"Fear not, Abram!
I am your shield;
I will make your reward very great."
Mysterium tremendum et fascinans! The German theologian/philosopher, Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, described the encounter with the sacred as numinous, "having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity."
First, it was mysterious, a word he used technically and carefully. The mysterious is something or someone who is other than myself. Meeting this other, I realize I have no authority, power or control over that presence. In fact, rather than approaching this mysterious person, I have been approached by the mystery and discovered myself in that one's presence.
Secondly this experience is tremendum, meaning not just enormous but terrifying. I tremble, the earth tremors! I fear being swallowed up by this numinous personage whom I cannot see or touch or hear, and yet who sees, hears and touches me.
Finally, it is fascinans. It is so beautiful, delightful, desirable, pleasing I cannot turn away. I want it; I want this moment to never end. But I can neither control nor manage it. The moment ends as unexpectedly as it began, leaving one with a memory that may be shattering and exhilarating.
Despite its extraordinary affects, encounters with the numinous are not unusual. Many, perhaps most, people have such an experience although, in the rush of modern life, they may have ignored or forgotten it.
The Scriptures describe many encounters with God. Today's first reading from the Book of Genesis describes that moment in the life of Abraham, "our father in faith." Moses stood before a burning bush; Joshua met an angel who led a legion of warrior angels, Gideon watched an angel ascend in a pillar of fire; Samuel heard a voice in the night; Isaiah saw the Lord Sabaoth sitting on his throne in the temple, Peter snared an enormous school of fish, Paul heard a voice on the road to Damascus, John of Patmos had visions.
But the overwhelming experience is not given as a prize for good behavior or as a present to God's beloved. Nor are they intended just for the prophet. There is always a message and a commission. In today's passage from Genesis, the Lord promises the newly-renamed Abraham, "Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, shall your descendants be."
These incidents are historical; they belong not to the individual seer but to the seer's community and to the whole world.
From today's Genesis story, we realize we are among those millions of Abraham's descendants. Christians have been grafted onto his Jewish line by baptism into his son Jesus. The Lord does not forget his promises to anyone, and certainly not to Abraham. If it were necessary, God could raise up descendants for the Patriarch from the stones of Jerusalem! His mercy is superabundant; it is beyond human comprehension. When we cannot imagine how God will make good on his promise or deliver us from whatever scrape, the failure is not God's but that of our imagination. We have only to watch!
Secondly, every Christian should examine his own life and recall the moment when God spoke to her, a moment that was exhilarating, eerie, delightful and fearful. "Who spoke to me? What did I hear?" and perhaps, "What should I do in response?"
The moment and the memory are healing and consoling. At last I know I am loved by God. It is also commissioning. I have been sent to tell others of the wonders I have seen. Ite, missa est! Go, you are sent!