Here is a puzzle for you:
- God is complete mystery, utterly beyond our powers of comprehension.
- God loves us and wants us to love God in return. God wants to be in relationship with us.
- To be able to respond to God’s invitation, we have to imagine God. We use images to represent God. But the images we imagine are not God.
- Over time, some images become God-like. That is, we start to think that some image of God is God.
My childhood image of God is not God
This happened to me. As a child, I imagined God to be an elderly white man on a throne up in heaven. My mother and the prayers at Mass told me God was a “father,” so I also had that image. My own father died when I was very young. Since my own father was not present to me, I imagined God to also not be very present to me.
Fill in your own childhood imaginings here. Everyone has some image of God that they grew up with. The point is not which image we had. The point is whatever image we had is not God.
The truth is, we cannot imagine God. Not even close. The puzzle is, how do accept an invitation of love from a God we cannot imagine?
Fortunately for us, God really, really wants us to know who God is. So God has been doing things, since the first moment of Creation, to show us who God is. That ongoing process of showing God’s self is called revelation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines revelation as:
God’s communication of himself, by which he makes known the mystery of his divine plan, a gift of God’s self-communication which is realized by deeds and words over time, and most fully by sending us his own divine Son, Jesus Christ.
When I was a child, however, this was all still a puzzle. When I started attending Catholic school in first grade, Sister Paul Mary began to prepare me and my classmates for our first communion. That was about the time I started to imagine who Jesus was. We were told that Jesus is also God, and because I thought I knew who God was, I was able to image who Jesus was — a white guy sitting in heaven, not really present to me.
But I had it completely backwards. I had started with my image of God — which was not God — and applied that image to Jesus. I think a lot of people do this. I think most of our catechumens and candidates do this. They have an image of God that they think of as if it were God. And they transfer that image to Jesus in some way.
In his letter, The Face of Mercy, the first thing Pope Francis writes is:
Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. (1)
In these two sentences, Pope Francis corrects my backward childhood understanding of revelation. It is only because we know who Jesus is that we can know who God is.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that we should never “confuse our image of God — ‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable’ — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God” (42).
Philip, Jesus’s disciple, could not quite wrap his head around this. After following Jesus for a long time, eating with him, listening to his teachings, seeing his mighty acts, Philip asked Jesus to “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (Jn 14:8).
I could have said that line. I have said that line. I am always looking for more proof when it comes to faith. And every time I say something like that, I am sure Jesus sighs and perhaps smacks his forehead. He said to Philip:
Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? (Jn 14:9-10)
If we have seen Jesus, we have seen God.
The culmination of revelation
The next thing the pope says in that letter is:
Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. (1)
The pope then goes on to list a whole bunch of ways God had been revealing God’s self throughout the Old Testament. God had been making himself known to us for a very long time. And at the right time (the “fullness of time” [Gal 4:4]), he sent Jesus to us…
…to reveal his love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God. (1)
God is what Jesus does
As we set out to teach RCIA seekers who God is, we have to first teach who Jesus is. And we have to remember Jesus didn’t so much tell us who God is as much as he showed us who God is. That is what Pope Francis means when he says that Jesus is the “face of the Father’s mercy.”
We may not be able to even come close to imagining God. But we know what mercy looks like. When we show mercy, we will, like Jesus, be showing others who God is.
What was your image of God?
Who did you imagine God to be when you were a child? How do you imagine God now? How do you help your seekers imagine God?
See also these related articles:
- Do you know who Jesus is? A gospel primer for RCIA
- What kind of God do we teach to RCIA seekers?
- To teach the core of our faith, RCIA teams have to learn this first
- RCIA unwrapped
- What RCIA teams need to teach about church
Image: “Blue Red & Green No. 2” by Mark Rothko