GOD FROM GOD
by Melanie Bettinelli
Here I am stuck with this phrase I didn’t choose. No one chose it. Poor little orphan. No one chose it. I wonder why! And so I must step in and find the words. Some words—any words—to fill the gap. I’m flailing and I know it. Stop. Breathe. Pray. Ask that the words will come.
I’m reading this book of poems on Rembrandt’s religious paintings, Drawn to the Light by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. As I turn to the image of Christ on the Cross (1631) I find these words:
Fully human, fully God.
The one claim is clear enough,
the other so at odds with this
tortured image of defeat, only faith
could possibly consent.
Only faith could possibly consent.
God from God. Deum de Deo.
I am no historian or theologian to rehearse how these words are here to combat the Arian heresy—those people long ago who could not consent, who could not possibly fathom that this man was God. I’m just a tinkerer with words.
But I do recognize in them a sort of fence, limiting what we can know an not know. Words that create a boundary, saying that He was somehow not God is going too far. Stop. Wait. We may be confronted with mystery as we contemplate the person of Christ and the nature of the incarnation and the nature of the Trinity, but this is where the line holds. We can say this but not that.
Three little words. Why are they so overwhelming? One noun, repeated, and a preposition.
I can look at them in the negative sense, outlining what we can and can’t say about God. But I want something more. Not just a way to distinguish between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. I want to understand what the words mean. What do they tell me about God? How do they help me to approach him? To know him?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” I have always loved the beginning of John’s Gospel. Perhaps my favorite line in all of Scripture.
The Word was with God. The Word was God. Can you grasp that? Can I? Can anyone? “With” implies separateness, two of them together but different. But “was” implies identity, the two are the same. I can’t wrap my mind around it.
No wonder there are heretics in every generation. Those who claim that this man, Jesus, was a wise man, a teacher, a leader, a moralist. Or a charlatan, a fool, a madman, a rebel. Anything but God. How could a man be God?
God from God.
I can’t help but think of Mary. In this Advent season you can’t avoid that song, Mary did you know? It’s a terrible song. (I’m sorry if it’s your favorite and you love it; but it’s still a terrible song.) But now I am in my thirty-seventh week of pregnancy, almost at the end, contemplating my latest ultrasound photo, contemplating the face of the child I will meet in two short weeks, wondering what she will be like. The mystery that persists despite far too many ultrasounds. Now I can’t help but think of Mary and I can’t help but wondering what she knew and what she speculated about.
Mary pregnant. Mary wondering on that long journey from Nazareth to visit her cousin Elizabeth, wondering who was this person she carried whose arrival was announced by the angel’s words. Mary on the long journey back home after hearing Elizabeth’s amazing greeting and after witnessing an amazing, miraculous birth that had also been announced by an angel. What did she ponder in her heart?
Mary, on another long journey to the town of Bethlehem, pondering, pondering the words of the angel, the words of her cousin as the weary miles trudge by. Who is this baby? Did she know? Could she grasp that he was God? I’ve heard people say, “Of course she did. The angel told her.” But I think one could spend a lifetime pondering the angel’s words and never reach the bottom. How much of how we read them is tempered by what the Church has spent two thousand years working out? It took a Church council to hammer out these words of the Creed so that we could properly understand what it was the angel’s greeting meant. What did they sound like to that young woman who was overwhelmed by the glory of the messenger and the immensity of the message? What did she know?
God from God.
Did she really grasp, that pregnant young woman who felt God kicking at her ribs, did she really know that he was God? The same God who she worshipped in the Temple, whose glory was hidden behind the veil? The same God who created the stars and the sun and the moon and the world and all it holds. How could that God be contained within her? How could his glory be veiled in her own solid, tired, aching flesh?
And if she was able to grasp it, full of grace as she was, if her intellect unclouded by sin was able to accurately understand the fullness of those words, the fullness of that truth, then how could she go about the daily tasks of baking bread, cleaning the house, cooking dinner, mending clothes, while knowing that God himself was there with her?
God from God.
And then my wandering mind turns to John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. He must have know Jesus growing up. After all, Mary had traveled to attend his birth. When he announced, “I am not fit to fasten the strap of his sandal,” did he know that the man he referred to, the one whose coming he announced was also his God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob?
God from God.
I can’t begin to comprehend what those words mean. That God can look upon God, contemplate the face of God, pour out his love and his life, his very being to beget a Son who is also, somehow, God.
In the Office of Readings this week Isaiah proclaims the oneness of God:
“I am the Lord and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.”
And Jesus says, “The Father and I are one”
These words scramble to reconcile the oneness of God with the otherness of the Son, the person who became man and who dwelt among us.
When I try to break apart this section of the Creed it seems so repetitive, so many ways of trying to say the same impossible thing in words that won’t quite hold the meaning we are trying to force into them because no words can quite hold the vastness they are trying to convey:
the Only Begotten Son of God
born of the Father before all ages
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
consubstantial with the Father
It helps me to think that this section, this litany about the Second Person of the Trinity, is poetry not prose. The repetition, the rhythm, reaches past what the mind can grasp, what we can dissect and define and into the realm of mystery. There is something here that we can’t put into plain English (or plain Latin or Greek or French or whatever language you want to try to translate it into) because it is so far beyond us that words are inadequate. And so as with all poetry, at some point I stop struggling with the meaning, stop trying to throw my own inadequate words at it as if more and more of them would do anything to make it less mysterious and just let the words be: God from God.
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “God from God”?
Melanie Bettinelli is a very tired, very pregnant mother of four little ones who begs pardon if her words fail to make any sense at all.
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.