If you have ever spent time in the desert southwest, you know how much of the region seems touched by transcendence. From the pueblos of New Mexico to the canyon lands of Arizona, people for centuries have seen the region as a ‘holy land.’ It’s what some call “a thin place” – a location where the imagined boundary between the material and the spiritual disappears. It is a region of profound natural beauty, high thin air, and a history of mystical religion. For many, the southwest is full of numinous places where God feels very near.
Of course, God is everywhere. But there are sacred places on this earth where God seems especially present, especially real. For me, the Grand Canyon forms a natural sanctuary, where Spirit graces —and permeates— everything. The amazing darkness of Canyon nights reveal more stars than you ever thought could exist. And Canyon sunrises illumine an immense range of textures and subtle colors splayed over peaks and gorges. The Psalmist’s words come to mind: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.” The Canyon rim provides an evocative place to pray the Daily Office – perfect for the words of the Venite: “In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land. Come, let us bow down… before the Lord our Maker.”
Three Genesis stories involving God’s promises to Abram (in chapters 12, 15 & 17) prompt me to think of places like the Grand Canyon, in relation to the covenant God makes with him and his descendants. Not yet named Abraham, he has been called from his homeland, and has just arrived in the new region God has promised him. It is night. And Abram is in a tent, out in the midst of a spiritually-charged wilderness. Aided by James Tissot’s Abram paintings, we can imagine how the enfolding darkness heightens Abram’s sensitivity to what is around him — the voices of nocturnal animals and birds; the gentle stirring of a breeze through the scrub oaks; and the sound of a twig brushing up against the side of the tent. God comes to him in a vision, and speaks to him in an audible voice: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am giving you a great reward.” Abram does not seem to notice that God’s nearness, God’s self‐revelation, is itself the great gift! Instead, his mind leaps from presence to absence. Like we so often do, he focuses on what is not, rather than on what is. Yet, God is right there before him! The Lord says to him, “I am here, and I will provide for you!”
Though God has made three profound promises to him, Abram dwells on just one of them. The thing he wants most of all, he is afraid he’ll never get — a son, and descendants to follow. So God calls Abram out of the tent, and gently challenges him. He tells him to look up into the dark sky, filled with a myriad of bright lights. “Count the stars if you can,” says God. “For as many stars as there are in the sky – that is how many descendants you will have.” Through him and his descendants a blessing has come to the whole world.
The painting above is James Tissot’s, God’s Promise to Abram, one of his three paintings depicting the three Covenant-promise events recorded in Genesis 12, 15 and 17. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, March 17, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
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