so revealed himself.

The divine revelation, in Jesus Christ, is at the other end of the scale. The stable, the court of shepherds, the desert, the lack of a place to lay his head, even the voice from the cloud, the dove descending, the processional donkey - none of these evoke our instinctive admiration or envy. In his own words, I am among you as he that serveth. The wise men presented costly gifts, but that was the human response to the divine, not the revelation itself. We think of the incarnation as God laying aside his glory, humbling himself for a season, but surely what is revealed is the very nature of God in a form we cannot recognise? We interpret If any man serve me, him will my Father honour as if this somehow recompensed the humility of service: should we not recognise that being permitted to serve is the honour itself?

There can be no virtue for mankind which is not also, and in infinitely greater measure, an attribute of God: if it were not so, it would not be virtue. We praise and seek the virtues we can understand: truth, beauty, goodness, generosity: we struggle with self-effacement, humility and poverty. But all through God's dealings with humanity, that is what we are offered. Did Elijah find God in a still, small voice,1 not because He so hides himself but because that is His very nature?  Mary is chosen to receive him, unknown, her perfection hidden in obscurity. In the simplicity of bread we too are permitted to hold him. Have we, for so long, been facing the wrong way, looking in the wrong direction?

To say this is emphatically not to deny God the glory, it is to plead for the redefinition of Glory. The 'glory hymns' probably do no harm, unless they reinforce our conscious attribution to God of the enjoyment of possessions. The Creator of all things has no need for human wealth! But we, if we follow in service, have to learn this poverty painfully, for we find precious the defence of our personal accumulation, our 'space'. God is able to give everything without emptying himself, for the very nature of gift itself is the fullness of his being.  Philippians implies that ... took upon himself the form of a servant... required self-sacrifice, but may we not assume that this was how he revealed himself, not purposely to deceive us,2 but because self-sacrifice is his true nature? And his reward is a name that is above every name, not a 'reward' as we would imagine it.

Does our misconception matter? It may. The creation of shrines decorated with gold and jewels and fine fabrics may do no harm to God - at least it keeps our wealth where it appears to do no harm to ourselves,3 although it reinforces our cultural preoccupation with possessions. But what does he teach us? Consider the lilies of the field ... yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. The simplicity of nature's glory puts ours to shame. That is not a reason for us to spurn the beauty of elegant design and fine craftsmanship, but it is a reason for rethinking our sense of values and way of life.

Flamboyance and ostentation do not point towards the God whom we worship and try to imitate. In our imitation of Christ we have to come to emptiness4 - the emptiness from which we can join in his offering of Psalm 22: My God, my God ... why hast Thou forsaken me? - making it, as surely he did, a cry not of despair but of praise.  And Thou continuest Holy ... enthroned upon the praises of  Israel.5 Gold and jewels will not help.


Notes

  1. Apparently the literal translation of the Hebrew is "the sound of a thin silence" which even more closely supports my argument.
  2. But what about ... that seeing they may see, and not perceive... Mark 4,12.
  3. Unless it conceals the harm we do in denying our neighbour the gold.
  4. c.f. St.John of the cross, and the aim to achieve nada.
  5. Translation of Ps.22 as given in the American Prayer Book.