It’s a funny word ‘glory’. We use it a lot in church. As a boy, my theological development was greatly hindered because I had an Aunty Glory, and thought that all references in hymns and the Bible, were to her. When I spoke at her funeral a couple of years ago I discovered she was named Glory because my grandmother had given birth to 7 boys and when the midwife said ‘it’s a girl!’ The response came back - ‘glory be!’ And so she was.
Isaac Newton, the great 17th century mathematician and physicist, was fascinated by the word ‘glory’, especially in the stories about Moses. He taught himself Hebrew and Greek so he could better understand the Scriptures.
The word for glory in Hebrew, ‘kabod’, means heaviness or weight, and Newton became convinced that Moses had hidden the inverse square law of gravitational attraction in the text of the Pentateuch - those first 5 books of the Bible. He had hidden it so that common people would not discover it and abuse the knowledge. This prisca sapientia, ancient wisdom, was there for the true theological scholar to discover - God would reveal it to him. So Newton spent years sifting through the Hebrew text with various mathematical cyphers. Newton needed to get out more…
The Old Testament in fact develops the idea, not from the inverse square law of gravitational attraction, but from the image of ‘an eminent man’ who had heavy possessions; heavy bags of money; heavy responsibilities - and even many heavy wives. A heavy man displayed gravitas.
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, (the Septuagint) the word ‘doxa’ was used to translate ‘glory’. It comes from the root word meaning ‘to think’ or ‘to seem’ and in classical Greek meant: reputation (what others think of us) and; opinion (what we ourselves think). And this is obviously to do with fame, honour and praise.
There’s one more little element left in this etymological tale. In Scripture, whenever God displayed his crushing heaviness of being, his glory, there was Light – lightening, or blinding light, or a shining cloud, or a pillar of fire, or the burning bush – the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Years later, when Moses was doubting whether God had ever actually called him to service at the burning bush, we read these words in the book of Exodus:
Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory." And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. But, you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live."
Moses is told that God’s glory is unbearable, and all God would show was the shadow of his glory - his goodness - his moral perfection and beauty. Or what some scholars see in our text, his Wisdom.
So the glory of God is full of light. He dwells in unapproachable light. Christ, the King of Glory, is the effulgence (as the writer to the Hebrews puts it (1.3)) - the shining radiance - of God’s glory. And in that light of Christ we see ultimate moral beauty and wisdom – Christ himself, our hope of glory. In the words of our text we have the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
As Christians, like Mattew, we are summoned to follow Christ, the King of Glory, so that as we feed on him, we too begin to reflect the glory of God. We become heavier, more substantial, more solid as human beings. It is a great mystery of the Christian life, testified to by all the saints, that as we grow in faith, spiritual realities become, not more certain - we are often plagued by doubt - but somehow, more solid, almost tangible. As John Newton’s great hymn of glory ‘Glorious things’ puts it: “Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.”
In CS Lewis’s allegory about heaven and hell, The Great Divorce, and in the Narnia Stories - everything is more solid in heaven. The present life on earth becomes ‘thin’ and insubstantial, wraithlike in comparison. We live now, says Lewis, in the shadowlands.
Our society talks much of ‘spirituality’ - the buzzword of school inspections. It’s fashionable to be spiritual. But there is little focus to that spirituality, and indeed often a denial that there is any objective ‘other’ - the transcendent God of Glory. Spirituality is seen as something purely internal, subjective and personal. Because of this absent substantiator in postmodern society; an absence of the One who gives weight to human existence, there is a lack of solidness in society, of glory, of weight. And although we don’t have time to develop the links here, a lack of respect. We are in danger of becoming all surface and image.
Tesco ergo sum. I shop therefore I am.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of surface and image occasionally. A little bit of retail therapy is just the thing when we’re consumed by metaphysical angst. It’s amazing what a new laptop or pair of shoes can do! But if image is all there is, then we are empty, and simply manipulated by the fashions of the age. Friedrich Nietzsche reflected on this in the 19th century. He wrote: “When there is the ‘death of God’ in a culture, it becomes increasingly hollowed out, ‘weightless’”.
One of my fellow students at theological college was good at everything. And he knew it. So nobody liked him very much. There was much schadenfreude when he was rusticated for a term for driving a mini car through the front doors of the college - I think substances were also involved. Someone pinned a large notice above his door with the single word in Hebrew: Ichabod - the glory has departed.
It was the name given to Eli’s grandson Ichabod, who was born just after a particularly crushing defeat by the Philistines who also stole the Ark of the Covenant which represented the glory of God. In fact it’s a rather tragic story that the Jewish writer turns into a little joke at the end.
“And it came to pass, when the messenger made mention of the ark of God, that Eli fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy.”
(I Sam 4)
So the grandson, born at the same time is called Ichabod, the glory has departed - the Ark of the Covenant has been carried off. But it could mean, the heavy one has departed - the fat man has died.
Ichabod might be a suitable epitaph for the last 20 years: much spiritual interest but little spiritual depth or weight. Believe but don’t belong. It is a simple truth of the Christian faith that we must not neglect the spiritual because of the ever-pressing needs of the secular. St Matthew left his highly paid civil service job to become a wandering disciple, following Christ. To neglect nurturing our relationship with Christ is to increase our superficiality and weightlessness. It is an ultimate vanity that leaves us to consume our own images.
In our Christian tradition, music and liturgy, art and architecture - these play a great part in nourishing our spiritual life. The glory of our music, our architecture, our liturgy, is all supposed to draw us into the weightier glory of God. The senses aid our mind, for Christ in us, our transcendent hope of glory, cannot be grasped by reason alone. Isaac Newton was seeking for that which was hidden. St Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Colossians that “the mystery which has been kept hidden for ages and generations, is now disclosed to the saints.” (Col 1.26)
The saints like Matthew. The saints like you and me.
And what is this mystery? Paul goes on to say: “which is, Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So Matthew and the apostle Paul’s mission is now our mission. This mystical, yet profoundly real, inner presence of Christ makes us people of substance, who can with humility, offer, not certainties, but solid joys and lasting pleasures. Confidence without arrogance.
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” 2 Cor 4.6.