by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus said to his disciples: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him."
Art lovers and historians alike are well aware of a transition that occurred between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, specifically when it come to the depiction of God the Father. We Chri8stians who have grown up with the Sistine Chapel ceiling and other great renaissance works as part of our patrimony might not even be aware of the shift. Yet, it someone from the time of Augustine or even Thomas Aquinas were to visit that same Sistine Chapel, the would likely find the image of the Father provocative and perhaps even shocking. Why?
For the first roughly 1,300 years of church history, Christian artists eschewed depicting the Father out of reverence for the truth revealed in our Gospel today (Jn 14:01-12). Philip, inspired by Jesus' words of encouragement, asks: "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."
In a way, he's not wrong in making the request. Scripture and all the great saints agree: Heaven is the beatific vision, seeking God face to face. To see God is to find the soul's satisfaction. Yet Philip also misses something essential both because he is speaking in terms of merely physical sight rather than spiritual sight and because he still doesn't realize who Jesus is - the fullness of God's revelation and self-gift. Jesus is not just a messenger of God, he is God. Hence Jesus' response: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
What does this mean? In most basic terms, we agree that God the Father is not some giant old man who lives on a planet or star cluster somewhere far away in the night sky. Rather, God is Spirit and doesn't have a body as such. There is no camera, microscope or telescope that could ever observe God in himself. He's not one thing among others, but the creator of all things. He is everywhere and near to everything insofar as he creates and sustains everywhere and everything.
But what if God wanted to make himself visible in a way more accessible to us humans? What if God wanted to speak not just with the language of the heart in love and the mind in truth, but also with human words? What if God wanted to walk and talk among us as one of us?
This is precisely what happens in he Incarnation: In Jesus, God makes himself accessible to us. The Father sends the Son in the Holy Spirit, communicating himself in full to us. Christ fully reveals who God is in bodily form. Like Father like Son, he bears the image of the Father to the world. Thus, Jesus' point: If you want to meet God look to Jesus. If you want to ask God a question, ask Jesus. And if you want to see the Father, look to the Son who fully reveals him in a way we can see. It's not arrogant or crazy for Jesus to claim to be the "way" to the Father. He is literally God revealed in a way we can sense, so that by that revelation, we can be led to see God face to face in a deeper, spiritual way not visible to the senses.
Thus, we see why the early Christians avoided depicting God the Father and usually only did it rarely and symbolically. If we want to look at God in a painting, if we want to show God with a body, it would necessarily be Jesus.
One final point: By our baptism, we are made members of Christ's body. We too bear not only the image of God, but the image of Jesus via the sacraments. Thus, we also reveal God the Father in word and deed in a way more beautiful than any work of art every could. That raises an important question: When people look at our lives, would they know that God exists? That we have a Father in heaven and a savior in Jesus? Do we also reveal the fullness of the Father's love?