The other day I was watching a tutorial video for After Effects, and I become intrigued with the hosts other work. He had created a video about the meaning of the term ‘nano,’ and the essence of the piece was to use different sized things to demonstrate the sense of scale. Beginning with a single hair, the scene zoomed in to the point where the person in the piece was about the size of a red blood cell, which even then wasn’t nano-sized. It wasn’t until the red-blood cell towered above our character that the structures of the cell- which are actually nano-sized and part of nano-material, could be ‘seen.’
One thing I had never thought of was that at this size, the wavelengths of visible light are actually too big to see. If you were to be shrunk down to this size, you would be smaller than the wavelength of visible light, and everything would be dark. Thus, even though the light was certainly there and all around you, to you it would seem invisible.
Christmas is the time of year when we normally celebrate the Incarnation, and for good reason, as within Christian theology it is held as a historical fact that at a certain point in time God became man; as St. John says: “The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:1) For St. John this is not merely a metaphorical device used to illustrate some deeper theological truth, but has a certain concrete reality, as he elsewhere states:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:1-3 NIV)
St. John speaks of that ‘eternal life’ not as an abstraction suitable only for philosophical discourse, but as a flesh-and-blood reality that he himself has actually seen and touched. We might remember in his gospel how he (the disciple whom Jesus loved) actually leaned against his breast during the Last Supper, something one cannot do with an abstraction.
The problem with God, of course, is that God is not something that we can see and touch. We might be able to reason our way to God’s existence, but that reality will forever be out of our reach. And even though we know that you can’t believe everything you see, we nevertheless have a very difficult time believing in things that we can’t see at all. Better to take our chances with potential illusions than to intellectually acknowledge that which our senses cannot penetrate.
St. John seems to sense this difficulty in his own Gospel, for after declaring the most incredible thing one could imagine- that God became man- he doubles back upon his words to really get at what this might entail. He says:
No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18 NIV)
In older English translations the phrase ‘at the Father’s side’ was often rendered ‘in the bosom of the Father,’ indicating a sense of deep knowledge and familiarity. And since the Word who was in the bosom of the Father is also said earlier to be whom who ‘was God,’ St. John is drawing an exact equivalence between what the Father is and what the Son is. In other words, the Son perfectly knows the Father, as St. John will elsewhere state:
“As the Father knows me, even so know I the Father… (John 10:15 KJV)
The problem we face as humans is that we are too small. Like the fictional person who is too small to see visible light, so we miss God not because he not there to be seen but rather because we do not have the capacity to take him in. We glibly speak of missing the forest for the trees, but such a cliche could not even begin to describe the gulf which separates the uncreated from the created.
God, after all, is infinite, and finite creatures simply do not have the ability to take in that which is infinite. It is this intrinsic limitation on our part which renders God invisible to us, and in fact invisible to everything else but God. Even the angels- whose intellects far surpass our own- cannot know God as he is in his essence, and will forever be locked out from knowing him as he is.
Is there not then a fundamental problem posited between God and his creation? If no man has ever seen God, as St. John relates, how can we ever hope to know God? What relation can there be between God and his creation, if his essence will be forever closed off to us?
In this light, the Incarnation takes on far greater significance than could ever be comprehended, certainly more than the trite expressions we give to it once a year. The Incarnation is about God coming to save us from our sins, certainly, but even deeper than that it is an expression of God’s love for his creation in that God wants us to more than just ‘see’ him whereas we have not been able to be before; rather, our fundamental relation to him is changed in that Christ takes upon himself our nature, uniting to the divine Word, and thus uniting humanity to that which it could never see before.
St. John Chrysostom describes the relation between seeing and knowing as such:
Observe, therefore, with what fullness the Evangelist speaks; for having said that “no man has seen God at any time,” he does not go on to say, “that the Son who has seen, has declared Him,” but adds something beyond “seeing” by the words, “Who is in the bosom of the Father”; because, “to dwell in the bosom” is far more than “to see.” For he that merely “sees” has not an in every way exact knowledge of the object, but he that “dwells in the bosom” can be ignorant of nothing. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 15 on the Gospel of John)
If God is infinite, then the only way one could have exact knowledge of God’s infinite essence is to be likewise infinite. The incredible reality of the Incarnation is that united to the human nature of Jesus is the infinite Word of God, who perfectly knows God because he is himself God. The Son knows the Father as the Father knows the Son because they share the same essence:
Wherefore, as I said, the Evangelist mentions “the bosom,” to show all this to us by that one word; that great is the affinity and nearness of the Essence, that the knowledge is nowise different, that the power is equal. For the Father would not have in His bosom one of another essence, nor would He have dared, had He been one among many servants, to live in the bosom of his Lord, for this belongs only to a true Son, to one who has much confidence towards His Father, and who is in nothing inferior to Him. (ibid.)
We can therefore appreciate St. John’s insistence at having seen and touched the Word of Life, for although man cannot (and never will) know God in his essence, by virtue of the Incarnation God’s essence has become united to humanity in the hypostatic union. In Jesus is the fullness of the Godhead, St. Paul reminds us, and it is against the bosom of the one who came from the bosom of the Father that St. John had the privilege to lean.
To be close to Jesus is thus to be close to God, for united to him is the infinite nature of God. Our vision will always remain limited, but in Jesus it is infinite, for he knows the Father as the Father knows him. What is granted us through the Incarnation is the opportunity to be united to Christ, who is himself united to Father. This union which God brought to us is deeper than abstractions and as concrete as the things we see and touch, for in Christ God has become see-able and touchable. As we lean against his breast with John our finite sight catches a glimmer of the infinite:
Do you see the loving kindness and carefulness of the Lord? God applies to Himself unworthy expressions, that even so you may see through them, and have some great and lofty thought of Him; and do you tarry below? For tell me, wherefore is that gross and carnal word “bosom” employed in this place? Is it that we may suppose God to be a body? Away, he by no means says so. Why then is it spoken? For if by it neither the genuineness of the Son is established, nor that God is not a body, the word, because it serves no purpose, is superfluously thrown in. Why then is it spoken? For I shall not desist from asking you this question. Is it not very plain, that it is for no other reason but that by it we might understand the genuineness of the Only-Begotten, and His Co-eternity with the Father? (ibid.)