Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
When I was studying for my doctoral degree in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, I was blessed to be assigned as the summer priest in a wonderful parish in my Diocese of Brooklyn, Immaculate Heart of Mary. At IHM parish, it was a great opportunity for me to be the celebrant at Holy Mass daily and to preach to a very diverse community. While I was there, I decided that, if possible that summer, from June-September, I would focus in on the Old Testament. It was a good way for me to pray with the Old Testament, as I know that, naturally enough, my own lectio divina is centered on the Gospels.
So, off I went and each day I preached on the Old Testament reading in the lectionary. There were days when I did not do it, because of the Saint of the day or the liturgical feast, but a few months spent with the people of Israel really did the trick for me spiritually. Books of the Bible that I had studied in seminary, that I had heard proclaimed at the Liturgy of the Hours or in the lectionary of Mass, really came alive. In particular, the First and Second Book of Samuel and the First and Second Book of Kings became steady sources of reflection for me, most especially considering these stories from my perspective as a priest and a teacher. I urge you to pick your Bibles and read these four tremendous Books of Sacred Scripture (and remember to use a good Catholic study bible when you study Sacred Scripture and pray lectio divina.)
The eighth chapter of the First Book of Kings is a remarkable section on which to reflect. Read this section of the Old Testament again with me:
Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD
in the presence of the whole community of Israel,
and stretching forth his hands toward heaven,
he said, “LORD, God of Israel,
there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below;
you keep your covenant of mercy with your servants
who are faithful to you with their whole heart.
“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?
If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you,
how much less this temple which I have built!
Look kindly on the prayer and petition of your servant, O LORD, my God,
and listen to the cry of supplication which I, your servant,
utter before you this day.
May your eyes watch night and day over this temple,
the place where you have decreed you shall be honored;
may you heed the prayer which I, your servant, offer in this place.
Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel
which they offer in this place.
Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon.”
Now contrast between this Old Testament reading and the Lord’s life found in the New Testament. The wisdom of King Solomon recognizes the grandeur and the unknowability of the God present in the Temple. The Lord before whom Solomon offers petition is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
The 20th century German Lutheran theologian, Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy (1923), uses this phrase, mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a fearful and fascinating mystery). We can describe the experience that King Solomon undergoes as numinous, meaning something wholly other, something entirely different from what we experience in our everyday lives. It is an experience that is tremendum, one which we might best describe as coming to it with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the fear of the Lord. It is an experience that is fascinans, one that attracts the believer, because it is merciful, gracious and loving. The only proper response one can give before the gracious mystery is that of Solomon — wonder, fear of the Lord, and wholehearted praise. This God of Solomon is a big God, a very big God indeed.
Now contrast this to what the Mystery of God Incarnate, Jesus, the Lord, experienced in the course of his ministry from the Pharisees and scribes, who, in their smallness of mind and heart, try to make the God who made them into their own image, meaning little, bound by human limitations, and small. Their God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God who is Jesus Christ, but one who is very small indeed.
A question, then — how big is your God? The God whom we gather at Holy Mass in the Eucharist to worship is big enough, a mysterium tremendum et fascianans, to become small, to allow his Body to be broken and given for our food, and his Blood to be poured and given for our drink. We do not receive a small God; rather we receive a mystery made real for us in the Eucharistic celebration. May we never grow tired of the gracious, fascinating, tremendous mystery that is the Most Blessed Sacrament.