2nd Sunday before Lent
Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Psalm 104. 26-end; Colossians 1.15-20;
Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and
made us in your own image: teach us to discern your
hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THIS Sunday's readings invite us to attend to image: God's
image; human beings made in God's image; and that image perfected
in Jesus. Both the Letter to the Colossians, which may or may not
have been written by Paul, and the Prologue to John's Gospel
approach that task by going back to the beginning of all things
(Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14). Both consciously allude to the
creation narrative of Genesis 1.1-27, which culminates in the human
creation "in the image of God". Both deal with the new creation
that takes place in Christ, "the firstborn of all creation"
(Colossians 1.15) and the source of all life (John 1.3-4).
These accounts make the radical move to a new order, from a
tradition in which no human had been expected to see the face of
God and live (Exodus 34.29-36). Here, those who have seen the Son
have seen the Father (John 14.8-9), and those who have believed the
proclamation of the gospel have known God in Jesus Christ
All of this is achieved without any hint of a physical
description of Jesus, a pattern consistent throughout the New
Testament. The Johannine Prologue and the hymn in praise of Christ
in Colossians show, in a particular way, why any attempt at
portraiture would be absurd. There is just too much to contain and
communicate in little space. Even at the end of John's Gospel, the
writer is protesting that the world could not contain the books
needed to record Jesus's acts (John 21.25).
C.S. Lewis was not the first person to comment on the difficulty
of remembering clearly the features of the people closest to us.
What he does with this idea in A Grief Observed however,
is much more original. During his meditation on the death of his
wife, he suggests the danger of images: "Images of the Holy easily
become holy images - sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine
idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it
Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that
this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The
Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of
the Messiah in ruins. And most are 'offended' by the iconoclasm;
and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in
our private prayers."* The surest and the hardest way to see God,
it seems, is not to create God in our own image.
If this sounds like paradox, it is part of the paradoxical
wisdom of God, which continues to divide translators. Is the
presence created "at the beginning" (or "as the
beginning") of God's work (Proverbs 8.22) compared to a "master
worker" (Proverbs 8.30) in this great enterprise, or to a little
child? This should be a warning that the wisdom of God is
constantly at play, and not to be pinned down by fixed ideas,
"rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and
delighting in the human race" (Proverbs 8.30-31). It delights to
look upon a creation at play, epitomised in Psalm 104's
presentation of the whale Leviathan, formed to "sport" in the ocean
(Psalm 104.26), and it inspires further play. No wonder the
17th-century poet Henry Vaughan imagined a "comely spacious whale"
when he versified this psalm.
True play is also deeply serious. The God whom we know and see
in Jesus topples the idolatry, vanity and pomposity of those who
claim superior knowledge by insisting that divinity can be seen in
weakness, suffering, modesty, gentleness, and the total
self-sacrifice of the crucifixion. "God's foolishness is wiser than
human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength"
(1 Corinthians 1.25). The "fullness of God" chooses to "dwell" in
Jesus, and to reconcile all created things to God through the blood
of a new and enduring covenant forged on the cross (Colossians
1.20). This is why, improbably but gloriously, we can believe that
God might have imprinted his image in us. It is also why, as the
world recovers from atrocities in Paris that have made so many
images dangerous and contested, we must strive "to discern [God's]
hand in all his works and [God's] likeness in all his children"
(collect of the day).
* A Grief Observed: Readers' edition (Faber
& Faber 2015)