January 27, 2020

Another Look: Epiphany — the Hidden God Revealed

magi bassano

Adoration of the Magi, Bassano

Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Savior. (Isa. 45:15)

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)

• • •

I love the posture and the expression on the face of the kneeling wise man in Jacopo Bassano’s painting, “The Three Magi” (c. 1562) above. His look of utter incredulity as he leans in to get a closer at the baby Jesus in his Mother’s arms captures the essence of Epiphany. The God who hides himself has made himself known, but in such a strange way! How can it possibly be?

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

(Christina Rosetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”)

If there is one teaching that American Christians like me need to learn it is that of God’s hiddenness.

In our worship and devotion we are ever and always asking for God to reveal himself to us so that we might see his face, and we forget God’s decree: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Furthermore, we are ever seeking visible signs of God’s comfort, God’s presence, God’s help, and God’s blessing. How disappointed we are when God hides himself, when where he is and what he does in our world is so puzzling and enigmatic!

Before we think of God revealing himself to us, we must remember that God intentionally hides himself from us.

magi bassanoThe God who made the world hides in the world.

Indeed, he must hide in the world, because humans have rejected God’s Kingship, plunged all creation into a fallen state, and he is not welcome among us. And yet he will not abandon the world, so he hides in it and works his will through mechanisms and actions we cannot fathom. Sarah is barren, and when she has the promised son, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice him. Joseph is sold into slavery. A harlot leads the way to victory in Jericho. King David takes refuge in caves. Cyrus the Persian restores Israel from exile. Job loses everything. Jesus dies on a cross. Paul spends most of his apostleship years as a Roman prisoner.

Who could criticize the Preacher for concluding, “All is vanity!”

Romans 8 says that the present cosmos is groaning like a woman in childbirth. Just as the joy of new life is hidden in the pain and distress of giving birth, so God hides from human beings in the workings of his world. God wears many masks and we cannot recognize him in our experiences of this life. The evidence is at best mixed that he even exists. Our philosophies and speculations never lead to certainty. “Clear” answers to prayer are always subject to other explanations. Even the church that supposedly represents God in the world is weak, divided, sinful, and beset by suffering. Babies die. The wicked prosper. Spouses cheat. People go hungry. Wars and rumors of war persist.

We cannot comprehend, much less explain our world and what God is doing in it. He hides from us, and he does so intentionally. Why? This is mystery, but with fear and trembling let me suggest one possible explanation: God hides because he will not be found where humans want to find him, for that would only further confirm us in our pride and self-justification. We do not define where God is to be found! By hiding, God assures that we will not.

Here’s a second thought about the hidden God: even when God reveals himself, he does so in a “hidden” fashion. That is, when he takes off his mask and lets himself be seen, it is still hard for us to recognize him. God defines how humans will find him, and those ways always catch us by surprise. Look again at the green-robed magus in Bassano’s painting. This, this is God revealing himself to us? The baby of poor parents? Here in this ramshackle stable? Is this what we came so far to see? How can it be?

Even when God comes out of hiding, he hides himself. Though “with us” (Emmanuel) in plain sight, we are forced to get down on our knees for a closer look. Even then we wonder. From Bethlehem to the Jordan, from the wilderness to the Temple, from Galilee to Golgotha, we find ourselves continually rubbing our eyes as we try to process what we are seeing. Remember how the disciples who walked with him struggled, and Jesus had to ask them in the end, “Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?” Three years of being with him every day, and they could not yet see!

God reveals himself in this hidden fashion most fully on the cross. The clearest vision of the face of God ever afforded to humans was cloaked in darkness.

Today many of us will go to worship, and there God will make himself known in words spoken by sinful lips to sinful hearts, through bites of bread and sips of wine, and in the faces of our weak and imperfect sisters and brothers. The glory of God in clay pots.

magi bassanoThis is the season of Epiphany — the time in which we celebrate the revelation of the glory of the Son of God. But how does he reveal himself? To recognize the hidden fashion by which God shows his face, we need look no further than the narrative that we in the Western Church read during this season, the one portrayed so well by Jacopo Bassano, the story about when “wise men came from the east” (Matthew 2).

Jesus’ glory was revealed:

  • To pagan astrologers —
  • Who, by means of an astrological phenomenon divined through pagan arts, travel to Jerusalem —
  • And receive directions from a wicked king and his counselors —
  • Who know the Scriptures but do not recognize their fulfillment —
  • Who serve a king that responds to this Good News by slaughtering a village full of baby boys.
  • Meanwhile, after seeing the Christ child, the pagans return to their pagan land, never to be heard from again —
  • And the baby and his family are forced to flee to Egypt.

Hmm. This is how God reveals himself.

Glad I could clear that up for you.

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    How should we then live?

    The world is such a dark and fearful place.
    In my part of my environment, both just out my door and close in my heart and soul.
    Too much to handle.

    Susan

    • I believe that God’s hiddenness is the solution to the sovereignty/free will conundrum.

      If he were right here, right now, we’d all be down on our knees, no choice.

      • I agree with the theology in your statement, but it’s small comfort when you are already down on your knees as the result of suffering, for instance because your country, like Susan’s, is burning down.

        • +1.

          And so here’s a case of “best to know a person’s situation BEFORE spouting ‘good theology.'”

        • Sorry, it wasn’t intended as an answer to Susan, I clicked on the wrong ‘Reply’ then couldn’t get back.

          • Like none of us have ever done that before. 😉

            And it did seem like kind of an odd “reply” to her comment. Thanks for the clarification!

    • We are here, Susan, and are praying for you all. The pictures are so sad. I think all of us feel badly for the suffering of the innocent animals and the loss of homes and of human life. The air quality . . . . God have mercy!

      If they could ship some of those wounded Koala bears to the States, I know many of us would volunteer to take one in and nurse it . . . maybe even two . . . . cuddling, hand-feeding, we could do this . . . I wish we could, because just seeing them far away and suffering on the telly brings so much sadness

  2. If God is so hidden, such that he is hidden even in his revelation of himself — I’m inclined to agree that he is — how can we say anything about him with any degree of assurance? Shouldn’t we mostly keep silent about him, even as we continue to believe and trust him? Yet Christians, and Christianity, does an awful lot of talking about this God who hides himself, even when he is revealing himself.

    • Because he has done quite a bit of revealing, and epiphany is only one part of his revelation. I think the hiddeness of God is more an in the moment thing. In the moment of your suffering, or your questioning, you may not be able to see where God is. It is usually in hind sight that we see God more clearly, and that is why the present calls for faith.

  3. senecagriggs says

    If you would see God; read and re-read Scripture – His revelation to his people.

    Part of what He reveals, we see dimly.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      I don’t think this can be recommended too highly, but in our relationships with others, we should keep your second sentence in mind, even in precedence over the first.

      • +1.

        Even our reading of scriptures is flawed, from potential translations errors to interpretation issues.

        Dimly, indeed. Until we’re face to face, it’ll all be dimly.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          Fr. Stephen Freeman says that the Old Covenant was shadow, the New Covenant is icon, and the coming Kingdom is Reality.

          • Clearly Hebrews suggests (strongly, even?) that the OT/covenant is but a shadow.
            Then the New Covenant with Jesus, who is the exact representation of the Father, might be just as Fr. Freeman suggests: an icon.

            I like the ide that the coming Kingdom, however shape and form that takes, will be ultimate reality.

  4. Burro (Mule) says

    From Metacrock’s blog (“Have theology, will argue”)

    Most people tend to think of God as a big man on a throne. They judge God by human standards. Like Dawkins argument that God would be more complex than his universe and thus less likely to exit. This is based entirely upon the idea that God is a magnified version of humanity. When I point this out atheists scoff and insist that most people see God this way we Christian apologists have to as well. When I point out that Paul Tillich had this totally different view of God as being itself they insist that this is not a Christian concept.

    Paul Tillich the great theologian of the 20th century, was most noted for his seemly radical idea that God is “Being itself” or the ground of being, just what that means is very hard to put into words. Essentially it means that God is not a being but the basis of what being is, being itself. There are no good analogies but the best I’ve come up with is like the difference between architecture and a single house. It is not a house but the basis upon which houses are built. This is important as a distinction because atheists are always trying to judge God by human standards to treat God as though he just magnified humanity. All of the criticisms they make of religious belief revolve around the notion of God as a big man. The true Christian concept of God is more than that; and this the “true Christian concept” because it is the view of the Orthodox church from a time before the split with the West. Most commentators on Tillich wont say this but I think I have an original observation that Tillich was trying to translate Dionysus the Areopagite into existentialism. That is to say ancient neo-Platonism into modern existentialism.

    Once again, the Via Negativa of the Areopagite raises its head against the Via Positiva of the popular apologists. The Via Negativa is austere, so austere that few follow it. I think we want the “big man on a throne”. We want him so bad we’re willing to divest ourselves of all our valuable and throw them into a crucible so that he can emerge and we can worship him. But the big man on a throne is an idol. Even Jesus, if we were to make Him the Secretary-General of the United Nations with plenipotentiary powers, would not be the kind of Jesus we wanted Him to be, but rather the kind of Jesus who was OK with a tower falling on the heads of eighteen Blodgetts in Siloam, leaving doubtless eighteen widows and maybe a couple score orphans.

    I remember another Neil Gaiman “Sandman” story, where Dream was looking for the severed head of his son so as to bury it properly. It was during the French Revolution, and someone told him that the best place to hide a particular severed head would be where there already thousands of other severed heads. So Dream goes to the Department of Public Sanitation and discovers the head of his son amidst the heaps of others guillotined by the engines of virtue.

    In the same way, if you wanted to head the rather contemptible God (“bourgeois”, I think, was the term Screwtape used) we serve, I would hide Him in plain sight, in the world, with all its suffering, cancer, bullying, war, famine, grief, and despair. “Though He slay me, yet will I serve Him.”

    • Most people tend to think of God as a big man on a throne. They judge God by human standards.

      The human standard of God is Jesus Christ. At the end, he was a small man on a cross; now he sits at the right hand of God, exercising all God’s power and authority, but in just the way he exercised it during his mortal life on earth.

    • Your quote makes Tillich sound like the early Barth, which he most emphatically was not. Tillich believed the human mind could approach understanding of God through “correlation”, connecting revelation with human projects like psychology and philosophy; this is far from the Via Negativa, which is actually more like Barth’s early approach in its negation of all analogies between the transcendent and the natural, or the human.

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      Another analogy for the ground of being I fund helpful is the difference between the characters in a book and its author.

  5. David Cornwell says

    We hide, thus God is hidden. Jesus, the Son of God, comes to us in a manger and we turn him into Santa Clause. Jesus dies on a cross, giving all that God has to give, and we convert the cross into jewelry for our wardrobe. Jesus rises from the dead and we see Easter bunnies, duckies, and candy. I’m not sure we really want to see the God who has revealed Himself to us in both simple and profound ways.

    • it’s the God revealed to us by Christ in St. Matthew’s Gospel that many who say ‘Lord, Lord’ either can’t or won’t see:

      “35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

      36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

      37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

      38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

      39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

      40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

      41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

      42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

      43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

      44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

      45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

    • Now there’s a good dose of honest cynicism. You sound like me!!! Good, thought-provoking comment!