The second commandment God etched in stone warned the Israelites not to imagine what God looked like. There must be no “graven image” of Yahweh. Israel’s invisible God would permit no idols.
The rule against making an image of God heightened the deity’s mystery. Yahweh was no ordinary god but one who existed beyond the furthest reaches of human imagination.
It also tested human faith. A God who couldn’t be portrayed physically seemed distant, hard to understand, easy to lose trust in, even forget about.
The people of Israel longed for the sight of God. In Exodus 33, Moses pleads with God to “show me your glory.” God consents, to a point: Moses will see only a passing glance of God’s back, because no one can see God’s face and live to tell of it.
God’s chosen people continued to yearn for visible expressions of the invisible. The prophet Ezekiel saw the most spectacular vision of God: fantastic winged creatures, moving wheels full of eyes, an enthroned human figure of light and fire (Ezekiel 1). God appeared to Ezekiel as apocalyptic, terrifying, alien to the human mind.
Throughout the Old Testament there runs a thread of imagination — of creative image-making — as humans try to grasp the mystery of divinity.
God walks in the garden in the cool of the day. God’s hand shields Moses from divine glory as he hides in the cleft of a rock. Ezekiel falls on his face at the sight of a dazzling figure on a sapphire throne.
For countless years, the people of God sought the embodiment of God.
Then Jesus was born. And the mystery of divinity was solved.
Scripture speaks of the Messiah’s arrival as the revelation of a long-held secret.
In Christ, God unveiled “the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known” (Rom. 16:25-26).
In Eph. 3:4-6, Paul says: “The mystery of Christ . . . was not made known to . . . other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit.” The specific mystery here is that “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus.”
The more general mystery is the ancient quest for the divine image. What does God look like?
God decided to let us meet divinity in person. We would see that God looks like Jesus.
We needed to see what God would do if God were a human being. Only then would God’s truest self be revealed. “No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18).
Through Jesus, we see that God is love, and this love is our salvation. “When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy . . . poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6).
As we share the reverence and joy of Advent and Christmas, Jesus Christ’s kindness and love reappear and multiply. We experience this divine love as people blessed to know what once was secret. God’s long-hidden image has been unveiled. With eyes of faith, we see what Moses and Ezekiel could not: the face of God.
To experience this miracle, as if for the first time, we say with the shepherds: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”