Several years ago the German filmmaker Werner Herzog directed a documentary about an ancient cave in the South of France, now called the Chauvet cave. The rocky enclosure dates back thirty-two thousand years, and it contains what appear to be by far the oldest extant images created by human beings. You’ve probably seen the images: shadowy animal figures on stone walls, buried deep under the earth and far back in time, sealed off by a landslide twenty thousand years ago and then rediscovered and studied, and in this case filmed, by human beings in the late twentieth century, late in human history, in an age of great technological sophistication and, it seems, an age of great moral danger. The images are eerie and surpassingly beautiful. We can identify horses and lions and cave bears, painted in sync with the undulations of the stone walls themselves, designed perhaps to accompany the flow of water along the floor of the cave in some places. There are prints of a human hand, the same human hand over and over, a hand with one crooked finger that allows us to identify his work. These images seem to have been drawn on the walls over a period of five thousand years, in which this cave was apparently not inhabited by human beings but was used by them for purposes that might be described as ceremonial.
Watching these images flicker in the limited light that scientists will allow the filmmaker to use, we have, Herzog says, something like the experience that the cave’s original visitors would have had when they illuminated their own work with torches. Everything moves in a silent symphony of light and shadow, animal and mineral, time and space, familiarity and distance.
Herzog and his film crew record not only the physical features of the underground artworks, but the efforts of those who study them to come to terms with what they are encountering. One young French scientist reports that when he first began to study the cave he was overwhelmed emotionally and psychically, his dreams at night filled with lions and paintings of lions, until he was forced to take a break from the haunting images so he could, he says, “absorb” the experience. At one point the entire crew stands immobile, in hopes of recording on film the cave’s deep silence. Herzog is fascinated by the artistic consciousness of these earliest human painters. Standing before these images, he sees thirty thousand years of human spirituality flickering before him. He feels the heartbeat of a world in motion and also lost in time, images that attempt to register movement and sound and feeling and story across the farthest distances of human community. Herzog’s own work as a filmmaker is an effort both to bridge that gap between us and the cave painters, and to make us feel how vast and humbling that gap must forever be.
You and I are dwelling in our own dark cave this morning, its stone walls covered with our finest images and the shadows illuminated by the flickering of candles—and some nearly-prehistoric light fixtures. As we gather in this dark enclosure we are given ancient words to speak out loud, fed through ancient acts of ritual, and humbled by the great distances we are crossing spiritually. Here we are, inheritors of the traditions of the early Christians, who were themselves inheritors from the Israelites, who in turn had inherited and adapted traditions from the other peoples of the ancient near east. When God became a human being in the person of Jesus, he did something new and unique in all of creation, but he did so by stepping into the stream of human evolution and human history. God so loved the world that he entered into its dark places and stood with us as we watched images move in the flickering light. He allowed an image of himself to be captured in the scriptures, as it were, with the knowledge that his spirit would fill us through those living words and draw us to himself. And the words that he speaks are meant to give us hope, to fill us with awe, and to let us know that we are not alone on this sacred, perilous journey of being human. Hear him speak:
“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
Remember that Jesus is speaking these words as he prepares for his own crucifixion. He is praying on that dark night in order to reach us. He is praying for you, as you face your moments of trial, as you lie awake in the darkness and worry about the future. He is praying for us, as we contemplate danger and distress in our national political lives. He is praying for us, as we sort out how to live in this astonishingly complex moment of human history. Back before the beginning of time, before the creation of the world, Jesus is in loving conversation with the Father about us. His crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension into heaven: these are signs for us that we are held in the embrace of our creator, that the Spirit dwells in us richly, for the redemption of the world.
Great care has been taken that we might live a life of connection and love in the present moment. Great care has been taken that my life and yours might bear witness to the Father’s purposes. This dark stone structure that holds us this morning is filled with images that may be familiar to us, but every one of them speaks to us of a mystery beyond our understanding. Before the creation of the world, the Father loved Jesus, who carried us in his heart.
Don’t be lulled into bland acceptance of the life of Christ that is all around you. These windows and these figures and this towering, ascended messiah who looms over our altar—we may be accustomed to seeing them week after week or day after day, but let’s never take them for granted. These ritual acts that we perform, the bread and wine that we bless and break and share; the words we hear from the ancient scriptures: let’s never decide that they are just holy decorations in our lives. Let’s never think that they are meant to lull us into complacency. The opposite is true. We enter this dark enclosure to be reminded that we live in the constant presence of the Alpha and the Omega.
Words and images and sounds and gestures have been preserved for us that we might know Jesus, and in him that we might know the God who made us. We won’t ever be in control of this mysterious union with God that Jesus makes possible for us. We won’t ever get it. That’s not our job. Our job is to stand in awe, and to be filled with love for what we are and where we come from and where we are going. Our calling is to be absolutely sure that our love is never wasted. Jesus loves in us, and Jesus loves us to the end. Jesus has loved every moment of human history and has sanctified it.
We don’t get better instructions than that for this uncertain moment in which we live. But we do get courage, and reverence, and gratitude. We do get strength. We get community, resourcefulness, hope, and charity. We don’t become the masters of our own destiny when we gather here in our dark stone church, but we do become full, willing, honest, loving participants in the life of Christ.
It’s a truth that is far beyond our grasp, but we have what we need to live it out, day by day and moment by moment. Let’s continue moving forward together in faith, broken open by Jesus, like the bread that we share.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
8 May 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia