“Why is it black?” a number of people have asked, standing in front of the figure representing God in the latest artwork to be installed in the Minster, Yahweh and the Seraphim.
“It isn’t” is the simple reply. Not black, but the natural colour of the clay Nicholas Pope used. The Seraphim are made of the same stuff, but adorned with a coat of white, blue, and gold paint. Not black, but nonetheless very dark, absorbing light.
Why might we think of God as an absorbent presence, at the centre?
Right now we are deep into Holy Week, standing on the edge of Jesus’ betrayal, by a friend, at night; his illegal trial, by night; his execution – by day, but, so we are told, the sky turned black; and his lying in death in the sealed tomb…and the story we tell is that in the person of Jesus, and in these events, God absorbs all that is wrong, every pain common to human experience, taking it into himself, neutralising it, before redeeming it all in new beginning.
Another observation: although Yahweh is inscribed with the encircling letters I AM YHWH, visitors are prevented by the altar rail from walking around – come no closer, for this is holy ground – and so can only see the letters (if they can make out letters at all) W H I A.
If you know that I AM is the answer God gives to Moses’ enquiry as to his identity, and if you know that YHWH (notionally pronounced Yahweh – the vowels are not written – though Judaism considers the Name so holy that it is not uttered but substituted) is the name of this God, then I AM YHWH makes some sense. But what sense might we possibly make of W H I A?
One might suggest that W H I A is as much as we get to see of God. Even for those who believe that God is made visible in Jesus, we live with the paradox that the God who makes himself known is beyond our knowing, that the God who draws close is unapproachable, that the God who takes upon himself the limitations of a human body is boundless…
Of all times, Holy Week is the point where God is darkest and most hidden: where we cry, with Jesus, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Why are you so far from saving me?
And it is in these moments that God is closer than we are able to bear, absorbing all that would hurt or harm us, whether our body or our soul – even should it succeed in killing us – and bringing about all things made new.
God is, at least in part, both dark and hidden. This is mystery, beyond our understanding. But the darkness of God, and his hiddenness, are very good – every bit as good as the light of God, and his given-ness.