Hebrews 12—the text for next Sunday’s Mass readings—employs extraordinary imagery to describe our ability, as Christians, to have contact with the living God.
Here is the text as it will be read at Mass:
Brothers and sisters:
You have not approached that which could be touched
and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness
and storm and a trumpet blast
and a voice speaking words such that those who heard
begged that no message be further addressed to them.
No, you have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect,
and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel (Hebrews: 12:18-19, 22-24A).
Although the author of the text claims that God is approachable, there is an implicit suggestion that under normal human circumstances He should not be.
Consider the contrast the author is making. On the one hand, there is a ‘blazing fire and gloomy darkness,’ a ‘storm and a trumpet blast,’ and words so terrifying that those hearing them asked that the speaker cease. On the other there is: the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘countless angels in festal gathering,’ God the judge, the assembly the saints, and Jesus with His Precious Blood.
Surely the items in the second list are more fearsome in the first? Most notably there is God Himself, who, if fire and the gloomy darkness—a term for the hell of the damned—are unapproachable, surely should be even more inaccessible. And yet He is ‘touchable.’
The key is the allusion the text is making to the Old Testament. The verses excluded from the Mass reading make it clear:
[F]or they could not bear to hear the command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling” (Hebrews 18:19-21).
We tend to forgot some of the details of just how scary the Mount Sinai experience was for the Israelites. We tend to think that they saw the smoke and fire from a distance. But even the mountain itself, down to its base, was a source of fear, which is evident from God’s command to Moses:
Set limits for the people all around, saying: Take care not to go up the mountain, or even to touch its edge. All who touch the mountain must be put to death. No hand shall touch them, but they must be stoned to death or killed with arrows. Whether human being or beast, they must not be allowed to live (Exodus 19:12-13).
As far as mountains go, Mount Sinai isn’t the highest, at 7,497 feet. Still that’s more than a mile high. So it’s incredible that the Israelites weren’t allowed to even touch its base. The act was considered so sacrilegious that the person who violated the command himself became untouchable, meaning that he could only be killing by arrows or stones.
As knee-rattling as the Sinai experience was, the heavenly reality to which we are invited should be far more awe-inspiring. According to one commentator, the author is drawing a Platonic contrast between the ‘material realities’ of Sinai and the ‘spiritual reality’ of heaven. As he puts it, “All the pyrotechnics of revelation at Sinai are simply that, a feast of sound and sight, but not bearing within them the deepest reality” (Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary).
And yet now Christians are invited to touch this deepest reality. What has changed?
Christ’s sacrifice is what unlocked this inner realm for us. The cross is a kind of cosmic signpost, granting us passage to the beyond.
It is interesting that touch was such an important part of Christ’s own ministry. Consider the well-known story of the hemorrhaging woman who touched Him amid the crowd:
Jesus then asked, “Who touched me?” While all were denying it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds are pushing and pressing in upon you.” But Jesus said, “Someone has touched me; for I know that power has gone out from me.” When the woman realized that she had not escaped notice, she came forward trembling. Falling down before him, she explained in the presence of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been healed immediately. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 8:45-48).
Jesus’ question seems to affirm gravity of touching Him. Everyone denies it. The woman admits to it and trembles. She has touched the base of the mountain. But then reversal of expectations comes: through faith in Him touching the divine is no longer forbidden and taboo. The last verse of this chapter in Hebrews says ‘our God is a consuming fire’ but the bleeding woman walked away not injured but healed. Through Christ we can now touch the fire and not be burned. As Isaiah 43:1-2 says,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name: you are mine.
When you pass through waters, I will be with you;
through rivers, you shall not be swept away.
When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
nor will flames consume you.
There is yet one further implication of this. Although we have been given permission to touch the living God, it is still a scary thing to do! We are ascending the mountain into the storm, full of light and darkness, sound and fury. As St. Paul says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Of course, St. Paul is not talking about the kind of servile fear that makes us shrink back from God, but instead a kind of holy fear, one that makes us approach Him with boldness and also humility, crying out with confidence in His mercy even as we tremble before His judgments—just as the hemorrhaging woman did.