Terror may accompany the deep, reverberating clap of thunder, but awe seems to be lightning’s chosen handmaid. Few things can widen eyes and drop jaws like the fall of lightning. It may only last an instant, but while heaven’s bolt blitzkriegs through the sky, the whole world stands in attendance.
With its blinding light, its destructive power, and its (apparent) descent from above, it’s no wonder that the pagans hold lightning in such high regard. In both Hindu and ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the highest god of the pantheon is associated with lightning and anyone who’s seen The Avengers will know that the Norse storm-god Thor is awesome. Indeed, it’s not just pagans who connect the divine with lightning. Psalm 29 describes God’s might with a meteorological measure:
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.
This association of lightning (flashing flames of fire) with divinity makes sense: God is brilliant, yet blinding; he has power to rend and to shatter; his action comes down upon us in an instant. We stand in awe of lightning, and we should stand in awe of God.
And so we should also stand in awe of Luke 10:18, where our Lord turns the whole association on its head. With apocalyptic overtones he tells the seventy-two disciples,
I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven.
Now perhaps our Lord is just waxing poetic about how quickly he dropped the devil, but it’s far more likely that the words spoken to us by the Incarnate God and recorded under the infallible inspiration of his Holy Spirit were meant to teach us something profound about our primeval foe. So, after all this talk about connecting lightning with the divine, why does Jesus say it is Satan who is “like lightning”?
Lightning is certainly impressive, but if we stop to consider it more closely, we discover that there’s not much to it. It’s all show and no substance. In fact, lightning isn’t a thing at all. It’s a lot of very little things making a very grand appearance. Lightning is merely particles on parade, nothing more. It flashes; it flares; it vanishes.
Satan (and, more generally, sin) is similar. He tries to shine with the splendor of God, but he’s nothing more than a creature. All of his pomp, all of his flash, and all of his show is designed to impress. Satan wants us to stand in awe of him, because he cannot stand to be humble before God.
This realization can add nuance to a passage in the new translation of the Roman Missal. While in scripture Satan falls like lightning, in the Mass the priest now asks God to
make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall . . .
God’s descent is of an altogether different kind.
There is no ostentation in the coming of the Holy Spirit (even the miraculous display on Pentecost, with tongues like fire and the noise of rushing wind, was a private affair). The Holy Spirit does not demand that the whole world stand in attendance, eyes wide with awe, whenever he acts. He is content to work his Providence in silent and secret ways.
Like lightning, the devil is all show and no substance; but unlike anything he has created, God is all substance, and he needs no show. God can afford to be unassuming when he comes to us. Everyone sees the flash of lightning, but we cannot watch the dew fall. We simply notice that it is there, and that it may well have been there for quite some time.
Indeed, God is always there. He is always working. Have no fear if you do not see him falling into your life like lightning. His Spirit prefers to settle on the souls of men like dewfall upon the grass. Unlike the pagans, we need no spectacular display to know that our God is near. For, in the intimate interior of the heart, he himself has spoken to us: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Image: Lori McNamara, Daily Painting 935: Thunder and Lightening Storm to the East