In late August, Kirk and I joined a contemplative prayer group through a local Catholic church that is walking through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius over a nine-month period. Each day, we are given a passage of scripture to read and then asked to engage in a prayer exercise concerning the passage. Then on Monday nights, we meet in small groups to discuss our experiences with each exercise.
Toward the end of this past week, one of the prayer exercises concerned a passage in Ezekiel. It was a rather lengthy passage in Ezekiel 16 that describes God’s relationship with Israel from her infancy as a nation through her growing-up years and on into adulthood in a covenant relationship with him.
Truthfully, it is a rather graphic passage, full of visceral and sensual images. For instance, Ezekiel describes the way God found Israel as an infant, abandoned on the side of the road naked and covered in blood. Passing by, God looks at Israel lying there and says to her, “Live and grow!” So she does.
Years later, God comes upon Israel a second time. She has reached “the ripe age for love” and is yet still naked and alone. So God throws his cloak around her, choosing her for himself. He cleans her up and dresses her in his finest linens. He puts rings on her fingers and jewels around her neck. He feeds her with his choicest foods and then places a crown on her head. He has fitted her to be his queen.
And then the story turns.
Israel begins to “take notice of her beauty.” She takes the cloak God gave her and creates for herself a shrine. She melts down all the gold and silver jewelry he gave her and crafts for herself little gods. She feeds the oil, flour, and honey to these gods and drapes them in more of her clothing. Even the children she has born to God, she offers up to these idols.
Here again the passage is graphic. Israel is described as a prostitute and whore.
God, understandably, decries what she has done. He minces no words in response. He wants Israel to see and understand these acts in all their consequence. And yes, there will be consequence. Yet in God’s own characteristic way, he somehow mixes grace with truth, choosing to gather her to himself after the outcry and its consequence in the establishment of an everlasting covenant.
As I read this passage, I can so identify with the story of Israel.
In the same way God found Israel as an infant and invited her to live and grow, God came to me in my infancy, too, and has been present with me since my earliest memories. Most of my growing-up years and adolescence were spent growing in the knowledge and reverence of God.
Then I, too, reached the “ripe age for love.” At age 19, I experienced a second conversion when God visited me in a new way and began the work of teaching me my belovedness. He spent many, many years lavishing his bridegroom love on me so there would be no question I belonged to him. When I look back over those ten or so years, I can see that it was like being cleaned and dressed in God’s finest linens, of being fed God’s choicest foods, of being bedecked in God’s finest jewels and gold and silver. I can now say it was an experience of being fitted and crowned as God’s queen.
And yet now I stand at a crossroads, just like Israel did. I am able to plainly see what God has done and all that he has given me. I can see that this time with him has grown me into maturity. I can see he has called me his bride. I’ve come to believe that he calls me beautiful.
In the knowledge of this, the temptation is strong to do just as his other queen, Israel, did. To take notice of that beauty and begin to offer it to others, simply because I know it is there. To take notice of his gifts and begin to use them for my gain, simply because I know they are valuable. Ultimately, to transform what he gave to me in a relationship of love into something useful for myself and my own life.
It’s a humbling thing to be shown your own prostitution.
I sat with this passage for a really long time. And the main thing I found myself wondering was what God wanted from Israel instead. What did he wish she had done?
Following the marriage metaphor, I can only imagine God wanted Israel to love him. When a man expresses his love for a woman in all the extravagant ways God expressed his love for Israel, and when a woman then enters into a marriage covenant with a man the way Israel entered into a covenant with God, the hope and deep desire — and even the expectation — on the part of the man is that the woman returns his love right back. That she loves him with purity, simply for who he is and because she can’t imagine being one moment without him, rather than loving him for what she receives.
I’m coming to see this is what dying means — that dying and utter adoration are two sides of the same coin. When Jesus fixed his eyes on the cross, I can imagine he did so because he saw his beloved’s face. His beloved that is God. His beloved that is me.