Invisible God

Col. 7

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Discussions about the freedom of speech these days sometimes see free speech as opposed to another freedom: the freedom to practice religion. One of the nastiest recent conflicts in this area involved the publication of cartoons that portrayed Muhammad.

The cartoons caused offense to some Muslims because they seemed to break an Islamic law against drawing images of the Prophet.

After the cartoons were printed in a Danish newspaper in 2006, violent protests erupted throughout the world. A number of people died and journalists involved in the publication of the cartoons were threatened. The conflict still simmers. This year, Yale University Press published a scholarly book about the conflict but at the last minute amazingly refused to print the cartoons that the book discussed—apparently the press was afraid of retribution.

Now there are valid points to be made on both sides of this debate. Believers should be free to practice their faith. At the same time, everyone should be freeto say what they want about religion.

During the Muhammad cartoon affair, mainstream religious leaders—Christian as well as Muslim—tried to mediate between the pro- and anti-cartoon factions in order to stop the violence. I’m sure that mediation was a laudable aim. Yet I wonder whether the efforts of Christian leaders to calm Muslim nerves gave enough value to the freedom of speech.

After all, Christians have long tolerated cartoons of Jesus. Satirical drawings of Jesus were found in the catacombs of Rome in the first centuries of the Church; and in our own times, such cartoons appeared in the television show, South Park—which also attempted to portray Muhammad.

Yet there is a more general lesson to be learned from this debate—a lesson about how human beings can approach God. Islam forbids images of Muhammad in order to preserve devotion to the one God. Muslims say that such pictures could lead believers astray so they could wind up worshiping the Prophet instead of Allah.

In this regard, we may note that when Islam was founded in the 7th century, the religion wanted to set itself apart from an Arab culture where a number of local gods were worshipped, and idols were common. So images were banned by the early Muslims to show their new revelation of God.

Interestingly, two thousand years earlier, Judaism had also arisen in opposition to a pagan culture. The Hebrews, too, were devoted to one God and like Muslims prohibited images so that they didn’t seem to encourage the worship of idols.

Yet another reason that both Judaism and Islam ban images is that they believe that God is a spirit. That means that God is essentially beyond all human concepts; any pictures of God that we might produce are bound to be mistaken in one way or the other.

Christians, of course, agree: in the Second Lesson, St. Paul reminds the Colossians that God is “invisible”. Yet in contrast with Islam and Judaism, many Christian artists have tried to find ways to use art to express their faith.

Some of these efforts have been less successful than others. Thus God the Father has occasionally been portrayed as an old man with a white flowing beard—as in Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Christians today may be uncomfortable with such images. While we don’t consider them blasphemous, and while we recognize their beauty, we also acknowledge that they can be misleading.

After all, God isn’t male. When we refer to God as “Father,” we are just using a poetic way of expressing our faith that God has created us and loves us and watches over us.

Still, we human beings remain frustrated by the fact that God is invisible. Our desire to portray God in pictures reflects the wish that even though we know that God is Spirit, we still wish we could see him!

And that brings us to the main point of our Second Lesson from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. In Paul’s words, Christ is ”the image of the invisible God.”

Christ is the image of God. Unlike Muslims and Jews, Christians know the incarnation of the Divine. In Christ, Paul says, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” While we humans are barred from seeing God in God’s eternal spiritual essence, we can get a glimpse of who God is when we look at the human life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

No wonder, then, that Christianity encourages the artistic images that Islam and Judaism forbid—such images fill our own church which is dedicated to the Incarnation of the Divine. While Christians agree that God the Father is invisible, we also believe that Jesus Christ shows us what God is like.

Take, for example, the portraits of Jesus with his disciples, such as the sculpture of the Last Supper that we have in the Chapel of the Holy Nativity in the front of our church. As this work shows Christ’s devotion to his disciples, it also gives a picture of God’s love for all people.

This love is seen supremely in Christ’s offering of himself. That’s why pictures and statues of Christ on the Cross are the most common images of Christ—and the most valued. In fact, this familiar portrait of the Son of God is a perfect example of why Christians encourage religious art.

For a crucifix moves us in unique ways. It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The reality is that some pictures are worth more than any number of words.

Thus, we say that Christ “died for us.” We say that we have a new covenant “in Christ’s blood.” But the figure of Christ on the Cross shows us God’s love and compassion and forgiveness as no theological terms could.

The story is told of a monk who spent much of his time in church in front of a crucifix. When he was asked what he was thinking about all those hours, he replied: “I look at him, and he looks at me, and I’m content.”

God in essence remains an invisible Spirit. We puzzle, for example, over the precise nature of Jesus Christ. While the Creed says that he was “very God and very Man”, fully human and fully divine, theologians continue to ponder the meaning of the Incarnation.

And yet, Christ revealed the Divine in away no human being has before or since. No wonder that he is honored on this last Sunday of the Church’s year as “Christ the King.”

No wonder that Paul could say of Christ that “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”

And so Paul and all of us believers rejoice that through Christ, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

And now unto God the Son, with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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