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Readings: 2nd Sunday before Lent

30 January 2015


"Discerning God's hand in all his works": a NASA image of a young pulsar

"Discerning God's hand in all his works": a NASA image of a young pulsar

2nd Sunday before Lent

Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Psalm 104. 26-end; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14

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 (Colossians 1.3-8).

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)

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