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Can God be painted?
This question tore apart the Eastern Christian world in the eighth and ninth centuries. One element of these iconoclast controversies (apart from whether the use of icons in Christianity violated the Old Testament prohibition of the making and use of graven images) was the question of whether Christ could truly be depicted in an image. After all, any true image of Christ must show both his humanity and his divinity; but how do you show the infinite? How do you describe the indescribable? Some even went so far as to say that Christ himself, being God, could not have possessed any finite characteristics, so that he must have had all possible colors of hair, all possible shapes of nose, all possible sizes of shoes. The absurdity of this should be self-evident.
This idea is, I think, one symptom of a very old disease within Christianity: the denial, in some way and to some degree or other, of Christ’s true humanity. The Church spent its first several centuries working through the witness of both Scripture and the apostolic preaching which made it clear that Jesus both seemed to be human–eating, weeping, suffering, dying–and seemed to be God–claiming to be one with the Father, calling himself “I am” (YHWH), and forgiving sins. Reconciling the two notions was not easy, and the solution of many along the way was precisely to not do so, but rather to lean to one side or the other: denying he had a human soul, or a human intellect, or a human will, or a human appearance. Anything to prevent us from having to say those seemingly non-sense words, “God became man.”
I don’t blame them, necessarily. It’s not an easy dose to digest. Something in us recoils at the idea that the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, essentially existent, root cause of all reality could be limited and contained and circumscribed within a tiny baby, a toddling toddler, a 12-year old boy, even an adult man–and not just a man, but a poor man, a peasant carpenter, born in a back corner of the Roman Empire, speaking a language few could understand. How could that be? How could God “fit” into a human? How could the all-perfect, all-sufficent God be hungry, and grow, and learn things, and weep? There almost seems something… wrong about it.
Yet is it any more undignified than being publicly shamed and executed as a criminal, flogged in the public square and hung up naked on top of a hill? Surely, though, we would not deny that of Jesus, would we? Yet if he can suffer and die, why can he not pray, and eat, and weep, and be born?
There is the flip-side to this, the “Jesus was a really swell guy who taught us some great things and showed us a great example and how much he loved us by refusing to act violently against his killers” camp that all but denies the divinity of Jesus. I think quite often the “Jesus is the Almighty God-King of the Universe wearing a human suit for a brief time” position is a reaction to the “swell guy” folks, a hard swing back of the pendulum. Yet rather than a “low Christology” or a “high Christology,” what we need is a “true Christology,” or better yet, a “faithful Christology”–for we will never fully comprehend this mystery of the Incarnation, but we can apprehend it so far as we can and let it transform our lives.
This is precisely the point: Jesus takes on our humanity, all of it, and redeems it, perfects it, hits the reset button on it. St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans that by Adam’s sin human nature had been harmed, but by Christ’s obedience it was healed, so that “just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all” (Romans 5:18). This is what St. Irenaeus called Christ’s “recapitulation,” his “re-heading-up” of the human race, in his obedience and sacrifice. By this, by the grace merited by his Cross and given to us in the sacraments, he allows us to become what we were meant to be: children of God.
In Jesus of Nazareth, God became man. Don’t let it frighten you. Let it change you.