Epiphany and the Image of God

 

When I recently searched for “Images of God” on Google, there was immediately displayed, at the top of the list of websites, twenty-one images, ranging from “the Eye of God” nebula (a Hubble space telescope photo) to one of any number of Hindu deities.  Only one of these twenty-one included Jesus, and that was as the baby Jesus pictured in the arms of Mary, a picture titled “The Mother of God”.  Only a subsequent click on the website address itself revealed any more pictures, particularly of Jesus as a grown human being.

        I think that this little internet experiment was enlightening, particularly in light of the feast of the Epiphany or “appearance” of Christ, which is the oldest of the Christian celebrations of the coming of Christ, and which was also called by Greek Christians the Theophany, meaning the “Appearance of God.”  It commemorated, simultaneously, not just the story of the visit of the wise men from the East, but also the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, and the story of his first miracle — his changing of water into wine. In contrast to the Feast of the Nativity, or, as we call it, “Christmas” (which was only added to the Roman church calendar in AD 336), the Epiphany began to be celebrated about a century earlier and remains very prominent on Eastern and Orthodox Church calendars, while in the West it eventually was downgraded and even nicknamed “Little Christmas” — the last of the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas”.

        Why this difference? A number of theories have been suggested, ranging from anti-semitism in the Middle East (that at his birth Christ only became visible to Jews while the visitors from the East in the story were astrologers, probably from modern-day Iraq or Iran) to a question of a quest for greater doctrinal emphasis on the humanity of Christ after he had been declared “God from true God” and “consubstantial with the Father” by the Council of Nicea in 325.

        Maybe there is something to these theories, but I would like to think that the main reason for the popularity of either one of these Christian feastdays, even to a surprising extent in the non-Christian world, is more than just another excuse to throw a party.  I suspect it is a deep-seated human longing to somehow see or visualize that still unknown reality at the heart of existence — that great mystery that believers in any religion, as well as many philosophers, even in more pagan times, have called “God” or its equivalent in many other languages.

        We know that down through the ages, almost from the beginning, humans have tried to picture this mystery, usually in the form of living beings of some sort, ranging from winged lions and other creatures in Mesopotamia, various human–like images or even an elephant with a human body in India, a feathered serpent in Mexico, to a golden calf in the Sinai desert — the latter an abomination that led to the biblical prohibition of any images of divinity at all! Yet despite all this, humans have persisted in their well-meant idolatry, confident that they themselves have been created “in the image and likeness of God”. So why not return the compliment?

        Given this long and stubborn history of human persistence in trying to picture divinity, can we suppose that God finally gave up and finally gave us what we need? Maybe this is the key to understanding Christianity and if nothing else, explains the first line of one of the oldest Christian hymns on record. It is that embedded in the Epistle to the Colossians (1:15) and which is usually dated to around the year 61-63, written by St. Paul while a prisoner in Rome, thus is believed to be even older than the finished form of any of the four gospels.  It proclaims that “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [hence the pattern or prototype] of all creation.”       

        Certainly this is a — pardon the pun — colossal claim, one which if true, is certainly worth celebrating, not just for twelve days, but for all eternity!

 

R W Kropf   1/3/2011                                          Epiphany.doc     12-01-03.html