I’m finally getting around to watching some of the presentations at the Theological Symposium at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis from last year. (Videos can be found at: https://scholar.csl.edu/theo/2021/Sessions/ ) A presentation given by John Hendrix, professor at Washington University, discussed how art helps to both reveal and conceal meaning. Sometimes art makes a concept fuzzier and more mysterious. Sometimes art makes a difficult concept easier to grasp. Sometimes it does a bit of both.
His main point was that the visual arts can provide windows into the meaning intended by the spoken/written word, especially the Word of God. Looking at the wealth of religious art crafted down through the centuries, it’s easy to see how a picture can help someone grasp the depth of a passage from Scripture that might not be immediately apparent just by hearing it.
Looking at God Himself, we can see how this plays out in Biblical history. God speaks over and over again to all manner of people. He sends His prophets out with messages for the nations. For the most part, the prophets share those spoken messages with the intended hearers, but, on occasion, they do more than that. Sometimes those verbal messages are accompanied by something visual, whether that’s something miraculous, as we often see with prophets such as Moses and Elijah, or something more like an object lesson, as we see with Ezekiel. In either case, the recipients are given a visual representation of the spoken message which is intended to help them comprehend what the message means and why it has been given.
Though the prophets do not always carry a visual with them, there is one place where a visual always accompanies the spoken word: God’s gracious presence. God speaks throughout Scripture. He speaks to prophets, kings, and common folk alike. He speaks to His covenant people and to those who have made themselves His enemies. However, when God is present, when He is there among His people to grant His grace, there is always a visual element.
God walks in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve know who He is when they hide in the bushes because they’ve seen Him before. God makes His presence known to Moses in the burning bush. He is then visible to the rest of the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire and then later on Mt. Sinai in the fire and smoke. A more permanent visual is then given to them in the cloud of His glory that rests in the Holy of Holies. This continues through the days of the tabernacle to the days of the temple until the Israelites finally push God out of His house.
But, God’s visuals don’t end there. Jesus is God. Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word made visual. Jesus is the embodied message of the Father’s love for His people, a message that is not just heard, but seen. Simeon’s words from Luke 2 come out again, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” A salvation that is seen. Salvation that is revealed. Jesus is a message of love and grace that has become enfleshed and so becomes visible to the world.
Though Christ has ascended, the visual that accompanies God’s presence is still here. Where the waters of baptism are, and where the bread and wine of Communion are, there God is also. The early church described the sacraments as the “Sacred Mysteries.” How and why God chose to work through these means is something we can only speculate. Nevertheless, in these sacraments, God reveals His grace. The message is given a visible element which we must interact with and engage and, in so doing, we learn more about what He is doing through it. That makes the physical elements of the sacrament essential for us. They help us break through the shroud of mystery and understand God in a whole new way. Jesus Christ is the Word made visual and He is still made visual among us today that we might continue to learn both by sight and by hearing.