Last week, Deaconess Kristin evoked the image of wilderness to describe both this Lenten time as well as the circumstance of violence, the threats of violence and the human predilection to hating and fearing those who seem to be different from us. The arid wilderness of the biblical imagination is not a place intended for human habitation. It’s a place of wandering and testing. It’s a place of deprivation and exile. In that respect, it can also be a place from which one can gain some perspective. Anyone who has studied abroad or traveled for long durations knows how such an exile can provide us with a fresh set of eyes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a pair of exiles lately. As sometimes happens with class assignments, a topic we initially take on just to satisfy some requirement starts to present itself as actually relevant to our daily lives. In my case, it’s the mosaic pictured above, installed in the apse of a monastery chapel in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. The mosaic has been ascribed a range of dates from the late 5th century to the mid 7th. The central image is that of Christ enthroned in the heavens surrounded by the four living creatures that are featured in the visions of both Ezekiel and John – two of God’s people, living in a time of exile.
The mosaic presents us with images of these two visionaries as bookends to the whole scene. It’s the differences in their posture that has my attention. The old man on the left is hunched over with a look of fear or surprise. His hands are up, on either side of his face, either shielding his eyes or trying in vain to stop what he sees. It’s like what he’s seeing is threatening to him. Indeed, after describing his vision in detail, Ezekiel writes of himself, rather matter-of- factly, “When I saw it, I fell on my face…”
This is in contrast to the figure on the far right who sits comfortably with his legs crossed, taking in the whole vision with an almost casual air.
For both Ezekiel and John, the image of God enthroned in the heavens is a parody of and push-back against the human powers and institutions of their day that imagined themselves to be large and in charge. The difference between them is that whereas Ezekiel sees the power and authority of God as both a promise and a terror, John sees Christ enthroned as nothing but his salvation. The text of the book he holds reads “This is the life-giving source, accepting and nourishing the souls of the faithful is this most venerable house.” Both men receive their visions while in exile. John, however, like us, knows how the story ends.
We enter into this time of Lent, knowing that it’s 40 days long. It has a beginning and an end and both are known before we start. The beginning places Jesus in his own wilderness, the ending puts him on the cross, in the tomb and then alive among us saying “Peace be with you.” Before we start, we know how it ends. It always ends with life.
For me, this awareness, that under the throne of the Ascended Jesus all that is ends in life, provides me with a posture of courage to which I can return when the circumstances of life threaten to get the better of me and leave me looking more like the panicked Ezekiel than the chilling John.
There are days that look like wilderness and exile to be sure, but that need not rob us of our vision.
March 27, 2019