‘In Him, we live and move and have our being.’
So St. Luke declares in Acts 17:28. In context, it’s clear the gospel writer is referring not only to all mankind but the whole of creation:
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions (verses 24-26, NAB, Rev. Ed., unless otherwise noted).
Luke does not explain how this is so. Instead, it is in the Old Testament that we find a most intriguing answer to this question. Sirach 42:16 declares that ‘the glory of the Lord fills all His works’—that is creation. The next verse clarifies further the relationship between glory and creation, explaining that God causes the universe to ‘stand firm’ in His glory.
A similar connection between glory and creation is made in Psalm 104, beginning with a reference to the absolute dependence of creatures on God:
When you hide your face, they panic.
Take away their breath, they perish
and return to the dust.
Send forth your spirit, they are created
and you renew the face of the earth.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord be glad in his works! (verses 29-31).
How can this be? Glory, as we normally understand the word, does not connote something solid upon which anything could stand firm, even in a metaphorical sense. Here are some definitions the Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers for glory: ‘praise, honor, or distinction’; ‘something that secures praise or renown’; and ‘great beauty and splendor.’ In the last sense of the word, glory suggests a beautiful and brilliant radiance of light, like the beams of the brightest sun bursting out of a storm cloud.
So again, how can the entire universe ‘stand firm’ in the glorious radiance of God?
Again, the Old Testament has the answers. We just have to go further back—back to the exodus account.
At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites have one of the most storied encounters with God, mediated through the figure of Moses. Here is how it is recounted at the end of Exodus 24:
The glory of the Lord settled upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the Lord was seen as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. But Moses entered into the midst of the cloud and went up on the mountain. He was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (verses 16-18).
The exodus account makes it clear that to enter into that glory cloud was to have direct encounter with God. It was on that fire-flecked, cloud-veiled mountain top that Moses spoke directly with God and received the Ten Commandments ‘inscribed by God’s own finger’ (Exodus 31:18). The glory of the Lord would later descend on the tabernacle where Moses continued to have encounters with God, speaking to Him ‘face to face’ as one would to ‘a friend’ (Exodus 33:11). To enter into the glory of the Lord then was not to bask in the supernatural radiance of a distant deity but to encounter the very divine presence itself.
In the exodus account, as later, the glory of God is associated with the dependence of His creatures—in this case, Israelite men and women—on Him for their very life. In Exodus 16, God responds to the hunger of desert-starved Israelites by promising to shower manna from heaven. When such manna appears, the Israelites are told that they will spy ‘the glory of the Lord’ (Exodus 16:7).
What can all this mean? How can God’s glory itself sustain life? Thanks to the broader context of the exodus story, we can now understand God’s glory as signifying His presence. The upshot of all this seems to be that the God who is all-powerful is the one who can sustain all life by His mere presence.
But there is a tension built into this truth as it unfolds in the Old Testament. God’s glory fills all the earth, but there is a sense in which the earth has yet to experience its fullness. This is apparent in the narrative of the tabernacle and later the temple, considered hallowed places where God’s glory was manifested on earth—specifically resting on the ark of the covenant, veiled behind the holy of holies.
This is why we also read prophecies of a future time when God’s glory would spread out over all the earth. In Numbers 14:21, for example, God declares that despite the sins of Israel ‘the whole earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord’ (Douay-Rheims).
In the New Testament, the Incarnation is described as the fulfillment of this prophecy. Christians believe that in the Incarnation God became fully man, dwelling as fully divine among us. From an Old Testament perspective, it would be fitting to describe this new manifestation of divine presence in terms of glory. And that’s exactly what the gospel writers do. Here’s how the beginning of John puts it:
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth (verse 14).
In fact, the phrase ‘made his dwelling’ could be translated literally as ‘tabernacled’ or ‘made his tabernacle.’ This strange Greek wording now seems most fitting: the tabernacle, after all, was the place where God’s glorious presence dwelled among the Israelites. This theme continues on in the next chapter, where Jesus compares Himself to the temple (John 2:19). And it is also subtly woven into the account of the Annunciation to the Shepherds where the ‘glory off the Lord shone around them’ as the heavenly chorus of angels sung, ‘Glory to God in the highest’ (Luke 2:9,14).
But unlike the first temple, this one would carry God’s glory to the ends of the earth, rather than contain it. In the gospel accounts, this mission of glory reaches its climax in the crucifixion, where the moment of Jesus’ death coincides with the tearing of the veil that separates the holy of holies from the rest of the temple (recounted, of course, in John).
The gospels teach us that Jesus instituted two marvelous means of spreading His divine glory. One is a two thousand-year old social organism that has bested the fall of empires, the rise of tyrannies, and more than a few ‘dark ages.’ The other is a piece of bread. But it is more impressive for it is this bread that makes the social organism what it is. There’s more: this bread has the power to transform us into the likeness of God Incarnate, bestowing eternal life to those who eat it. Yet even more: this bread is the Real Presence of God Incarnate.