Beholding the depths

Once a week in Morning Prayer I recite the Song attributed to the three young men Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they walked unharmed in the fiery furnace. They sing, ‘Blessed are you who behold the depths’. I’d never thought about that phrase before last Saturday. I hunted out the Greek, which is as close as we can get to the original. (The Aramaic has been lost). A literal version of the Greek is: ‘Blessed are you who look compassionately on the unfathomable.’

Behind ‘Blessed are you’ is the Aramaic and Hebrew, ‘Berakah ata’. This common opening to prayer is praise for the blessings God brings. Every time the refrain of ‘berakah ata’ rings out, it is a celebration of life, because life is the first blessing God pours out on the universe. Every time we say ‘berakah ata’, we celebrate love, God’s driving force which makes of our universe not a meaningless hell but a place of wonder and joy.

The Three then sing that God is ‘looking with favour’ (epiblepon). God holds steady God’s gaze on all God has made, and surveys it with favour. ‘It is good. It is very good,’ Genesis reminds us. God holds in high regard that which God looks upon.

And in this verse, the Three celebrate God’s compassionate regard for the ‘abyssos’, the unfathomable. Thrown into the flames of the fiery furnace Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, must have believed that they had arrived in the abyss.  The abyss was not only the place of the dead, but paradoxically it was also the bottomless container for the waters under the earth: a place of annihilation. God looks with favour even on the abyss.

God looks with favour, we would say, on black holes. God’s hands, so to speak, hold these most dangerous of phenomena, and God enjoys their power, their blackness and their oddity. God delights in the mathematical underpinnings of the black hole, and in the petite particles, quirky quarks and microscopic molecules which flit in and out of existence in the complex flux of the singularity.

From the macrocosm of dying stars to the abyssos of the inner lives of human beings: God looked with favour on (epiblepon) his handmaid, Mary.  She too knew the encouraging gaze of God on her. God looks compassionately on the depths of our selves. God embraces us – at our heart – with joy. Like the black hole, our lives are a complex of forces, many destructive and many creative, braiding together to create unique individuals. I too am a singularity, as you are. And the good news discovered by the Three in the fiery furnace is this: God is on our side, God looks on us with favour, blessed be God.

When God looks with favour, light, as John points out in his Gospel, pours in and the blackness dissolves. There is blessing even in the darkest of pits, even in the tangles of the human soul, because God gazes with love.

Black hole

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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