John Calvin, the Reformation theologian in Geneva who lead the development of Protestant theology, was nothing if not a brilliant mind. Calvin’s contributions to the history of theology are almost always wrong, but they are so skillfully wrong that I cannot help but be impressed by their intricacy. One example of this is Calvin’s perception of the numinous, a concept not elucidated until 1917 by the Lutheran Rudolf Otto. In his most famous work, The Idea of the Holy, Otto puts aside the idea of holiness as moral perfection and instead focuses on the idea of divine otherness.
The work is rich and complex, deserving a far better treatment than I can give it. Nevertheless, the fear of butchering ideas that are beyond me has not stopped me from writing before, so I will not let it now.
The numinous is that feeling, neither rational nor sensory, that is totally outside of and utterly different from the person experiencing it. In other words, a numinous experience is one in which we feel that something is so different from ourselves that it shares absolutely nothing in common with us, and this leads us to tremble. The experience is non-rational because our reason can only comprehend things that are a least a bit like us; the feeling is not sensory because none of our physical senses are able to comprehend it. For Otto, the numinous cannot be explained to someone who has not experienced it. The initiate can only be led to a place or situation where they may find the numinous and suddenly awake to it. The numinous mystery, the Other, is terrifying in its otherness, but irresistibly fascinating for that same reason.
Now Calvin, the great step-father of predestination, that dreamer of a God who writes the ending before the beginning, had quite the accurate assessment of the numinous. Calvin knew God’s otherness, if not rationally then numinously, and he feared it. His trembling in the face of the Divine Other is precisely why he so skeptically considered the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist. Calvin once mocked our Church’s belief in the Real Presence by saying if we really believed the host were Christ, we would crawl on our hands and knees to receive it. For how could anyone, truly believing that the Other was present before whom all thought and sense and bearing melt away, approach without dread?
Calvin understood the numinous, as his mockery well shows. What it equally shows he did not understand, however, was Christ. Indeed, Calvin shows the sensitivity of a saint to the otherness of God. He would fit quite well with the Patriarchs, quaking before the burning bush and the thunderous Mt. Sinai, or taking his son up a mountainside for an evening sacrifice. But Calvin is not a saint, like so many others, because this one idea he grasped too well was the one that he took too far.
For, in the sublime moment of communion, it is unbefitting to crawl to Christ on our hands and knees. He Himself said so when He called us no longer slaves but His friends. In the face of the numinous, fear is rightly our instinct: how can we safely approach what is so far beyond what we understand? But as another Protestant said sometime after Calvin, that Other is not safe, but He is good. And we know that He is good because He chose, not to stop being totally and inconceivably Other, but to become simultaneously and permanently the same.
Christ is called Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” But that name might just as well be translated, “The Other with us.” The Other has not lost His strangeness but He has taken on the comfort of unassuming similarity. Now it is really true, and no figure of speech, that the Other With Us can call us His brothers, sons, friends. He is a man just like us, among us. One does not grovel before a brother or negotiate with a friend. There is no need to bargain with a perfect Father. It is for this reason that St. Ambrose could pray, “I cannot bear your judgment, but I trust in your salvation.” Many of us pray those words before we come to Holy Communion, and rightly so. Few phrases in our long history of prayers so succinctly sum up the meeting of God and man, of otherness and similarity. I tremble before you, Lord, but now I know I can trust You. You, terrifying in Your strange majesty, are comforting in Your human face. I cannot bear to look at Your glory, so I look instead into Your eyes. This is the essence of the Gospel: God, the Other in whose presence our flesh quakes, has made Himself approachable by becoming the same.
It is therefore fitting that we sing the Sanctus before we begin the Eucharistic Prayer. “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of hosts…” This chant is the numinous par excellence suddenly subsumed in relatability. “Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.” This is the moment when the Other acts in a way we could never have predicted or asked for. We tremble: “Hosanna in the highest.” But something unexpected happens: “Blessed is He who comes.” Suddenly, the tongues of fire descend upon us unseen. The Wholly Other is moving even as we shake. Scarcely do we have time to realize what is happening when we hear what He says in reply.
“Take this, all of you, and eat of it. For this is My body, which will be given up for you.”
At this moment, the gap between us is closed. That otherness that makes us afraid is wrapped in a familiar visage: God become man become bread and wine. It might be said that, while the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the embrace by Him is the end. Fear ends at the consecration.
For quite a long time, my wife suffered under the weight of an intense scrupulosity. Her experience is why I understood Pope Francis so readily when he said that confessionals must not be torture chambers. The scrupulous person knows what it is like for confession to be torture. For years, my wife could not receive communion without the fear that she was in a state of grave sin, was even committing grave sins in the act of receiving. Perhaps she had harmed some unseen participle of the host or entertained some grievous thought unawares as she ate. My wife knew the numinous. She shook before the Other. The Other was incomprehensible and terrifying.
But my wife had a quiet, subtle revelation that I trace to our old pastor’s words one Sunday at the height of her fears. “He became bread,” he told her. “He knew just how vulnerable He was becoming. He planned for it.”
Without delving into the theologically deep and historically nonsensical debate on the mode of receiving communion, I must say that I was proud when my wife received a tiny host in the hand for the first time. I was shocked when I saw it; shocked and glad. Though she usually receives on the tongue, she was sick that day and did not want to spread any illness to Father. “The body of Christ,” and the host was in her hand, and from her hand to her mouth, with a brief glance to her palm to ensure there was nothing she had missed. She went back to her pew and folded her hands to pray.
The Other had become the Same for her. Fear had ended at the consecration. In that moment, she could experience Christ as friend. The numinous folded and gave way to God’s embrace, the filling of the gap, the kiss of peace. She and God were entirely vulnerable to each other. He feared no mistake. He planned for it. He jumped at the chance and took every risk.