I woke up much later than I wanted to, of course, because of daylight savings, and listened to those curiously lucent chapters in the middle of Exodus, following upon the calamity of the golden calf. For a while God mercifully overshadows a tent outside the camp so that anyone who wants to come into his presence has to leave the comforts of home and company and go out into the lonely wilderness. There God speaks with Moses as “a man speaks to his friend.” Then Moses pleads to see the face of God and so God hides him in the cleft of a rock so that Moses might see the glory of God passing by. Then God calls Moses back up the mountain, lugging along two new stone tables, to receive again the law. Moses is up there for another long time, and when he comes back down, his face is shining. And it goes on shining. He begins to have to wear a veil over his head because nobody wants to have to see it.
Then I clicked over to peruse the news and read that Stephen Hawking has died at age 76. Spent quite a long time looking at pictures and reading snippets about his life and his family and funny things he said. Tried to read about his actual scientific discoveries but turns out I’m not intellectually equal to the task. Don’t question me about details or generalities because I won’t able to repeat anything back with even a modicum of understanding. It’s like a heavy impenetrable veil hangs between me and the vast array of all the numbers.
Unlike me, Prof. Hawking did his best to stare into the far reaches of the universe. If anyone could have found God out there, peering back from the stars, surely it would have been him. Perhaps a divine wave from a far off planet, a little cosmic sign to say I Am Real, I Really Do Exist. And wouldn’t it have been convenient for every truly believing Christian if God had given such a sign, such a cosmic wave.
Tragically, though, Prof. Hawking, along with the rest of us, was always stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Certainly he described its parameters, its contours, making fascinating conjectures about its origins, better than almost everybody else who has ever sat in its dusty roots. Indeed, where most of us don’t want to look up at all, to see the smoke and fire, the bright Light of truth, he got out his telescope and his calculator and peered unrelentingly into the darkness. But no matter how far you look into the universe, if you don’t want to see God, you won’t see him.
This being so, rather than waving at us from afar, rather than trying to catch our attention in the stars, rather than laying signs in one place and another to tell us who he is–even though, as many people have noticed, all those signs are really there, indeed, the very heavens themselves declare the glory of God–God himself made the long arduous journey down the mountain. He came and spoke to humanity as one might speak to a friend. He took on the very same frail body that Prof. Hawking endured for so many years. He took it in all its broken mortality, and endured it all the way to the same death that each one of has to face. Which is the most darkening veil that we have to peer through. We want to see to the other side but we can’t. There’s nothing that will help us.
Nothing except God who is strong enough to raise the dead. The same God who fashioned and formed the universe. He set the stars in their places. He set the earth in its spinning, splendid motion, at just the right distance from the sun, at just the right size for us to live and breathe and know each other as friends. That this God would raise the dead, would rip back the veil, would display his glory, is such a staggering and strange thing. I hope that Prof. Hawking saw that glory truly before he died, and that at the last day he will see God face to face, finally recovering his voice to speak to him as a friend.