Saturday, December 29, 2012

Christ is born! God is Revealed!

This Christmas season the liturgical texts of the Byzantine and Maronite Churches have reminded me of an aspect of Eastern spirituality that I have always found particularly appealing; that is, the unknowability of God. By this we do not mean, of course, that we can in no way come to know anything of God or about God. God has revealed Himself to us through creation, His actions throughout history, and most particularly through Salvation History as revealed in the Scriptures. The fulness of God's revelation has come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we are currently celebrating (incidentally the Byzantines celebrate Christ's birth not for twelve days or until Epiphany, but until the feast of the Presentation in the Temple on February 2). No, what we mean by the unknowability of God is the impossibility of human language and human concepts to fully grasp and communicate the infinite mystery of God. Every Sunday in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before recounting God's deeds in creation and redemption the priest (and through him we the people) prays:

"IT IS FITTING AND RIGHT to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to give thanks to You, to worship You in every place of your dominion: for You are God, beyond description, beyond understanding, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing, always the same; You and your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit."

We are reminded here that words cannot suffice to describe God, intellectual concepts cannot fully grasp him, nor can the eye of the mind see or understand God in His essence. The Scriptures remind us that God's ways are not our ways, that no man can look on the face of God and live, that only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom the Son reveals Him.

In the Maronite tradition the texts of Safro/Morning Prayer remind us of this unknowability of God. In the Sedro we pray:

"Son of God, Word and image of the Father, his only begotten and well-beloved Son, you are the infant that neither mind can encompass, nor the spirit comprehend, wisdom fathom, science know, nor knowledge reveal. No description can portray you, O Lord, no name name you, no language explain you, no lips pronounce you."

Such a message, in my opinion, is extremely important for our day and age. We live in an age where we want nothing but forensic, scientific, "factual" knowledge. If something cannot be weighed, measured, calculated, dissected, poked, and prodded, then it is either not real, or its truth is relative. Even within the Church there is this strong desire for such "forensic" knowledge. In my experience the Churches of both East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, have emphasized often their own theological positions to such an extent that God seems little more than a concept, an intellectual exercise, or a list of dogmatic beliefs.

What the liturgical texts of this Christmas season teach us is that God is not a list of philosophical or dogmatic truths that we have come to believe. Nor is He something that scientific study can analyze. Rather, "God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself to us!" as we pray every Sunday in the Byzantine tradition. God is a Person, or rather a Trinity of Persons, that we come to know through personal encounter. This personal encounter with God is only possible because God has first sought us out and revealed Himself to us. He loves us so much that in creating us He desired to be in relationship with us, to know us and to be known by us. Do we not read, after all, that when God first created Adam and Eve He used to walk with them in the garden, conversing with them in the cool of the evening! Although we lost this intimacy with God through our own sinfulness, He has always sought us out and sought to restore that intimacy, that ability to converse with Him face-to-face as with a friend.

When God revealed His name, YHWH, to Moses He revealed also His deep love for us. We often translate YHWH as meaning "I am who am," or "I am who I am." This translation is fraught with Greek philosophical concepts. YHWH is translated into Greek as "ho on" meaning, "I am the one who is," or "I am the essence of being itself." This of course is true. But it actually fails to accurately translate the Hebrew YHWH. YHWH means active being or active presence. According to Fr. John Custer the best translation of the Hebrew would be, "I will be there as who I am." Fr. John says,

"What God went on to promise Moses is that He would be actively present in the lives of His people..."

Fr. George Maloney also speaks of this active presence of God in his book Bright Darkness: Jesus - Lover of Mankind. The point is that God is not an abstract being, somewhere "up there." Rather God is actively among us, always with us, always present to us. Are we present to Him?

This is especially true in this Christmas season where we celebrate the birth of the Word of God made flesh. As Archbishop Joseph Raya likes to point out in so many of his writings, the ultimate revelation of a person is the revelation of a person's face. Through Jesus' birth God has revealed His face to us! If, as Jesus said, the eyes are the lamp of the soul, then by looking into the human eyes of Christ we behold the very soul, the very heart of God! God is not abstract, He is not a list of dogmas that we believe in. No, God is a living Trinity of Persons that is constantly inviting us to join in their dance of love. Dogmas are, of course, important. But relationship is even more important. While dogmatic knowledge of God is foundational for our relationship with Him, we must be humble about dogma and admit that it does not say everything that there is to say about God. We can ultimately only come to know God by moving beyond dogma into the realm of the "bright dazzling darkness" or the "dark night of faith" where all concepts are laid aside and we simply behold God in awe and wonder. May heaven consume us!


  1. Merry Christmas to you!

    I am looking for a knotted bracelet- do you make those?

    1. As a matter of fact, I do! Send me an email and we can talk about them. :)