Tuesday, May 5, 2020

God of Empty Spaces

When the Roman legions conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD, they sacked the Jewish temple. They entered into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, which for centuries only the Jewish High Priest had ever set eyes upon. They expected to find treasures galore, like they had found in every other temple they had ever looted.

They found sacred objects of gold in the Holy Place outside of the innermost chamber. The Arch of Titus in Rome shows the famed seven-branched candlestick, a table for showbread, and sacred trumpets being carried out by Roman soldiers. But in the Holy of Holies they found nothing. It was empty.

There was no famed ark of the covenant or anything else. This was not because the ark had been safely hidden away for Indiana Jones to later find. The holiest object of the Jewish religion had been lost centuries earlier and nothing ever took its place. There remained only the empty space to symbolize the presence of God.

Even when the Hebrews still possessed the ark, there was no image of God on it. On the lid of the ark were two cherubim facing each other with their wings outstretched. God was said to dwell in the empty space between the cherubim. YHWH was unique among the gods of the Ancient Near East. Whereas all the other gods were depicted with images, the Hebrew deity was imageless.

The ark itself was originally just an empty box as well, before the Hebrews began to fill it with sacred objects, such as "the golden pot that had manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant" according to the Letter to the Hebrews. That is the way we religious people are. We tend to fill up the empty places with material objects, doctrines and traditions until there is no place left for God.

On Earth Day the pastor of our local church began a series of messages on the biblical creation stories. Last Sunday she pointed out that in the first chapter of Genesis God spent the first three days making empty spaces and the next three days filling them in. I had never thought of it that way before. Emptiness and Fullness. Like any good sermon her words kept me thinking long after the benediction.

The universe started off as “empty and void” according to Genesis, and God preserved the emptiness in the midst of the fullness of creation. God created things but then separated them in order to maintain empty spaces. Separating the light from the darkness, separating the heavens from the earth, and then separating the waters on earth to form inhabitable land.

The Tao Te Ching says,

Spokes unite in the hub, 
but it is emptiness at the center 
that makes the wheel turn.
A pot is made of clay, 
but it is emptiness in the center
that holds the contents.
A house is made of wood, 
but it is emptiness within the walls 
that makes it inhabitable.
A human is made of flesh and blood, 
but it is emptiness at the center 
that makes us useful.

God is in the empty space. That is what the spacious interiors of the great cathedrals communicate. That is why the wide expanse of the heavens amazes us. That is why mountaintop vistas take our breath away. That is why the Grand Canyon awes us. That is why prayer and meditation are so powerful. We encounter emptiness at the center of our being.

That is where divine and human meet - in the Holy of Holies of the soul, the open space of consciousness which is our true nature. We are not these physical bodies or the busyness of the human mind. We are the space at the center. The treasure we seek is found in the emptiness.