The Confusing Discovery of Cneus Pompeius Magnus

One half a century before the coming of Christ the magnificent Roman general Pompeius Magnus (known by his friends and most historians as Pompey) captured large portions of Africa and the East. Young in age and fierce in stature, this remarkable general traveled through the world, pursuing victory and succeeding at every turn. But about 64 B.C. his troops found themselves occupying a unique place of personal interest for the young political star – Jerusalem.

The man hailed by many of his contemporaries as the Roman Alexander the Great strode through the back streets of Jerusalem and on into the temple with the mind to discover the secret of strange god of the Jews. Of this god he had heard much, but he had seen little. What could this one god be like? Did it fit in the pantheon of the other gods? It was always talked about, its footprints tracked throughout the empire… what did this god look like?

The invincible general walked with purpose through the synagogue where the word of the god of the Jews was spoken. He marched through the ornate halls, treading in presence of the golden cherubim and seraphim, looking for this ever illusive god. Not deterred by the rest of the ornamentation The invasion of the Temple in Jerusalem... Pompey quickly ascended through the sacred space of the temple to the clear focal point of worship, and pulled back the curtain to the Holy of Holies.

The content of Pompey’s expectation of discovery reveal to us the assumptions of a reasonable, educated, and inquiring mind: and now he draws back the curtain… and now as he steps inside the Holy of Holies – what are you expecting?

Pompey expected the hidden secret statue or representation of a god, the artifact that held the secret of the mysterious Israeli deity. What he found was nothing. The ornate designs and golden decor had stopped at the curtain. There were no images, there was no god. There was space. The Ark of the Covenant had been there: the Ark, a seat containing the divine commandments of God to His people. But the ark was gone, and with it the shekhinah glory of God. In its place was the Torah, the bones of the words God had spoken, the vestiges of God’s revelation to Israel. There was a space for the living God, and He was noticeably absent.

Pompey left the Temple confused but alive, spared from the judging fire of God’s presence by an act of fortunate timing. As we prepare to ask questions about what it means for something to be Holy, as we ask what it means for us to worship, and as we ask what it means for us to be saved we must remember Pompey. For what he discovered in the Holy of Holies was not a god, but the proof of a living God. He found negation, absence; and the meaning of the absence is the reality of the presence of God. Holy space is a place to be filled, worship is approaching the place were we might meet God.

The truth is that we treat our life with God with all the hubris of Pompey and without his noble curiosity. We, like our young general, think that we will easily and boldly discover the depth of God by discovering something about God, the mere image of Him. We do not realize the collapsingly profound truth, that God is real; and that to meet Him is terrifying. Less than a century later the “image of the invisible God,” with whom “the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily” stood under the noonday sun before throngs of men. Yet to many of those who met Him, Him they did not see. Today in our century we like Pompey have been given the sight of the absence, the awareness of the reality and the possibility of beholding the Image Himself.

But to see Him… to see the Word, the Image, the Life, and the Light, how can it be? “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Perhaps we have seen without beholding, perhaps we have walked past what we need to see the Light; perhaps we heard the Word and did not attend. Someone told us once that the veil was torn, God was at our beckon, and the temple was functionally dust. Perhaps they lied.

Let us walk humbly and obediently back through the synagogue, through the questions, the images, the words; and into the fearful presence of a living God.

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2 thoughts on “The Confusing Discovery of Cneus Pompeius Magnus

  1. I think it was Tolstoy who had a short story in which an old cobbler is told in a dream that he will see Jesus the next day. As he shows mercy and benevolence to those he meets the next day, Jesus appears in his dream the next night and says “whatever you have done to the least of these” etc. I’m curious about the distinction between seeing the real presence of God in the Holy of Holies, and recognizing the mercy of His Son today. While the veil has been “torn”, it seems that it’s a two-way street – we can see in now, but we often don’t recognize what we’re looking at.

  2. People use the tearing of the veil to justify all sorts of dogma… even though the meaning of it is unclear. Schmemann points out that the moment of the tear is not one of rejoicing, it’s one of darkness and despair; the hopelessness of man’s communion with God was manifest.

    But then Christ was resurrected…

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