When I was a child, we lived a block away from the public library. Many afternoons I’d go there after school, doing homework in the “reference room,” surrounded by heavy encyclopedias and dictionaries and atlases. With my books and papers spread out over the large wooden table, I felt so mature. Even then, I was a scholar at heart.
On the library walls hung colorful posters with hot air balloons and clipper ships and cats on skateboards, with messages like, “Reading can really take you places,” “Books give us wings!” or “See the world without going anywhere. Read!”
It’s true that reading can transport us. And with the internet in the palm our hand, with images of every imaginable place in the world, why bother to travel?
It comes down to presence—the difference between seeing with your eyes and being present in body.
Thinking about the presence of God reminds me of Moses’ unique face-to-face friendship with God. Moses and his “stiff-necked people” had been wandering the Sinai Peninsula for far too long. Exodus 33 records the conversation between Moses and God, with God finally agreeing to pass before Moses without allowing him to see God’s face, which would mean sudden death. God says to Moses,
“Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” -Exodus 33:21-23
Moses was permitted to see God’s back but not the glory of God’s face. In later chapters, the glory of the Lord is perceived as a cloud that settles on the tabernacle and lifts from the tabernacle when it’s time to move on. When Moses and his people finally arrive at the border of the Promised Land, God told him to climb Mount Nebo and take in the view of the territory which the Israelites would soon possess—the place we pilgrims call the Holy Land.
On a clear day you can see forever, they say. Here, God allowed Moses to gaze at his people’s forever land. But because Moses had disobeyed God when he struck the rock in anger, he could see the land but not set foot in it.
Moses died and was buried on the east side of the Jordan River, having been allowed to see but not to touch. The obit writer adds, “No one knows where his grave is” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
Like the grave of Moses, there is debate over the actual location of Jesus’ tomb. On the tour we were taken to two plausible sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. When Jesus appeared in bodily form to his friends after his crucifixion, he showed them the wounds on his hands and side, wanting them to see with their own eyes.
Thomas wasn’t with them when they had seen Jesus, and he doubted their story. He said that unless he could touch Jesus’ wounds with his own two hands, he would never believe their crazy story.
A week later, Jesus again appeared to the disciples, saying to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). It’s not clear whether Thomas reached out to touch the wounds, but he responded with a stunned declaration of belief.
When Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, she saw him with her own eyes but didn’t recognize him, thinking at first that he was the gardener. When she recognized him, she cried, “Teacher!” and embraced him. She must have embraced him for a bit too long, because Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). His presence was tangible but temporary. It must have broken her heart all over again to hear that Jesus would be leaving, withdrawing his elusive presence on which she’d grown to depend.
However, Jesus didn’t remove his presence forever. He gave them the ever-present Holy Spirit, promising: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
Moses was allowed to witness God’s glory, in a limited way. He was later allowed to see the Holy Land, but not to touch it. Jesus’ disciples were allowed to see and touch but not hold onto his physical presence. We are graced now with the Holy Spirit, whom we know not through sight or touch or the physical senses. We know the Spirit in an all-enveloping way, trusting the presence of God is somehow inside us. We are portable containers of the very presence that raised Jesus from the dead, as Paul writes in Romans 8.
If the Spirit lives in you, you are a clay jar filled with priceless treasure. You are like the limestone blocks of the Western Wall, where the divine presence is said to rest. You are like pottery in a Qumran cave filled with holy words. You contain a heart of limestone-turned flesh upon which God has written mine. Such things are invisible and intangible but no less real.
Right before leaving for the Holy Land, I noticed a sign at the Lutheran church near my house that stated, “Jesus is the perfect Israel.” The word “Israel” caught my attention, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant.
Looking deeper into the phrase, I understood it to mean that Jesus was the embodiment of God’s people—the perfected version of an imperfect people. This quote wasn’t about the land of Israel but about the people of Israel.
In the end, it’s not about the land but the people. Of all the ironies to be found on a tour of the Holy Land, the one that occurred to me later is this: I didn’t need to visit Israel. It was not spiritually necessary to walk in the ancient footsteps of Jesus, as great an opportunity as it was. The Holy Spirit is with me always. But I had to go there to discover it wasn’t necessary. In other words, I had to go.
I thank God his presence isn’t localized in a plot of land but found instead in the people, the Church, the body of Christ stretched all across the world. Virginia Stem Owens offers this striking image of God’s presence in the world: “Christ lies spread-eagled across our map, like the map of the Ebstorf monks, holding everything together. . . .” (from And the Trees Clap Their Hands). As Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” He abides in everyday people—pilgrims, tourists, Dead Sea bathers—like us.
The apostle John writes, “For God so loved the world . . .”—from Beijing to Lagos to Portland to Buenos Aires to Jerusalem—and every person in between. Whether sitting on your couch or walking along the Via Dolorosa, be still and know the presence of God is with you and in you, even beyond your senses.