I wonder if you have an image of God? Many people do, even if it’s one they can’t believe in – that old man with a long white beard, the heavenly schoolmaster, the dictator who rules the world. Maybe a doting father – or even a loving mother. Or perhaps a painting you saw has left an impression on you – a painting of an ancient figure elevated above Jesus with a white dove between them. With such a plethora of images, some highly questionable, no wonder all three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, forbid the depiction of God. “But”, you might say, “what about all the images of Christ in churches?” Well, in a sense, they’re not images of God; they represent the human form in which Christians believe he clothed himself and as Orthodox Christians know, if God chose to reveal invisible things in visible matter then we honour God by doing the same.
In the end God remains a mystery beyond our comprehension so to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ begs the question – well, what is it exactly that you don’t believe in because it’s likely that the Church doesn’t believe in that either. Once you begin to define what God is then God, in a sense, slips through your fingers. Nowhere in the Jewish scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’) is there a definition of God – the closest one gets is that remarkable statement when God said to Moses: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or whatever the original Hebrew words mean. Now that seems to suggest God is not so much a ‘thing’ as a state of existence that cannot be named. One might say that God is the is-ness of is, pure being or becoming. Some speak of God as an ‘ocean of love’ or the heart of a mystery and so on. But none of these expressions seek to define what, in the end, is and always has been beyond our understanding. I know some object to saying that God is a mystery but that’s how it’s always been. It’s not a ‘cop-out’ but, as St Ephrem the Syrian back in the fourth century realised, only something greater than God could possibly define God and there can be nothing greater than God … So perhaps we might say that ‘God’ is a useful three-letter word to identify what is unidentifiable but which men and women down the centuries and around the world have believed in. I know we like to name things as it gives us the ability to identify them but – whoever or whatever God is – it would seem God clearly doesn’t want to be identified because as the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry beautiful little book of that name said: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Yes, there have been other ways of trying to identify God – the Holy, Faithful or Wise One for example – but these are merely attributes people have used to speak of God. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc. Two of the most common ways of speaking of God are as the ‘most Compassionate’ and ‘all-Merciful’ One or the Holy, Faithful or Wise One, attributes which lie at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc. But you cannot say God is this or that. God is not this baby any more than God is that old man. What you can say, and what the Church says, is that God clothed Himself in our flesh and wore the garments of this baby who grew into a 33 year-old Palestinian man. He on whom we gaze with the eye of faith is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. And then you would be able to say that what we see in Him reflects the nature of that which He contains leading Charles Wesley to sing:
Jesu, thou art all-compassion,
Pure unbounded love thou art.
But, more wonderful still, what we see in Him is a bright reflection of what lies within us. We can reflect aspects of that diamond-studied divine compassion and love that dwells in Him; our being contains a reflection of the wonder He incarnates and which we are to reveal. If you behold glory in this child, that glory can be reflected in us, as the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, has said: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.” Perhaps, them, we might say that the aroma of ‘God’ invites us to seek the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence. Maybe, then, it cannot be said that God ‘exists’ as you or I do, and that simple, three-lettered word offers the way we can express the inexpressibleness of life – that which painters and poets also struggle with. The great silence where a Word echoes; the expression of all that is, has been and will be. The silence of love.. The eternal darkness in which light shines.
If, then, the baby in the manger distracts you
from seeing what lies in the Cave of Bethlehem;
that reflection of the depth of human life,
then look beyond and realise the potential present in yourself,
the mystery that lies in the recesses of your own heart,
Perhaps, the importance of this Feast isn’t just that we celebrate God’s incarnation –
it is the Feast of what our humanity can become.