It’s dark. It’s quiet, too. The quiet is even softer than the darkness holding it. Everyone looks at a cross suspended in a haze of light like sunlight reflected from the moon.
This is a years-old ritual at my university, but my first time participating. At the end of spiritual emphasis week, we gather for a final evening chapel where the students sit hidden in the almost-dark. Though barely seen, the crowd can be felt, gathered mostly in the sections of seating closest to the stage, staring at the cross.
Nothing breaks the silence until a clap starts like raindrops. The claps swell louder in the darkness. You can’t see the hands. You can only hear them and feel the mass of clappers around you, and see the radiant object of applause.
Because we’re looking at the cross, this clapping is an exchange. Lots of prayers thank Jesus for “what he did” there. Every ugliness and harmful sin drowned in holiness, in the unapproachable light.
The closest I’ve ever come to unapproachable light was in my high school chemistry class. One day in the lab room we worked with a small strip of metal ribbon, made of magnesium. The lab procedure was simple: we were to light the Bunsen burner, grip the ribbon with forceps, and hold the ribbon in the flame. Our teacher had warned the class repeatedly not to look directly at the reaction.
That magnesium ribbon lit up the way Gabriel might have when he appeared to Mary. It was a metallic, white gleam with sharp edges. A cartoonist would draw it like a pointed burst. We peeked sidelong at the flash until the light had shrunk. No one bothered to tie a rope around my ankle just in case I looked at it too directly and died, though. Everyone left the lab with uncovered faces.
I imagine Eden. In the scope of human time, no redemption has touched the earth, because no one needs redeeming. There has been no death for me to be saved from—but I still clap sometimes. I may or may not see them, but the angels still sing. I do see God, or at least hear him as he walks next to me. Naturally, I thank him—I’m surrounded by fruit dripping from trees like crystals on chandeliers. But I might also patter my hands together when he first shows me an elephant or a capybara. I’m breathing and animate, a praiseworthy gift. But the sunset he shows me also merits applause.
Now I step out of Eden into familiar territory. On an evening walk in my neighborhood, I turn down a street I haven’t explored before. The sidewalk curves away into a question, guiding me beside a large backyard. In this yard is one of the most magnificent trees I’ve ever seen, by far the grandest I’ve discovered in my neighborhood. Its trunk is at least three times as wide as any in my yard and twists just slightly, giving the sense that it stretches sideways and slightly backward to touch the sky with its twigs. It could be cast in a children’s movie. Fairies would play there, sitting in the limitless branches. Beautiful creatures would burrow at its base. Adventures would begin and end in its shade.
Later that week, I’m running outside, and I want to go by the tree again. As I turn down the curving street I realize I’m drawn back to the tree simply because it’s big and wonderful to look at with its rippling ribbons of wood wrapping around the trunk and its fluffy boughs like platforms to the sky. While the tree in my neighborhood may look like a world of its own, it has never created one. Adam and Eve thought great things of a tree. It never raised the dead.
In my Bible study group lately, we pray like we’re praying in a second language, trying to step out of our old familiar sentences and learn the shape of new ones. The old sentences sound like Christmas morning with the extended family: thank you for the knitted blanket, the book I mentioned, the fifty dollars. Thanks for a new day, for this food, for other people, for this, for that. Thank you for rescuing us, for loving us, for comforting us.
God has done plenty for us humans. So, we identify him by the things he does: he is savior, he is our counselor, he is love. But why is he any of these things to us? He is loving because he is good. He is counselor because he is wise. He is savior because he exists as the baffling combination of justice and love toward humans. But we’re exercising the type of applause that’s not an exchange.
We are trying to thank him for who he is. But would he be who he is if he didn’t do what he does? But then again, are his roles toward humans all of who he is?
One November night, I see the supermoon, a combination of cycle and orbit that mean the moon will appear as large as my imagination always wants to depict it.
Sometimes, I find it hard to be demonstrative in a church service. But when I see the biggest yellow moon I’ve witnessed hovering between the brush-stroke shadows of two evergreen trees, I tell God before any other consideration can check me: “Wow!” I stop in a grassy area between a building and a parking lot to stare.
I’ve never seen God how Adam and Eve did, or even in the secondhand way of those who saw angels. But far out of Eden, I can still hear soft footsteps. For now, I walk the curving question toward them in my prayers, knowing God’s goodness in his work, knowing his work will let me see his full goodness when he steps into full sight. For now, we’re looking at a hazy, suspended cross until the light grows too big for our present eyes, and we’re still clapping. We’re blinking as our eyes adjust, praying a prayer we don’t know how to say yet.
What if God hadn’t? It’s a question with no answer because the option it presents is impossible. But its exploration isn’t pointless.
This is how I imagine tilting into eternity until I can see it myself: Dark. Quiet, but not empty. One light. Applause rolling in from across geography and centuries. Why? Because it must.