“Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion: for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee” ~Isaiah 12:6
Holy Scripture begins where we must begin—with the grounding truth that God is not like us. Moreover, He is not like anything at all. He is incomparable, incomprehensible; sui generis—utterly unique, in a class by Himself. Before the hills in order stood, or ever the earth received her frame; even from everlasting to everlasting there was God, dwelling alone in solidarity with Himself.
When the Triune God acted in creation it was not because of any need or lack or want. For the “Blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11) is absolutely perfect and complete in His being. That He created at all is but a demonstration of His superabundant goodness, a display of His uncontainable glory. Creation derives from the overflow of sheer delight as an expression of the fecundity of God’s own felicity. As Katherine Sonderegger has said, “…the creative jussive Let there be expresses the verb to be in an open-handed way, a command that is a permission, an order that is a gift, a speaking forth of created things out of the sheer Vitality that is the Lord God Himself.” That is, it was the unfettered freedom of God that gave rise to everything that is, rather than constraint. God would have been perfectly happy without the world. That He made it at all says something amazing about His desire to share such eternal happiness with creatures. Thus it is possible to speak of creation as an act of pure grace.
It is here that we catch the first glimpses of the Invisible Holiness, laying the foundation for covenant and communion, in a mode of Inscrutable Humility. In the act of creation is condescension; there is God, and now, that which is not God participating in His Being. That primal “Evening and Morning” when light first opened its luminous eye irradiates the truth that Holiness, though Absolute, is never austere. The Maker of All Things is the Transcendent One, “Wholly Other,” to borrow Barth’s famous phrase. But though transcendence requires that God is not a part of creation, it also requires that He is not apart from it. Holiness comes near. Holiness speaks and is heard with creaturely ears. Holiness stoops and touches the good earth, and by placing intangible hands upon it, sanctifies it.
Sonderegger mines the first fiat for theological gold by paying close attention to the Hebrew grammar. She notes that God’s voice in Genesis 1 arrives to us in the jussive mood. At its most fundamental level, the jussive implies an intention to influence or cause something to happen. “Go to your room!” is not the jussive, but “let’s go grab supper later” is. The first is an imperative, often accompanied by force of will, whereas the second is more akin to an invitation to act. For Sonderegger, God’s act of creation is an invitation.
The manifestation of the Divine Power, rendered in this particular grammatical form, is unique, the gracious wonder of the Divine Power turned toward another. For in the jussive, the unique Power of God is manifested: Divine Speech pours out into being … To “let something be” enacts both a command and an invitation, a welcome … It is of course an expression of power, and it brings into being an event, a task, an object, and an aim. But it does so as an imperative does not: the hand is open in a jussive, the palm turned upward to the sky, outward to the reality welcomed in.
Yet, it is the Holiness of God that excludes any attempt at carving images of God, whether those images be material images of wood and stone, molten images of precious metals, or mental images of our own vain imaginations. There is nothing in this vast universe of “made things” that mortals can look at or point to or conceive of and say, “Ah, this is like God.” Moses taught us that all such attempts are but idolatry (Ex. 20:4-5). St. Paul says that it is a heart in high rebellion that seeks to liken our Lord “to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” or to “change the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Rom. 1:23). Such is the “unlikeness” of God.
So when St. John tells us that “no man hath seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18) it should come as no surprise to us. Here, the atheist mocks and says, “Of course! You can’t see God because there is nothing there to see.” But in reality the truth is just the opposite: we cannot see God because there is so much there to see. Created eyes lack the capacity to behold the unfiltered glory of God. The One who is Being Itself cannot be comprehended by anything other than Being Itself.
Even so, what we find in Sacred Scripture is the revelation of the Invisible God who makes Himself known. Given our creaturely limitations, He condescended to write in the dust for our benefit. He littered the heavens with innumerable points of light to show us something of His magnitude and immensity. He inscribed His initials in the rocks and hills. He paints the sunrise and the sunset in splendor as a mirror of Divine Beauty. “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the firmament showeth His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) Yet all of this is but the fringes of His ways.
In Eden’s blissful garden, Adam had to be content with a voice that walked and talked with him in the cool of the day. A voice, not a face.
When God came down to make a covenant with our Father Abraham it was under a cloud of thick darkness that the two met. A deep sleep came upon Abraham and he saw the Lord as a burning and a shining lamp.
When Moses was tending sheep on the backside of the Midian desert, it was a bush ablaze that wasn’t consumed by the flame that struck his sight. The Lord spoke to him from the midst of the fire, but he did not see the face of the Lord.
And just this became the consuming passion of Moses, as well as the singular prayer of all those faithful souls who followed him. “Lord, show me thy glory.” This is a prayer for the Beatific Vision, the desire to look upon the Lord, face to face.
“Show me thy glory.” The Lord said, “Ah, Moses. You can’t see my face. For no man can see my face and live. But this I shall do. I will cause my goodness to pass before you and I will tell you my name again. Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock while my glory passes by and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back…but not my face, Moses.” Moses caught a faint sight of the Lord’s hinder parts, and even that was enough to make his face shine like the noon-day sun. But still, “no man hath seen God at any time.”
When you come to the courts of the tabernacle and temple you find the accommodations of grace. God instituted rigorous rites and rituals whereby the people who were once afar off, expelled from Eden as exiles in the earth, could be brought near to the presence of God. The sanctuary was a miniature Eden and God dwelled between the cherubims in the form of pillars of fire and columns of smoke. Israel was allowed to come and worship their God, but only from a distance. It was the High Priest alone who could approach the Holy of Holies, and that just once a year. Even then, the Lord veiled Himself so as to spare the life of His servant. God expelled Adam from the Garden in wrath, but in the tabernacle the Lord goes out into the waste howling wilderness to find his unfaithful bride and to bring her home. He goes outside of Eden to give a taste of Eden to Adam’s children who are living on husks east of Eden. This was the closest thing Israel had to a gospel—you can come near, but you cannot come in; you may approach the edges of God’s presence, but you cannot enter directly into it; you may glimpse the Lord in a form, but you may never see His face. Even so, Holiness was drawing near.
The whole course of redemptive history is one long record of the words and works of the Talkative God who deigned to parlay with dust-born things. The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with the declaration, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past unto our fathers the prophets, hath in these last days spoken…” (Heb. 1:1). He spoke in night visions and in sanctified dreams. He spoke out of the whirlwind and from the midst of thick darkness. He spoke in the thunder of Sinai and in a still, small voice. He was ever the speaking God. But when Israel grew deaf to His words in the days of the prophets, He sent them into exile with no word but a promise. Because they refused to hear and heed His words, He held His tongue four hundred years. Yet, He left them with the promise that He would return to them to dwell in their midst; the promise that one day they would hear his voice again, and that He would send His Word to heal them.
After four centuries of captivity and oppression; nearly half a millennium of bending their necks to the heel of ruthless kings and maniacal monarchs, God tore open the heavens and spoke one all-encompassing Word—Son.
In the Person of the Son, the brightness of the glory of God is made manifest in flesh and blood and bone. Here we must walk with unsandled feet. Were it not for the safety of Sacred Writ, we would be at the borders of blasphemy. For we speak of the superlative mystery, God in creaturely form, the “great mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16).
For this reason, when God opened His mouth after four silent centuries, Israel was startled by His Galilean accent. They were shocked by the message that the Invisible God was seen nursing at a virgin’s breast. Shepherds spread troubling rumors that their Lord had indeed returned, that the Holy One of Israel was in their midst, and that He had ten tiny fingers and toes. They were scandalized by the testimony of a ragtag band of ex-fishermen and tax collectors who maintained that the Immortal God had died between two criminals on a Judean hillside, was buried in the cold earth, and then rose again three days later wearing His scars and walking the streets of Jerusalem proudly like some conquering warrior.
This was the secret God had been keeping for ages. Now was the time to tell it. When the world lay still, shrouded in the darkness of death, Holiness drew near. When the whole house of Israel was nothing more than a pile of bleached, white bones scattered upon the desert, one could have reasonably asked, “Can these bones live? And while the question was still lingering on the lips, the Spirit prophesied to the winds and said, “Now hear the Word of the Lord.” But the “Word of Life,” says John, was such that it could not only be heard, but also seen with the eye, looked upon, and handled with mortal hands (1 Jn. 1:1).
God knew just what to say to get Israel’s attention. They were staggered by the sound of the voice of the Lord coming to them from a carpenter’s shop in the backwater town of Nazareth. They were expecting God to come to them, but they could never have anticipated that He would come as one of them. But now were brought to pass the words of the prophet, “the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy;” the One who says, “I dwell in the high and holy place,” has made His home among the sons of earth to dwell “with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15).
Just so, Nazareth has become as metropolitan in my mind as Jerusalem; the peripheral has become the epicenter. The voice of shepherds beckoned me to peer into the cradled mystery, and find in it the fount of perpetual novelty. The strange goings-on in an undisturbed womb forever upset the world of gods and men. By entering into the creation in the likeness of a creature, the Creator would turn the whole of creation inside out. As C.S. Lewis says, the Creator “stooped in order to lift.”
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.
We have come to refer to that phenomenon as “salvation,” for by it God delivered us from our infernal self-absorption—that unnatural posture of soul which was gnarled up toward itself with eyes ever averted from the faciem Dei. In the Incarnation the Word spoke health to the twisted heart of humanity. The divine eloquence of the Word Enfleshed was heard before it was ever spoken in the world; indeed, it was ever spoken in eternity. God’s forever “yes” for a world crying “no” would now be wrapped in flesh, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and wrapped in every promise of God; each layer sewn tight with those sweet words, “yes and amen.”
Ultimately, the incarnation spelled the resolution of our estrangement from our Father. Here is God’s answer to the “radical neediness of the world.” Our long exile was at its end. The rumors were not true; you can go home again. The wise woman from Tekoa was right: we were as water spilt upon the ground, but God has devised means whereby his banished be not expelled from him (2 Sam. 14:14). Bethlehem marked a reconciliation of cosmic proportions. There, between ox and ass, humanity and divinity were joined together in One Hallowed Person. Behold the mystery of Immanuel—God with us! Jesus Christ constituted the unification of divine transcendence and human immanence; the Untouchable Otherness now stretches forth tiny hands and lays hold upon the world of men! The Eternal Son entered humanity to stretch it to its limits, and beyond. The Son took on flesh in order to make it big enough for God to dwell in.
But this is more than mere reconciliation; this is a revolution! This is not simply a return to Eden; this marks a new Genesis, the first day of a new creation. Whereas the first Adam was relationally near to God and covenantally bound to the Father, Jesus Christ is at once very God of very God and true man of true man. ‘For us men and our salvation,’ Christ actualized a unity of divinity and humanity that is as ontologically real as it is relationally close. He could effect our redemption because the incarnation made him fit to do so. He is thus the One who is apart from us as the divine Judge and near to us as the One judged in our place. Jesus Christ is both God and Humanity, the One in whom we discover both an asymmetry and an analogy. Transcendence and immanence find their telos in the person of the Stranger of Galilee. In Jesus Christ, Holiness comes near.
- Sonderegger, Katherine. Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God. ↑
- ibid. ↑
- Clives Staples Lewis, Miracles ↑
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1. “But the world had radical need of His work as Creator, to which it owes no less than its very being. And, again, it has radical need that He should take up its cause in the work of atonement. . . . But God reveals and increases His own glory in the world in the incarnation of His Son by taking to Himself the radical neediness of the world, i.e., by undertaking to do Himself what the world cannot do, arresting and reversing its course to the abyss.” ↑
- Hill, Edmund., Rotelle, John E.., Augustine. The Works of Saint Augustine: v. 1. Sermons on the Old Testament. “When he took human limbs to himself, after all, he did not abandon his divine works; nor did he stop reaching mightily from end to end, and disposing all things sweetly. When he clothed himself with the weakness of the flesh, he was received, not locked up, in the virgin’s womb; thus the food of wisdom was not withdrawn from the angels, while ate the same time we were enabled to taste and see how sweet is the Lord.? ↑
- The Nicene Creed ↑