My kids want to see God. They want to touch Him. They want to hear His voice. They want to feel His arms cradling and hugging them.
So do I.
Divine intangibility is an age-old problem for human societies. One practical way to bridge the distance between heaven and earth is to craft an object to which divine status or divine qualities are assigned—idols. They make the holy and numinous tangible.
Israel was not permitted to portray their God with physical materials. It must have been challenging for some of those Israelites when they had to face an invading army whose god was elevated in shiny splendor for all to see and fear. In the very location in Israel’s Tabernacle or Temple where an idol should have been (according to common Ancient Near Eastern practice) there was absolutely nothing. The ark of the covenant served as a throne of sorts for the presence of God… but nothing chiseled or carved was permitted to sit on it. That holy throne displayed simply the invisibility of YHWH. God made Himself present to His people not through touch-able objects. His primary means of communication were verbal and textual, not visual (though there were certainly visual displays at times). YHWH was revealed primarily by His words… not by His shape, appearance, or His hold-able image:
“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Dt 4:12).
But then the Word became flesh.
My doctoral work has placed me right in the middle of John 1:14a: “καί ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο /and the Word became flesh.” So I am doing a lot of thinking about the Incarnation. What struck me of late is that my gratitude for the Incarnation primarily lies in the wondrous appreciation that at least some folks—at least for a few years—could touch God. They could hear His voice, sometimes up close, sometimes up on a hill, sometimes over a dinner table. There were little kids that sat in His lap, that had His hand placed on their head for a blessing. The Incarnation made God see-able and hear-able: “Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29, 36).
Not carved. Not chiseled. Not a stationary statue fixed within a holy structure. Through the Incarnation, God was loose and at large. One day in Bethany, the other out in Galilee. Sometimes on a boat. Often in a home. That’s right—GOD in someone’s home. GOD holding someone’s kid. GOD serving up supper.
But also: GOD hanging naked on wooden posts.
This is how the Incarnation affects more than just some people over a span of a few years: the Incarnation that made God touchable to little kids who needed a divine hug also made Him touchable for men whose hands could grip like a vise. I did not get to feel the arms of Jesus wrapped around me. But my entire life is drastically changed because His arms were once splayed wide open for the longest afternoon in history.
The Incarnation meant that some could hear His voice—sometimes up close (“today you will be with me in Paradise), sometimes up on a hill (“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani“), sometimes over a dinner table (“Take; this is my body”). The Incarnation made God hear-able, tangible, visible… and therefore also kill-able. The little kids could run up and tug his cloak that He might place His hands of blessing on the tops of their little heads. And soldiers could strip that cloak and then thorn-crown the head of God.
This is from Tertullian:
“Christ… having been sent to die, had necessarily to be also born, that he might be capable of death” (De Carne Christi, ch. vi, 177).
My kids and I missed those precious years when God was living in a village, when He was someone’s neighbor, when He was walking the hills with other pilgrim-families to Jerusalem for the hol(y)days. But we derive daily blessings from this Lord who blessed the heads of other children. This is because He was not just the Lamb of God to be beheld by mortal eyes, but the Lamb of God who was slain by mortal hands for the sins of the world.