By Dan Edwards
A theophany is a revelation, an appearance of God. This is the story of two theophanies. The first is in Job, a harsh, strange story, that admittedly does not portray God in a flattering light.
Job is a righteous, prosperous man. Then God devastates his life to see how he will react. Job is stripped of every possession and every person who make him okay in this world. You may have heard of the patience of Job? That’s nonsense. Job is full-tilt furious — and who could blame him?
For 37 chapters he rails at God. For 37 chapters, Job rages and demands to know why. Then in today’s lesson, Chapter 38, God finally shows up and says who are you to ask me anything? Overawed by God’s sheer vastness, Job replies, I place my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once. I will not speak again.
The revelation of God’s unspeakable bigness reduces Job to rapt wonder. That’s one kind of theophany, a terrifying encounter with the holy that compels our silence.
But King Lear shows us another kind of theophany. Like Job, Lear loses everything. Partly because he was vain and partly because two of his daughters were cruel, King Lear, 81 years old, is banished, penniless, clad only in a thin cloak to wander half-mad along a windswept plain on a frigid dark night.
He is in a veritable hell. Like Job, he rails at the cruelty and injustice. Lear is tormented by poverty, mental illness, and the cold but more than any of these by the hurt of being cast out.
In that chill dark night, in the wilderness, Lear meets Poor Tom, a stark naked madman. Tom has also been exiled from his family and home due to the slander and trickery of his wicked half-brother.
Like Lear, Tom has lost everything and seemingly has gone quite insane. Lear’s companions try to get him away from mad Tom, but Lear is fascinated by him, wants to know his story.
Tom is a revelation to Lear. Because of his own sorrow, Lear can see in Tom the essence of humanity. He says, Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.
Then, in the frigid windblown darkness, Lear strips off his only garment, his last possession, to clothe poor naked Tom. Meeting Tom does not drive Lear to silence like Job. Instead it invites him to speak a word of mercy, to step past his own hardships, to consider how life is for everyone.
Tom’s brokenness evokes Lear’s compassion, even sacrificial compassion, giving away the little that he had. In Tom, Lear discovers that the essence of humanity is vulnerability, and he understands that his own reduced state has made him more authentically human than when he was a king.
When Job is in despair, God shows up as majestic, terrifying holiness, reducing Job to silent awe.
But when Lear is in despair, God shows up as Poor Tom — shivering, naked, broken Tom. He shows up as Christ on the cross to reveal the vulnerable essence of humankind. But it doesn’t stop there because Christ is the ultimate theophany.
Jesus shows us that God’s love compels him to join us in our vulnerability. God shares our human nature, lives and dies as one of us, the Prayer Book says.When we behold each other’s fragility, we see God. That’s what incarnation means. That’s what the cross means.
Contemporary poet David Whyte has written a series of essays on everyday words.
One of those words is heartbreak. Whyte says:
Heartbreak is how we mature; …
Heartbreak is as inevitable and inescapable as breathing,
a part and parcel of every path, there may be … no real life
without the raw revelation of heartbreak.
Another word is help. Whyte says,
The overwhelming need for help never really changes
in a human life from the first day we are brought forth
from the womb. … (Knowing) the necessity for help
… allows us to emancipate ourselves into each new epoch
of our lives.
We work so hard to get it all together — standing on our own feet, not needing anything from anybody. We get the right job, buy the right house, the right car, court the right spouse, raise the right children, hold the right opinions, have the right friends.
We work so hard at looking good in every way. Then we live in fear because we know full well it’s a house of cards. We know we are Job riding high in April; shot down in May; doing just fine, then sitting on a dunghill scraping the sores from his flesh with the shard of a pot that once held some of his wealth.
We know we are Lear, people who have it all together until it falls apart. Our hearts are steady until they break. We don’t need anyone’s help until we do.
Parker Palmer says,
There is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken. …
Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open”
into largeness of life, into greater capacity
to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.
That’s what happens when Lear meets Poor Tom and his self-obsession turns outward
into compassion for someone else. In our Eucharistic prayer, we break the bread
to enact the heart broken open. In Holy Communion, we ritually care for each other.
Are you willing to drink the cup of your brother’s sorrow, eat the bread of your sister’s tears?
We might take a couple of lessons from Job and Lear. The first is that if we loosen our grip on success a bit and dare to embrace the heartbreak in life, if we spend some time as Poor Tom, the unaccommodated man, we might find in ourselves a more authentic, vulnerable person.
We might settle into reality. The second is that if we turn our eyes upon each other’s sorrows, if we dare to look at refugees from the Northern Triangle, Congo, and Syria, if we befriend the homeless, the addicted, and the destitute, we just might see in them the cross of Christ, the vulnerability of God.
Their suffering might break our own hearts open as it breaks God’s heart every minute of every day. We might wake up to real life in all its poignant loveliness. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards is the retired Bishop of Nevada.