Someone captured this stupendous thing on the evening of the same day the Pope announced his pending resignation and it's making its way across the globe even as I write this.
The reaction of course is predictable. Some are calling it fake though I don't think to this point there's been any evidence of that.
Others are calling it a sign of God's wrath on the Church, likely for her refusal to bow to the culture's 'modernity', a flash of lightning bidding good riddance to the Pope, whom the media love to call God's Rottweiler and who are salivating at the possibility that the Church might now finally change, opening herself to women priests, being more accepting of gay marriage and being more tolerant of abortion, after all, isn't this what most American Catholics want?
Well... yes... if you were to ask American Catholics who rarely darken the doorway of a local Catholic Church, who discount or even ridicule the Church's dogmas and doctrines, and who likely have a problem even spelling catechism.
Others however, thankfully and gratefully, are opening themselves to the possibility that perhaps the lightning is merely a visual, pointing to and reminding us that God has spoken, is speaking and will speak again.
So when I first saw the lightning strike photo making the rounds, and raising a buzz of Uh Oh, Now He’s Gone and Made God Mad or Look Out, Catholics, You’re Gonna Get Yours, it took me a little while and a nudge from my Patheos editor,Elizabeth Scalia, to remember the powerful message for all of us that today’s Morning Prayer contained.
It was a message I needed at dawn when I availed myself of the Liturgy of the Hours online at Divine Office, because I’ll admit that ABC News’ abrupt jump cut from the Special Report about the papal resignation to footage of the firelit, masked, writhing dancers cavorting at Carnaval in Rio (most of them violating every item of the CBS Standards and Practices dress code for the Grammys, with its careful prohibition of the exhibition of “female breast nipples,” “fleshy undercurves,” and “genital puffy parts”) made me more than a little uneasy. It was—visually only, because I have nothing at all against Carnaval or fleshy undercurves, most days—too much like Hell throwing a We Won and Now We’re Goin’ to Nakedland! parade.
But no. Amid the buzz, here’s what we know. God is not Zeus or Thor, hurling lightning bolts when he’s pissed off, or this world would’ve been a-sizzle long, long ago. Neither does Hell win, no matter what it looks like when we’re jolted awake in the middle of the night. No, the psalmist reminds us, lightning is the awesome splendor of God’s power, the grandeur of God flaming out, as Hopkins said, “like shining from shook foil.” In all our speculation and wagering, our fear and our hope, the only thing that counts is that we are in God’s hands. He alone—no prince of the world or of the Church—is sovereign:
O give the Lord, you sons of God,
give the Lord glory and power;
give the Lord the glory of his name.
Adore the Lord in his holy court.
The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
The Lord’s voice shattering the cedars,
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon;
he makes Lebanon leap like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire.
The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness,
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh;
the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree
and stripping the forest bare. (Psalm 29)
“The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire.” Tonight, in Rome and at home, that’s the only buzz that counts. Like a pillar of fire, a bolt of lightning, God leads us and always will. His Spirit, in tongues of fire, descends upon the Church bringing new Pentecost after new Pentecost, as the smoke from the ashes of the consistory ballots rises like incense. No matter if, as today’s morning prayer also acknowledges, there are
. . . those who lie in wait;
No truth can be found in their mouths,
their heart is all mischief,
their throat a wide-open grave,
all honey their speech. (Psalm 5)
No matter. Let the buzz and the fear and the sadness and the silliness go. In the Holy Father’s words of resignation (and I choose that word purposely, because he seems resigned to what God asks of him), I noted with special attention his mention of diminished mental energy and health, in addition to the physical limitations to which most have attributed this decision, and I have been wondering all day whether this brilliant man might not now be experiencing the particular agony of beginning memory loss or other mental impairment or illness—a challenge more insurmountable to a scholar and a reader and a writer than any physical frailty. Yet his calm certainty, even in the face of what must be a fearful time, was also evident.
He has seen the lightning and rejoiced, and—like every one of us around the world who turned to the Divine Office for comfort this morning, and every morning—he knows how Psalm 29 ends.
Do you know how Psalm 29 ends?
You could look it up. Or you could just follow the link over to Joanne's place and read it for yourself.
What I'll tell you is it's uplifting and hopeful and who amongst us couldn't be uplifted and filled with hope these day?