“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. [God with us] – Isaiah 7:14
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and in him.” -Colossians 1:15
As I prepare during this Advent for the celebration of the great mystery of the Word becoming flesh, I find myself returning again and again to these two passages from the Old and New Testaments. The first, from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, is both the hope and the consolation of Israel. It is the essence of the Good News. God, who is always faithful, loving and merciful, has not abandoned us to the darkness and the folly of our own devising in this fallen world, but is with us, which is our redemption and salvation and joy.
The second passage, from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, proclaims the way in which God chooses to be with us and to accomplish our redemption and salvation. The Son, the divine Logos, the Word through whom everything that is, that was and is to come, beyond all hope and expectation, was brought into being, by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin.
It was in this way, the way of humility, frailty, weakness, vulnerability and suffering that the Word, through whom the cosmos came into being, the Lord of all, adored and worshiped by the heavenly hosts, fully and completely revealed the nature and character of God.
For the pagan philosophers, it was laughable to even suggest that the one God, who is pure spirit, and unsearchable, unknowable mystery, would deign to concern himself with the fate of humanity, let alone love, and desire to be known and loved by his creatures.
For pious Jews, it was and remains inconceivable that God, who is so utterly transcendent that even the divine Name cannot be spoken, and whose saving presence was always veiled in signs, would be present to Israel and the world in the person of a human being.
But the incarnation is above all an act of love, not of logic. I recall reading something that Thomas Merton wrote in a letter, in which he said: ‘This love between God and mankind is as though an ant was to fall in love with a whale.’ True enough, understood from our point of view. But from God’s point of view, it is the whale which has fallen in love with the ant, and even more wondrous, in order to perfectly love the tiny ant, the great whale himself has taken on the very being of the ant.
What we behold in the person, in the teachings, in the life and death of Jesus is that “in him all the fullness [of divinity] was pleased to dwell.” In gazing upon Jesus, we no longer have to speculate about the nature and character of God. Rather, he reveals to us fully and definitively the divine nature and character in a way that we can begin to understand and imitate.
It is while hanging on the holy Cross that Jesus, Godwith-us, reveals most fully that his nature is love; that his character is faithful love unto death and that his will is mercy. This divine Love is the Light that not even the darkness of the tomb can overcome.
Jesus is the image, the icon, of the invisible God, he is the image and the instrument of God’s forgiving, merciful, saving, redeeming and life-giving love. For he loves not only the righteous but sinners, not only those who do good but those who do evil, not only his friends but his enemies. He seeks out the lost, the forsaken, those who are hated and despised, even those who by human reckoning deserve to be condemned and excluded.
The only limitations on his mercy are the limitations we place upon it, by refusing his love and forgiveness.
We understand justice, that is to say, everyone receiving what is due to them as a matter of fairness and equity. We rightly expect kings and rulers and presidents to be just, to be fair and impartial in enforcing the law. In this fallen world, so burdened with injustice, violence and hatred, justice and mercy are understood too often as opposites, and even those rulers who desire to act with mercy are frequently overruled by the iron laws of necessity.
But for the God revealed to us by Jesus, in the Kingdom of Heaven that God has established in his Son, God’s justice is his mercy. For it is “through [Jesus], that all things have been reconciled to himself, making peace through the blood of his Cross.” We struggle to grasp the infinite depth and breadth of the Lord’s love and mercy. It is as expansive and mysterious and vast as the cosmos and its stars and galaxies beyond counting.
Or rather, we only begin to comprehend the mercy of God revealed in Jesus when we ourselves, through grace and humility, begin to realize our own urgent need for his mercy, his forgiveness, his pardon, his compassionate and life-giving love and extend it to our neighbor. All of the saints have this in common: keenly aware of their faults, failings, weaknesses and sins, they were grateful for the healing love and mercy shown them by Jesus and out of gratitude they strove to become the merciful, forgiving and compassionate presence of Jesus.
But it doesn’t end there. The Word became flesh to restore in each one of us the image of the invisible God darkened and defaced by the sin of Adam. Each one of us, through baptism, has been reborn, refashioned, transformed and transfigured by Christ, so as to become his image, his icon in this world. The incarnate God, Emmanuel, has chosen to be present in this world in and through his Mystical Body and all of its members.
At this moment in our history, let us make Jesus, the icon of the invisible God, visible.
• Let us cherish and protect the weak and the vulnerable, especially unborn children, the elderly and those who are disabled.
• Let us remain faithful to our commitment to racial justice, reconciliation and the healing of memory. • Let us reassure our Muslim neighbors that they have nothing to fear from those who claim Christ as Lord and King.
• Let us continue to welcome as we would welcome Christ all those who are immigrants, refugees and migrants.
Our vocation is to be his face, hands and heart in a world crying out for justice and truth, for mercy and compassion. May others see in us the loving, merciful and compassionate face of Jesus.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23.