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The power and the glory

by
26 March 2021

In our final extract from his Lent book, Stephen Cherry reflects on glory

S.E.A. Photo/Alamy

Spiral Galaxy NGC 4258, 23 million light years away, has a giant black hole at its centre

Spiral Galaxy NGC 4258, 23 million light years away, has a giant black hole at its centre

GLORY and power are not entirely separate categories in biblical thinking; they interconnect and overlap, and are both related to sanctity and holiness. This is evident in the artistic and iconographic device of a halo — that sometimes all-too-deliberate attempt to signal a radiance that is more, and better, than merely human, and that shines forth from those on whom God’s presence has settled.

Glory is intrinsic to God. We don’t usually say this, preferring to think of love as the most enduring quality when it comes to the deity. But it can be helpful to speak of the glory of God as a constant, because it reminds us that God’s self-revelation is not something that happens from time to time, as if there is an on/off switch that can be applied to the divine nature. When we speak of God’s glory we are referring to the unchanging, untiring, eternal extraversion of God; to God’s relentless self-giving that, when we glimpse it, is the deepest and dearest beauty that is not only “deep down things”, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, but on the surface of things and shot through things.

God’s glory is extraversion that reflects the deepest integrity; it is not a show, or a performance, or even a self-presentation, but the outward flow of an inward truth. In other words, God is the absolute opposite of a black hole.

 

LET me explain what I mean. We have grown accustomed to the summary of Darwinian evolution that is captured in the phrase “the selfish gene”. Like all metaphors, it can be both helpful and unhelpful in its application, but if you are convinced that a gene can be “selfish” then you will be mightily impressed by the endless “egocentricity” of a black hole, where infinite gravity pulls everything to its centre — from which nothing ever returns.

A black hole cannot, and will not, ever give anything. It is the epitome of gracelessness. It has no glory at all. And as such it gives us a picture of the very opposite of God — who is all gift, all grace, all contribution, all love, and all glory. Where a black hole sucks in, God breathes out; where a black hole destroys life, God gives life; where a black hole intensifies to the infinite, God extensifies to the infinite.

The glory of God is, therefore, nothing to do with the renown that is given to a human champion — whether it is prowess in athletics, business, art, or academics that is being rewarded. Glory is not a prize. Glory is not gold, or glamour, or glitz. There is nothing of bling about true glory. Nothing of “statement”; there is no “signalling”. It is something that shines through. Glory is not self-conscious or presented. Indeed, self-presentation is something that all too often shades the little bit of genuine glory that a person might reflect. Which is why boasting can be so counterproductive, and why bragging has no place in discipleship or ministry. It may not kill glory, but it can put a significant shadow over it, maybe even eclipse it.

 

“THINE is the Glory, the self-revealed splendour of the Eternal Perfect filling and transcending creation; seen in its humblest beauties, yet never fully known.” These are the words of one of the most remarkable Anglican women of the 20th century, Evelyn Underhill. She was talking about the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer in the 1930s.

Underhill was converted from youthful agnosticism to Anglicanism, and became a hugely influential writer and speaker. Her focus was always on God. “God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God,” she wrote in a sharply assertive letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, bewailing the lack of spiritual depth in the clergy and calling for “a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer”.

Underhill encourages us to understand glory as the “Beauty of God”, not in a merely aesthetic way, as if God is extremely pleasing to behold, but, rather, as something that is revealed in the face of the crucified: “Absolute Beauty is seen in the sacrifice of the Cross; the Perfect, the Strong, the Radiant, self-offered for the sinful, the murky, the weak, and achieving His victory through suffering, failure, death.”

 

CLIFTON BLACK makes a similar point in his extended commentary on the prayer when he refers to the paradox that “divine glory, visible to mortal eye, condescends to the deepest pit of human suffering and death, to the shaft of hell itself.” A place of suffering can certainly be a place of glory. Indeed, there are no situations from which the glory of God is banished. Occluded? Yes. Shaded? Yes. Eclipsed? Well, yes; but never finally eliminated, banished, or destroyed.

That is the meaning of the resurrection. The lights went out on Good Friday, but it wasn’t long before the light of Christ was flickering again — no matter how improbably. Such resurrection is seen whenever the Spirit breathes new life into one who has succumbed to self-destroying temptation, or been crushed by overwhelming negativity.

 

THIS is the same pattern that we saw when we considered “power”. The power and the glory of God are awesome, but neither is a cause of anxiety, because they are expressions of loving generosity and the sort of personal empowerment that facilitates the growth of a loving community.

Such power and glory cannot be disconnected from joy. Evelyn Underhill understood this well and expressed it with apt economy and beauty.

”Glory is the final word of religion, as joy is its final state. The sparks and trickles of the Supernatural which come to us, the hints received through beauty and through sacrifice, the mysterious visitations and pressures of grace reaching us through the conflicts, rebellions, and torments of the natural world — all these are earnests of a Perfection, a Wholeness yet unseen: as the small range of sound and colour revealed by the senses witnesses to the unseen colour and unheard music of a Reality which lies beyond their narrow span.”

Glory refers to what we see and what we do not see of God; our task is to so respond to it that not only do we learn how to see it more clearly, but we also find how to live in such a way as to obscure it less.

 

The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

Extracted from Thy Will Be Done: The 2021 Lent Book © Stephen Cherry 2021 (Bloomsbury Continuum, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-1-4729-7825-7).

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