Golden Hour

The sky was beautiful tonight. There was light snowfall, a little snow on the ground, and heavy grey clouds. Then, just before the sun set, in what photographers call “the golden hour”, the sky was suffused with light for around five minutes. The trees looked like they were lit from within by holy fire.

It was unreal, like something from a Thomas Kincaid painting. Unearthly, strange, and beautiful. It passed as quickly as it came, leaving me sat in the gloom. The light had a solid quality, and because I’m sat under a sky light and next to a large window, surrounded me too.

It reminded me of the descriptions in the Old Testament of the shekinah, the glory cloud. Shekinah is a Hebrew word meaning “dwelling” that doesn’t occur in the Bible itself, but is used in the Rabbinic literature to describe the settling of the glory of God in one place. Somehow it became the common term for the glory cloud, that particular physical manifestation of the presence of God that appeared between the cherubim that flank the mercy seat in the most holy place: the place where heaven touched earth.

In Leviticus 16 we are told that God will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat to the High Priest when he enters the most holy place on the day of atonement. Yahweh is hereafter “Yahweh enthroned above the cherubim” (2 Samuel 6, 2 Kings 19, Psalm 80, Isaiah 37, Ezekiel 9-10, Hebrews 9). There’s a hint of the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness (e.g. Exodus 13). When the “glory of the Lord fills the temple” at Solomon’s great consecration (2 Chronicles 5) and a “cloud fills the house” we are to think of the place where heaven touches earth filling the Temple.

We aren’t given a physical description, but if we assume that the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites at night in the wilderness is the same cloud that guided them in the day—which is an assumption, but I think a reasonable one—then we have a cloud that is lit from within. A fire that is like a cloud. Solid light.

What I saw out my window turned my mind to it, but it was not it. The special presence of God no longer sits atop man-faced lions in Jerusalem, but is with his people who are filled with the Holy Spirit. The visible glory of God abounds in the world, but is not the special presence of God, it is not the place where heaven touches earth.

That is reserved for the living stones of the new Temple of the new creation. That’s reserved for the church. As believers gather together we sometimes speak of the presence of God as being especially tangible, or we ask God to “come”. Some scoff at this as God is present everywhere, which is true enough. However, it’s still the case that God is more present some places than others. In the Old Testament Yahweh was the God of all places, and present in them. We still see his glory, or his face, being specifically present in specific places. Most clearly, in the holy of holies.

If we take Jesus at his word that he poured out his Spirit on his people (John 7, Acts 2) and that this would be visually obvious to others (e.g. Acts 10), then the place where heaven now touches earth is in the lives of believers and particularly in the gathered church. There are moments when the presence of God hangs thick in a room. It is the glory of God.

So, the golden moment I saw in my garden was not the glory of God most manifest. But it was to his glory. We live in a wonderful world, gifted to us by a kind Father. The world is built on what the theologians call ‘common grace’, which is to say that every good gift “is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1). All the good things in the world: poached eggs, fresh scallops, fields of trees aflame in the Autumn, rolling hills, and summer rainstorms; all of them are gifts from the hand of a Father who loves us.

For a few minutes on a Wednesday evening the world around me was suffused with light. It was beautiful. But maybe I’m missing something deeper. Maybe the world around me is always suffused with light, and I’m not able to perceive it. Maybe the wonderful world we live in, though decayed and damaged by sin, is a house of deliberate delight. Maybe it’s a temple to the glory of God.

It turns out that Moses agrees with me (Genesis 1). The cosmos is shaped suspiciously like the temple. All the most beautiful temples have a simple role, to lift the eyes of the worshippers to the god its dedicated too.

I used to roll my eyes at the second verse of How Great Thou Art. All that wandering through forest glades while I’m wondering when we can get back to the grand story of redemption. Its all very evangelical of me. What a fool. The world is here for us to wander while we wonder. It isn’t enough on its own to tell us who God is and how he has come to get us, but it is enough to tell us that the earth was crafted by a maker who loves us and wants us to enjoy it.

We should cultivate wonder as a spiritual discipline. We should wonder as we recall the grand story, that God came to get us; and we should wonder when we smell frying bacon or watch ducklings following their mother.

The God who came to get us made us a beautiful home. The world around us is suffused with light. It resounds to the glory of God.

Photo by Petr Vyšohlíd on Unsplash