My theme this morning is “Excelsis” – the highest – and my method will be a meditation on symbols. We’ve all heard that Latin word, “Excelsis,” and we’ll be hearing it a lot more soon, in Christmas carols. As a choral singer, I also know it from the Angelic Hymn – the “Gloria” – in the Catholic Mass. (And if you want to hear a rousing setting of that hymn, we’re singing Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at the NOVO/VONO Christmas concert on Saturday, December 9th, at 7:30pm – tickets are $10.) I had always assumed that the text of the “Gloria” was taken from the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel, where the shepherds go to visit the baby Jesus and his family and the angels come to sing “Glory to God in the highest.” But actually, that is NOT what the Vulgate says the angels sang. The word at that place in Luke is not “excelsis,” but “altissimis.” I did a computer search of the Vulgate for the word “Excelsis,” thinking I might discover something about how the symbol of “the highest” is used in that text – and I did, but the first thing I discovered is that “excelsis” does not occur in the place I most expected to find it.
The earliest place in the text that “Excelsis” occurs is in David’s lament over the death of Jonathan, of whom he famously says, “Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” David’s lament is addressed to Israel, not to God, so when he says “Jonathan lies slain upon thy high places,” he is speaking of the mountains, specifically of Mount Gilboa, where Jonathan and his two brothers and his father, King Saul, were killed in battle against the Philistines. Up to this point in the text as we have received it, the mountains – Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel, Mount Gilboa – have been “high places” where human beings encounter the divine, or perhaps in Saul’s case, his fate. Later on, Ezekiel will speak of mountain pastures that provide us food. But here on Mount Gilboa, there is no divine intervention, only the consequences of Saul’s own decisions and actions. And here – upon this purely ethical ground – the Vulgate first uses the word “Excelsis.”
But it uses that word most prominently in the books of Kings. Of a series of kings, starting with Solomon (who traditionally is associated with the book of Proverbs and is legendary for his wisdom), and then proceeding through Jeroboam, Jehoshaphat, Jehoash, Amaziah, Azariah, Jotham, and Ahaz, the Vulgate uses “Excelsis” where the text notes that these kings set up or let stand “high places” where people worshipped, and where later on the priests also lived. All of these kings, we are told, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” except Ahaz, the last one. He did not do what was right by the Lord, and not only did he let stand the “high places” for worship, but he sacrificed his own son there. After him, we are told, “every nation still made gods of its own, and put them in the shrines of the high places which the Samaritans had made” – and we know from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan that they were not held in good repute. So these high places became a problem after a wicked man in leadership had abused them. When King Josiah came to the throne, lo! his high priest, Hilkiah, discovered an ancient book of the law. And did he discover it in a high place? Perish the thought! He found it in the Jerusalem Temple. And so on the pretext of restoring Israel to the right path, Josiah deposed the priests of the high places of all faiths other than the Temple’s and defiled their worship spaces (including those where sons were sacrificed to the god Molech); brought out of the Temple the Asherah – which scholars think represented the feminine divine in some way, perhaps as wife or consort of God – and burned it in Kidron Brook; broke down the houses of the male prostitutes in the Temple; removed the horses and chariots dedicated to the sun god from the entrance to the Temple; and commanded that everyone worship according to this rediscovered law at the Temple. Before Josiah’s reforms, in other words, the high places were where people who wanted freedom of worship went to church, and the Temple had become a place of extravagant privilege and abuse of power. And without any sense of irony, Josiah exercised his own privilege and power abusively to “make the Temple great again.” Anyway, that’s one way to tell the story. Here again, the word “Excelsis” shows up in the Vulgate in connection with ethics, in this case an ethical crisis.
The next place we find “Excelsis” is in two places in the book of Job. In both places, Job is speaking, saying that God is “in excelsis” – on high. You know Job’s dilemma: he is ethically righteous, yet he suffers, and he questions whether this is just. “God has cast me into the mire,” he says, “and I have become like dust and ashes.” (We have been burned, burned by the fire, and we are ashes, ashes and smoke, but we will rise higher and higher on the wings of compassion, justice, and hope.) Hear his prayer: “I cry to thee and thou dost not answer me; I stand, and though dost not heed me. Thou hast turned cruel to me; with the might of thy hand thou dost persecute me. Thou liftest me up on the wind, thou makers me to ride on it, and thou tossest me about in the roar of the storm. Yea, I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living. Yet does not one in a heap of ruins stretch out his hand, and in his disaster cry for help? Did I not weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came. My heart is in turmoil, and is never still; days of affliction come to meet me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly, and cry for help. … My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. I have made a covenant with my eyes; … What would be my portion from God above…” – in excelsis – “Does not calamity befall the unrighteous, and disaster the workers of iniquity? Does he not see my ways, and number all my steps?” For Job, it is not outward forms of worship but courage of conscience that is troubled. Job is like one of those worshippers at a high place that Josiah persecuted – the text does not say that all those worshipping at high places were off the path of compassion, justice, and hope, it only mentions some of the things that were going wrong when freedom of worship was granted. It is by no means clear in the text that Josiah was to be praised for his abusive crackdown. Rather, the text invites the criticism I have offered, that Josiah was every bit as guilty of abusing his power as bad old King Ahaz. What do we do when we must rely on conscience instead of kings, but we suffer for it?
The Christian answer to Job’s dilemma is found in the first lines of the book of Hebrews, where the Vulgate makes its last use of “Excelsis”: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our [ancestors] by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, … When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” – in excelsis – “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.” There is something of King Josiah’s tone in this assertion – one way only, one place only, for religious life. But now it’s “higher than the angels.” From that image, I want to turn to another: our rose window, which the designers of this room placed higher than the angels that top the ten windows to either side of us. On an insert in your Order of Worship are pictures of the individual petals of that rose.
What is it that the designers of these windows placed above the angels? It is the story of Jesus, not Jesus himself; there is no symbol of Jesus there, as there is over the main sanctuary doors, and in the twenty panels of the side windows, where a set of five symbols are repeated four times: planting, harvesting, father, Word (that word in the window is the Greek logos, not the Spanish locos), and spirit. Where symbols referring to Jesus himself occur, they are in a context: over the sanctuary door, it is part of another symbol, denoting the Trinity – Jesus is part of something larger; and in the side windows, the Trinity is part of something larger: spiritual practice – what we plant and harvest in and among ourselves. Symbols of spiritual practice are placed down here, nearest us, suggesting the proximity to our lives of spiritual practice – that what we plant and harvest in ourselves will bear fruit collectively in just laws, compassionate living, and a hopeful spirit. But up there, higher than the angels, is a story.
It’s hard to say what exactly the story is. The symbols in the rose window are pretty abstracted and hard to read. But here’s my guess: Reading from the upper right, and proceeding clockwise, I would say that what we have is the Bethlehem star; and then the tablets in the next petal represent, perhaps, the boy Jesus teaching in the Temple (he said of himself when he was older that he came to fulfill the law); and then in the bottom petal we have his miracles represented by the wedding at Cana – you see the two rings for the wedding and the water pitcher pouring out wine; next is the crucifixion with the name his persecutors gave him, “King of the Jews;” and then I interpret the next petal as the resurrection with the name his mother gave him (as the angel instructed her); and at last, on top, we have a mystery. I can make neither head nor tail of it. I asked my colleagues – posting a picture of the window in a closed Facebook group – and one of them replied that this was clearly the holy boomerang of love. I think it’s just fine to name it “Mystery” – from which we all come and to which we all return. Then we have, all together, the symbols of a life, a life like yours and mine in many respects: a birth of hope that every child is, a childhood learning what is good, a youth and young adulthood finding our gifts for the world, a life not without suffering and sacrifice, but suffering and sacrifice we survive with our authenticity (our true name, our true self) intact, returning in the end to the mystery. This journey, and our path along it, with wisdom in excelsis to guide us from mystery into mystery, is the highest thing, and the thing not squarely before us, that we often do not see, and never see easily. With that window, you either squint from here, or you climb some steps. Or maybe someone shows you a picture. It’s not easy to get a good look at. But up there is where the highest light comes in.
On my path of research about the window and “the highest,” I found that “the highest” I thought of was not “the highest” I was looking for. Instead of “excelsis,” the shepherds’ angels sang “altissimis.” I did not know that; I had assumed differently. And now I know better. It is not the different word that matters, but the clarity of knowledge and the objects for contemplation I found along my path. Spiritually, we head for the high places in our quest for courage, for wisdom about how to live lives of compassion, justice, and hope. We might find a place of storms like Mt Carmel, a place of battle like Mt Gilboa, a place of epiphany like Mt Sinai, or a place of sanctity like Mt Zion. We might set up our altar on a hill of our choosing instead of climbing far mountains every day. Whatever high place we make for, the dangers that privilege and power – like King Josiah or the attitude of the author of Hebrews – the dangers that privilege and power pose to understanding are ever-present. We still at times find our conscience challenged; we still at times will feel perplexed, disappointed, even abandoned – burned, burned by the fire, and become ashes, ashes and smoke; but we will rise higher and higher on the wings of compassion, justice, and hope. And this is our answer to Job’s dilemma: when our heart is in a holy place, we are blessed, and there we find courage, compassion, justice, and hope. Remember that the journey of your life is a portal of the highest light. May wisdom and courage be yours, and may we together create communities of compassion, justice, and hope. So may it be. Amen.