Some of you might have seen the film Signs this summer. Behind the scary, horror movie surface of its narrative is the very human story of a priest whose wife has recently been killed in a car accident. As a result, the priest finds he is losing his faith in God. He has taken off his collar and for six months his calling has become a thing of the past. Much to the distress of his brother and his children, he states bluntly that he hates God. He will no longer say grace at dinner. He sees nothing for which he might thank God. The death of his wife manifests itself in a feeling of vengeance toward his Creator, whom he now presumes to judge and will not forgive. The image of God he once had in his mind has changed drastically.
Occasionally we hear of someone who has stopped going to church or quit reading the Bible because of some loss in their life for which they have blamed God. For them, the face of God has changed so radically that they see God only through the lens of their loss. And because they lack forgiveness, they project their own lack of forgiveness onto God. Rather than being seen as merciful and forgiving, their God becomes a God of anger and wrath. And these qualities become the rationale for abandoning a God who for them has now lost the qualities they originally sought. The irony is that in ceasing to read the Bible or to attend church to hear discussions of the readings, they have also cut themselves off from the alternative pictures or images of God that they so desperately need at this point in their lives.
Sometimes we hear of people who have switched religions based on their "discovery" that the Judeo-Christian God is a God of vengeance and wrath. They have moved on in order to find a "nicer," more loving God. How silly this kind of reason for a faith change seems! Often, it is an excuse to bypass personal repentance. These people have switched loyalty, perhaps, to a deity whom they presume is unconcerned with repentance.
The meaning of the word "repentance" can be taken less to mean "remorse," than a change of attitude towards transgression. This path would seem to be perfect for the wrathful, for the vengeful, those who don't want to suffer a change in their lives. Here is the formula. Simply project those qualities, switch the blame onto God, and then enact an angry withdrawal. Someone once said that the only reason for a good "hell fire" sermon is to point to the hell on earth that those who ignore the need for repentance can create.
For such people -- as for the priest in Signs, today's readings are particularly relevant. In Ezekiel we read God's words: "As I live, Says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" It is not that God is always vengeful, but that humankind's sinful nature pictures God in this way. This is less to mean that there is a being up in the sky that reacts to sin by an act of vengeance, either during the sinner's life on earth or in the afterlife, but rather it is that humankind put a face on God appropriate to the face of that individual soul. In the film, the priest put a face on God that mirrored his own hatred. Thus, the face of God was perceived as hateful and vengeful.
Seeing God in such a way is indeed the result of having fallen into a pit, in which the light of God's true face is invisible to us. Shutting out the light and grace of this face of God can mean shutting out our only chance of gaining God's forgiveness and love-forgiveness and love that we all need so desperately in our lives. What was is that Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world"? The same applies to what one wishes to see in the face of God. Be the way you want God to be.
In our movie Signs, although the priest has refused to continue wearing his collar, with monsters afoot in the town a young girl, fearing the end of the world, asks the priest to hear her confession. Although the priest no longer sees the face of a forgiving God, the girl still does and is much in need of the merciful face she sees in her Creator. Although the priest has shut himself off from that face, he consents to hear her confession. It is partially the effect of these faithful people, his children and brother included, who bear witness to the reality of the forgiving God and eventually renew for the priest that face of God he once beheld.
Such characters are good role models for those of us who are tempted to sit back and offer little to others; people who because of some crisis in their lives have blocked themselves from God's grace and forgiveness. These people resemble the sentinel in Ezekiel that God has set up for Israel. The sentinel blows the trumpet, bringing warnings that someone has gone over the edge, into a territory where he or she could be lured into putting a negative face on God. The movie shows the importance of a loving family, or a loving community, that can acts as sentinels, preventing those around them from falling into the pit.
The figure of the sentinel can also be looked at in other ways. Perhaps the sentinel lives in each of us and we are responsible for making sure he does not fall asleep. Although others may help, we may need to blow our own trumpets to warn ourselves when our paths have gone astray.
Seen through the lens of modern psychology, one might make a case for the monsters in Signs that come out of the corn fields being the priest's own creations. He has clearly darkened the face of God with them. In the end, these monsters are defeated by water and a baseball bat! In real life, we might do better, in beating our monsters back, to pick up the water rather than the bat!
As the reading for today makes clear, vindication is God's prerogative, not ours. Renewed Baptism burns back the path of Satan. And the way of forgiveness gives back to women and men the true face of their God.