It is not without good reason that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews enjoins us to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (12:2). For strange things can happen when we lose sight of Him. I’ve never been able to forget the story of the golden calf in chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. One reason, though by no means the main one (and somewhat irrelevant to my point here) is that Aaron wins the prize for the most lame excuse ever offered by anyone anywhere anytime. When Moses asked him why he made the golden calf for the people, he said, “I said to them, ‘Let anyone who has gold take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” There came out this calf! Might as well worship it then! Aaron also had a knack for escaping punishment for his wrongdoing. He made the golden calf, but the people were punished for it. Both he and Miriam spoke against Moses, but only Miriam was punished for it. Just one of those mysteries, I guess.
Anyway, back to the point. Why was the calf made in the first place? It was because the people lost sight of Moses and the God whom he had revealed to them, the God who had so recently and so marvelously liberated them from slavery in Egypt. Moses was up on the mountain, receiving stone tablets written with the finger of God, but he took a little too long for the people’s attention span. “Up, make us gods who shall go before us,” they demanded of Aaron. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So, without the presence of the one who taught them about the true God, they immediately turned to idols.
When faith wavers, the door opens to idolatry. The making of the golden calf is only one dramatic instance of something that has repeatedly happened down through the ages and that still happens today. Jesus Christ, who has led us out of the bondage of sin and death through his own death and resurrection, has gone back to the Father. Yet through the Holy Spirit He has promised to be with us always. But if we are not in the Spirit, living in the grace of faith that the Spirit communicates to us, and if we look with hopeless eyes at the decadence of our self-destructing civilization, we may end up saying: “As for this Jesus, we do not know what has become of Him.” And we will proceed to make idols for ourselves. If we do not perceive Him, we turn to idolatry.
Idols are more easily come by these days than in the desert of Sinai. We don’t have to pitch in all our gold to create one. They are offered to us at every turn: sex, drugs, alcohol, money, possessions, power, prestige, etc, and many people eagerly and blindly worship them. (I had wondered at first glance why the Lord through the prophet Isaiah told the people to throw their idols to moles and bats. Then I realized that it is because moles and bats are blind, just like all those who worship idols!) Our modern idols are more readily available than the formidable and macabre statues of old, but they come at a higher price than mere gold: we have to sell our souls to attain them. And we have to serve them as their slaves, even with diminishing returns, for they are harsh and cruel masters, rationing pleasures more and more, even as our lust increases, until we’re finally offered nothing but despair.
The abandonment of Christ for the sake of idols is not a clear-cut or instantly definitive decision, and it may be a long process, even imperceptible at first. Christ doesn’t suddenly disappear, and we don’t suddenly start worshiping the golden calf of our fancy. If our faith is not strong, or if we simply let it languish by not feeding it with the word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ, then little by little our perception of the Lord’s presence becomes more faint, and little by little we start feeling urges to look elsewhere for fulfillment or happiness. It is then that the images of various idols begin to look more attractive, and what Jesus has to offer seems less interesting or at least something that belongs to a distant or vague afterlife. Soon we are tossing our former hopes, aspirations, and good intentions into the fire, and behold, there comes out this calf! We can’t expect to have the luck of Aaron and avoid all punishment for turning from the true God to idols. St Paul says it has to be the other way around: “turn to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1Thess. 1:9-10). See, that’s where He went. We don’t have to say we don’t know what has become of Him. He went to Heaven, but He is returning, and we don’t want Him breaking the stone tablets of God’s word upon our heads when He comes back and sees us worshiping gods of our own making!
So let us take stock of our inner lives. Have we lost sight of Jesus? Are we turning to vain or harmful pursuits in this time between his departure and his return? It is faith, given us by the Holy Spirit, that enables us to perceive that Jesus is not really gone after all, but is in and around us, and we need not look anywhere else for meaning or fulfillment in this life. Golden calves are for those who have already lost all hope, who have sold their souls to the spirit of the age, the prince of this world. As for us, we have turned from idols to serve the living and true God, whose Son is coming back from Heaven…