St Stephen's Christmas Day 1996

The Perfect Copy of God's nature

"[Jesus] is the perfect copy of God's nature" as the writer "to the Hebrews" said in this morning's second reading.

Or, as we might put it nowadays "Jesus is the photographic likeness of Almighty God.

All of us have used a camera. Many fewer people have any idea of exactly how the photographic process works.

This is a pity, because the more one understands about how something works the more enjoyment one gets from it. That rule applies just as much to knowing about God as it does to knowing about photography.

So here is a 30-second lesson on the four stages of how a photograph comes into being.

The camera lens focuses a small picture or image of the person being photographed onto the film.

The shutter opens for a fraction of a second and changes the silver salts on the film back into pure silver by letting the light shine upon it.

The developer in the studio develops or brings to fulfilment the process begun by the light on the film in the camera

The film is then fixed so that it can't develop any further.

And the result, providing these steps have been properly carried out, is "a perfect miniature likeness" of the original as caught by the eye of the camera when the shutter button was pressed.

Now Christians believe that on the first Christmas day "the Word of God was made flesh and lived among us" and "we beheld his glory... full of grace and truth" in the Person of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary in the days of Herod the King.

If we look at this truth in the light of the four steps in photography which I described earlier, Focusing, Exposing, Developing and Fixing, they can help us to understand the mystery of the Incarnation, the fact that God became Man in Palestine, enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. They can help because they are a parable of what took place on Christmas morning.

Of course we must be careful not to push our parable too far. Any parable if pushed further than it should be will distort the truth rather than making it clearer. But, with that warning in mind let us see how each of those four processes has an aspect of the Incarnation corresponding to itself.

The camera lens focuses the image into a much smaller area of film than the object it is looking at. Jesus is the perfect image of God for "in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" as St Paul tells us. Yet the image of God in Jesus Christ is small enough, condensed enough for our limited minds to be able to imagine, think about and believe in.

One of the purposes of the Incarnation, then, one of the reasons why God chose to become man, was in order to help us get a clearer idea of what God is really like. Although the prophets in former times had each in his own way understood part of the truth about God, so that an intelligent person can get a sort of composite picture, a photofit as it were, by piecing together all that the prophets said, the result is only a partial, rather fuzzy ill-focused view of God.

However, in Jesus Christ that fuzzy, partial, ill-focused view is finally replaced with a view of the person himself, perfectly focused in which we can see the way, the truth and the life which lead us to the Father.

Secondly, the Exposure - the process by which the film in the camera is exposed to the image for a fraction of a second. This helps us to understand that in a fraction of a second, when God became man, the whole relationship between him and his creation changed.

Just as the film in the camera is irreversibly changed by its momentary exposure to the light, so we believe that the grace of God, working upon us and within us has changed us from one kind of being (fallen man) into another (the sons of God) "As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the sons of God.

People sometimes call that process "seeing the light". It's the moment when the shutter opens and the eternal comes into our lives.

However that revelation of God to us is a process, not just something that happens once and then it's all over. The process corresponds to the third process, the development of the film in the studio. What begins with an exposure to the light which is the life of men, a light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness has never overcome, needs to be developed during the rest of our lifetime.

Just as Jesus "increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and men" and didn't remain for ever a baby in a manger, so also God's plan for us is one of continuous development as the process of his revealing himself to us carries on long after the moment when we first "saw the light".

Although in one sense we "know the Lord perfectly" from the moment he enters our lives and we see the light and Jesus was perfect God and perfect man from the moment of his conception, in another sense we find out from experience that the more we develop, the more there is for us to discover about God's will for us. Even Jesus "developed" in his understanding of his Father's will for him.

People like the disciples, like the Virgin Mary, thought they "knew Jesus" as a result of having been with him for a period of time. But, oh dear! how much they discovered they had still to learn in their relationship with him.

Continuous development is the third feature of the Incarnation. but there is also a sense in which the whole thing is a fixture unchanging and unchangeable. Jesus Christ "is the same yesterday, today and for ever". So alongside stage three, development, has to go the process of fixing the photographic image.

How can these two apparently contradictory processes, development and fixing be reconciled with each other?

The short answer is in Christ.

Although our understanding of the truth finally and perfectly revealed by God in Jesus Christ can, and should develop, the truth itself is a fixture: it cannot and does not change.

He remains what he always was, the Second Person of the Trinity, begotten of the Father before all worlds, god from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, of one substance with the Father.

Let us allow St John in his first letter to have the final word in the matter.

Writing to his fellow-christians many years after the birth of Christ he says "Beloved, we are now the sons of God; it does not yet appear what we shall be [in the future] but we know that we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is

In that short passage we have the four steps in the process of salvation laid out for us.

The image is focused : "We shall see him as he is.

The light breaks in, bringing about a critical, irreversible change in our nature making us the Sons of God by adoption and grace. (We are now already sons of God)

The image is developed: "It does not yet appear what we shall be"

The image is fixed: "We know we shall be like him"

For the Jesus into whose likeness and glory we shall have been changed is the one who himself never changes, but who from the beginning was the Word; the Word that was with God; the Word that was God.

"The exact copy of God's nature"

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