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Glory in the Bible and Priests

The weight of God comes to us in many ways

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After destroying the golden calf, Moses returns to the top of Mount Sinai and asks the Lord, “Please let me see your glory!” (Ex 33:18).

The Lord, so testy earlier in the chapter, does not object but responds eagerly: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim my name, ‘LORD,’ before you” (v, 19). Yet the request is dangerous: “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live” (v. 20).

Still, the Lord is anxious to protect Moses so that he can see what he can see: “When my glory passes I will set you in the cleft of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face may not be seen” (vv. 22-23). This sharpens the sense of danger while revealing God’s great care for this servant who asks for this intimacy.

German Lutheran theologian Rudolph Otto described the experience of the Holy as mysterium tremendum, et fascinans — mysterious, fearful and fascinating. Though the Divine is dangerous and beyond the limits of human knowledge, we find ourselves drawn toward God and what belongs to God. Moses’ desire is a human desire.

While it may be impossible to say exactly what Moses sees, the Bible tells us that the skin of his face becomes radiant and the people are afraid to come near him. Seeing the glory of God transforms Moses by giving him a share of God’s fearful glory.

The Weight of God

We typically connect God’s glory to fire and light as a manifestation of presence and power, and Exodus 24:17 captures this for the Israelites at the bottom of Mount Sinai: “The glory of the LORD was seen as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.” Even so, the Hebrew word for glory, kabod, has its roots in weight and heaviness. The verb kabed means “to be heavy,” and the noun means, first of all, “weight, heaviness.” The kābôd YHWH, which appears 37 times in the Old Testament, literally means “the weight of YHWH.”

More generally, kābôd reflects the weight of a person and comes to represent their renown, their fame. In Exodus 14:17, God insists that Pharaoh and the Egyptian army will bring him the glory of the battle hero. Psalm 96:7 calls on the families of the nations to “give to the LORD glory and might.” This recognition stands as a basic requirement of worship throughout the Old Testament. In Psalm 115:1, the psalmist says, “Not to us, LORD, not to us / but to your name give glory / because of your mercy and faithfulness.”

Ezekiel and Glory

The Book of Ezekiel offers the most extensive display of God’s glory. The opening chapter presents the prophet’s wild and fantastic vision by the river Chebar in Babylon. There he sees the throne of God’s glory: “a cloud of flashing fire” (v. 4); “likeness of four living creatures” (v. 5); with faces human, lion, ox, and eagle (cf. v. 10); “like burning coals of fire” (v. 13); wheels in wheels filled with eyes, above the “likeness of the firmament” (cf. vv. 21-22); “the likeness of a throne … a figure that looked like a human being” (v. 26); “fire and brilliant light surrounding him” (v. 27); “like the appearance of the rainbow” (v. 28).

Ezekiel can only describe what it was like; he cannot define it literally. It is beyond telling:

“Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speak” (Ez 1:28).

The spirit then sets him on his feet, and God calls him to announce judgment and gives him a scroll to eat that was “as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ez 3:3).

In Ezekiel 8, a man like fire and bronze seizes the prophet by the hair and carries him from Babylon to Jerusalem to see God’s glory in the vision by the river Chebar. After witnessing the abominations in the Temple, Ezekiel watches the four living creatures with wheels move the glory of God by stages from the cherubim throne in the Holy of Holies to the threshold of the Temple. From there, God’s glory moves to the eastern gate before coming to rest on the mountain east of the city. With God’s glory no longer in the Temple, the city is ready for destruction.

Though Ezekiel cannot speak, his prophecies of judgment against Judah and then against the nations fill the next 21 chapters. Finally, the hand of the Lord opens his mouth just before a fugitive arrives with news of Jerusalem’s fall (cf. Ez 33:21-22). The prophet delivers oracles of salvation, and in Ezekiel chapters 40-48, he describes the new Jerusalem and its Temple. Again he sees the vision of God’s glory, now coming to the New Jerusalem: “The glory of the LORD entered the temple by way of the gate facing east. Then the spirit lifted me up and brought me to the inner court. And there the glory of the LORD filled the temple!” (43:4-5).

The Hebrew word nabaˀ can mean to prophesy or to rave like a madman. Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory, its rising from Jerusalem and then its return can seem too fantastic to fit into the little boxes we have for God. We can easily dismiss It as the raving of a madman, but it is a gift of the Scriptures offering us prophetic possibilities.

Ezekiel stands at the beginning of the priestly tradition that plays such a central role after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Within this theology, God’s presence manifests itself as glory. The Book of Exodus, the journey out of slavery, ends with God coming to dwell among his people: “The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (40:34).

This foreshadows the glory filling Solomon’s temple (cf. 2 Chr 5:14). Therefore, the gates lift up their heads that the king of glory may enter (cf. Ps 24:7). And the psalmist sings, “Lord, I love the refuge of your house, / the site of the dwelling-place of your glory” (26:8).

God’s glory appears often and everywhere in the Old Testament when you begin looking. This glory reveals God’s presence, power and renown. This reality calls humanity to give glory to God.

New Testament

The Greek word for “glory” is doxa, as in doxology, “a word of glory.” Outside the Bible, doxa means opinion or reputation, but the Septuagint uses the word to translate kābôd and so brings the basic ideas of presence, power and honor into the New Testament. There, the evangelists and others extend the glory of YHWH to Christ. Glory especially marks Christ’s resurrection, as Paul says in Romans 6:4, “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.”

In the Synoptic Gospels, many cured by Jesus leave giving glory to God. The NABRE translates the verb form of doxa variously as glorifying, praising and giving thanks (cf. Lk 17:15,18). All serve as the response evoked by God’s goodness to us.

Glory also appears in Luke’s birth narrative to emphasize that Jesus is Savior, Messiah and Lord. Glory surrounds the angels and terrifies the shepherds. The angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:14), and after seeing Christ, the shepherds return “glorifying and praising God” (v. 20). Finally, Simeon identifies the Christ child as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, / and glory for your people Israel” (2:32). Though Luke writes for the gentiles, he recognizes Christ as the gift of Israel.

In Luke 4:15, we hear that Jesus “taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.” Literally, the Greek says that Jesus “was glorified by all.” In every other place, Luke uses the verb “to glorify” with God as its object (cf. 2:20; 5:25, 26; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43; 23:47). Here, the Galileans intuit the reality of Jesus. The glory of the Transfiguration and triumphal entry into Jerusalem also point to this reality (cf. Lk 9:32; 19:38), and Jesus asks the men on the way to Emmaus: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (24:26).

However, the Synoptic Gospels primarily see glory as part of Christ’s coming at the end time (Cf. Mt 16:27; 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; cf. Mk 8:38; 13:26; cf. Lk 9:26, 31; 21:27). This glory reveals him as the presence and power of God.

Jesus in the Temple
Jesus talks with the wise men in the Temple. AdobeStock

In the Gospel of John

Glory becomes a major motif in the Gospel of John, appearing 42 times. It serves John’s soaring theology and also roots that theology in the humanity of Christ. Although Jesus shares the glory of God “before the world began” (17:5), his becoming flesh reveals this glory “as of the Father’s only Son” (1:14). Jesus makes this glory concrete by working the signs of his ministry (cf. 2:11; 11:4), and they reveal the glory of the one who sent him (cf. 7:18).

John’s Gospel is moving toward the ultimate exaltation of Christ on the cross, which becomes the foundation for his glory (12:27-32). His final discourse begins, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (13:31). This discourse culminates in his high priestly prayer, where Christ gives his disciples a share in the glory that comes from the Father “so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:22). The hour has come. With the crucifixion and resurrection, the Father accomplishes the exaltation and glory of Christ. Those who can recognize the Crucified Christ as the Risen Christ become disciples.

Jörg Frey, author and professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Zurich, argues that John’s Gospel is a testimony by these disciples who proclaim already in 1:14: “We saw his glory, / the glory as of the Father’s only Son, / full of grace and truth.” This affirmation of the Risen Christ makes them disciples.

The glory of God, manifested in the Old Testament, now reveals itself in the crucified and Risen Christ. Paul affirms that all who believe can “see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).

Glory and Priests

As the Old Testament draws to a close, the rings of holiness are carefully defined. The Holy of Holies stands at the center, which only the high priest could enter once a year. The Temple and its courtyard form the next circle, where the priests come to offer sacrifice. Beyond is the court of Israel, the court of the women and, finally, the court of the gentiles. The priests served as the intermediary between God and the people, going where the people could not go. Our Christology tells us that Christ cannot be someone going back and forth between the divine and human because he is himself divine and human. He is the image of the unseen God to humanity and the face of all humanity before God (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; 4:4; Col 1:15-18). The priesthood of Christ is, therefore, a place of meeting and revelation. He is the Temple.

Based on all this, it follows that to be in persona Christi means that we, as priests, are, in some sense, a manifestation of God’s glory. Since we are a rather motley-looking group, this assertion may strain our credulity, but such is the power of God.

Moreover, if glory reveals God’s presence and power, and if that calls us to give God glory, surely we who are ordained for the community experience this glory most keenly in the Eucharist. There we gather the Church to give thanks and offer the sacrifice that Christ offers and share the Body and Blood of the Lord.

As a young man studying one summer in a city, I attended Mass each evening with 50 or so people coming from work. There was no music. The space was nice but not breathtaking. The priest read the words of the Roman rite in a prayerful yet natural voice with full but simple gestures. He was a servant of the mystery he celebrated, and the simple majesty of the Roman liturgy was profound. The glory of God comes to us in many ways, and it is possible for me, in persona Christi, to make that glory manifest just by being who and what I am.

FATHER HARRY HAGAN, OSB, is an associate professor of Scripture at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.


The Gloria

Glory to God in the highest, / and on earth peace to people of good will. / We praise you, / we bless you, / we adore you, / we glorify you, / we give you thanks for your great glory, / Lord God, heavenly King, / O God, almighty Father. / Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son, / Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, / you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; / you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; / you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us. / For you alone are the Holy One, / you alone are the Lord, / you alone are the Most High, / Jesus Christ, / with the Holy Spirit, / in the glory of God the Father. Amen.


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