Who Shall Climb?

In Christianity on June 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm

We underestimate God’s grandeur, I suspect, when we conceive it to be quite an easy thing to save us.     —Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., The Mind That is Catholic

For any of us who wrestle with Psalm 24—one of the Psalms that opens the Liturgy of the Hours—then morning prayer can feel like Jacob’s struggle at Peniel (Genesis 32:25-31). We are left alone with two staggering questions answered by a standard we cannot keep: “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in His holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things ….”¹ Do not depart from us, Lord, until you bless us! But how can You, according to this standard?

How can sinful man approach the holiness of God and live? Israel trembled before the mount enveloped in smoke “because the LORD had come down upon it in fire” (Exodus 19:16-18). Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, I am doomed!” (Isaiah 6:5) and Peter implored the Savior, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

Ludwig Wittgenstein expresses well the anguish of unworthiness, the gap we feel between ourselves and God: “The Christian religion is only for one who needs infinite help—that is, only for one who feels infinite anguish.”² Clean hands? A completely pure heart? Never a desire for that which is worthless or frivolous, much less sinful? Woe is me, for I fall far short of that standard!

This series of posts, “Who Shall Climb?” offers answers for those of us who need infinite help. Do you? A country preacher opined, “You gotta get ’em lost, before you can get ’em saved.” While Catholic Christians use a different language to speak of salvation, one still must begin with a deep sense of unworthiness—not simply angst, but being conscious of having fallen short of a standard to which we shall be held accountable. Christian discipleship is a revealed religion, not of our own making. We cannot choose the parts we like and leave behind those we don’t.

Do you “conceive it to be quite an easy thing to save us?” in Fr. Schall’s words. If not, give thanks to God and ask him to increase your sorrow for all you have done contrary to His standard; contrary to your best self; contrary to what God made you to be. We live in a world that for the most part no longer sees sin. No error could be more deadly.

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in His holy place?
The man with clean hands and pure heart,
who desires not worthless things

There is the standard. But there also is One Who met this standard we have failed to meet: Jesus Christ. Christ’s role is foreshadowed in Exodus 19, where Moses becomes mediator between God and the trembling people. Christ’s accomplishment is lauded in Luke 1:75—where Zechariah prophesies that we shall be free to worship God without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our lives. And Christ’s way was the Cross, which Paul Claudel³ likens to the plank perfectly fitted to that fissure we shall have to cross, the gap between God and man.

Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain … that He may instruct us in his ways, that we may walk in his paths.     —Micah 4:2

¹ Psalm 24:3 (Grail Translation)

² Quoted in Magnificat, July 1, 2012

³ In his magnificent book, A Poet Before the Cross

  1. […] “Who Shall Climb” (a meditation on Psalm 24) asked how a Christian can live in joyful hope, when faced with a standard that is insurmountable: clean hands, a pure heart, and no desire for worthless things. I fail. That’s joyful hope? […]

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