Changes in elevation seem to play an important role in the Christian salvation story. People are frequently described as “going up” to have an encounter with God:
- Abraham and Isaac ascend Mount Moriah to offer a sacrifice.
- Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the Law from God.
- Jacob doesn’t do any mountain climbing; instead, he’s provided with a vision of a stairway between heaven and earth.
- The Temple of Solomon – that place where God promised to be present – is built on top of a mountain, said to be the same one that Abraham and Isaac climbed.
- The prophet Elijah calls down divine fire on Mount Carmel.
- In the Gospels, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up onto what becomes the mountain of his transfiguration and Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on a place called that was called “Skull Hill.”
Anthropologists observe that this appeal of high places as locations of encounters with the divine cuts across human culture. It’s like everyone has an intuitive sense that, if you want to get close to God, you’ve got to go up. So St. Paul, standing on Mars Hill, observes that the Athenians mark that location with an awareness of the reality of God, even if their notion of God isn’t fully defined.
Even here at Valpo, a place reserved for the most intimate encounter with God – Holy Communion – is elevated. People who enter the Chapel of the Resurrection seem to instinctively know that the high table, under the enormous cross and surrounded by the light of the rising sun as it streams through multi-colored glass, is a sacred place, a place of encounter. When we’re feeling good about our identity as beloved children of God who live in a world of beauty and joy, that light-filled nonagonal (nine-sided) room beckons us to dwell in that joy.
Yet, the reality of our lives is that we’re not always on the top of our game. We’re not always capable of the climb. The Israelites told Moses, “You go up and meet God. We’ll just stay right here at the bottom of the mountain. If we go up, we will surely die.” They might have added, “We feel like we’re dying a little right here.”
Graciously, God isn’t elevationally rigid. Psalm 23 sings “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you, O God, are with me.” Further, the point of Jesus becoming human is this sort of expedition to lowness. Not that being human itself is a humiliation, but lots of humans feel humiliated by who they perceive themselves to be, by who they’ve been told that they are, by what they’ve done, and by what’s been done to them. So a child is told that she’s stupid. A friend discovers that he’s been betrayed. A competitor is laid low in a crushing defeat. Jesus is made to be our brother so that he might come down to these low places to be with us.
Luke relates the story of a meeting between Jesus and a man who is brought low. The man is paralyzed so completely that he is incapable of moving. Jesus is in the vicinity. He is teaching in someone’s house and he’s effortlessly healing the diseases of all who approach him. The place is packed with people and there’s no way that those who carry the man on his cot will ever be able to work their way to the front of the crowd. So they take drastic action and climb onto the flat roof of the house to dig a hole in the roof and lower the man down into Jesus’ presence. It must have been quite a sight, a combination of audacity and embarrassment. He is lowered down to the low place where Jesus has come to be with desperate human beings. Jesus’ first words to the man lying in front of him are words of forgiveness. This is the essential miracle needed by all of us. He only declares physical healing for the man as a sign of the forgiveness that is already real for this man who has sunk to Jesus’ level.
The Chapel of the Resurrection provides us with such places of descent. Walk the spiraling stairs that circle like the water in a drain down around the baptismal font. This is a place of the new birth. It is a place of death and resurrection. When life is spiraling out of control, at the bottom of it all is the death of Jesus, breaking our fall. It’s best when we sink to Jesus’ level.
Underneath the glorious high altar of the Chapel with its soaring Christus Rex (The Chosen King) is another table anchored to the wall as in a cave. In this darker place is another representation of the body of Jesus. This one hangs full of holes. There is no victory here, no sign of strength. This body seems fragile. Yet, this room is named for the glory of God’s Chosen One (Gloria Christi). When we sink to our lowest point and it seems like we are all alone, we find that Jesus’ reputation is based on being lower than we are and awaiting our arrival in that place of death so that we might reinterpret our sadness and sense of defeat and shame in the light of his great love for us and solidarity with us.
It’s best when we sink to Jesus’ level.
Oct. 23, 2019