And it was good.
And it was good.
And it was very good.
There are still four more instances of that declaration of goodness in the first account of God’s creation of the world in Genesis, and many Christians heard all seven of them this past weekend when we celebrated Trinity Sunday.
What does it mean to call something “good”? What makes something “good” and how can we discern when it is? And why would it matter so much to repeat this refrain of goodness so often in the story of creation?
I’m guessing that human beings have not changed so terribly much over the last few thousand years. Just like today, humans in the ancient Mediterranean world likely thought something was “good” when it was good for them; something’s good when we can use it, or sell it, or trade it for something else; we become the standard for what’s considered “good.” I cannot help but think of how often I called my dear dog Judah a good boy simply because he obeyed me!
So perhaps it’s time to notice again (or for the first time) that all but one of the declarations of goodness in the first chapter of Genesis occur before humans even existed. Six out of seven times, God’s creation is declared good without any reference to human beings.
The whole creation itself is thoroughly good—whether it’s useful to us or not.
Well, that’s rather rude, isn’t it? Don’t we count for anything? Yes, we do, and much more so than most of us have dared to imagine—and sometimes more than we want to believe. To be described as “very good”—as humans were in that story—comes with some responsibilities.
John of Damascus, a monk and theologian of the seventh century, was embroiled in what came to be known as the “iconoclast controversy.” This was a vigorous debate about whether it is appropriate to have icons, or visual images, in churches.
John was an ardent supporter of icons and actually cited a familiar verse from Genesis to support his case: “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image…”
John would have been reading the Greek version of that passage, and in Greek that phrase—“in the image of God”—reads as the icon of God.
The human face as an icon of God! Shouldn’t this take our breath away? My face, and your face, and every single human face we see, all of them, icons of the God who made us!
And so, John of Damascus says, if you degrade and denigrate and reject visual images, you offend the artist—and in this case, the artist is God.
I think a lot these days about the visual arts, living and working as I do on what many call the “arts coast” of Michigan. We Christians actually have a lot to say and to offer, from our own Christian traditions, about the importance of visual images, the spiritual depth of art as it connects us to Creator God, the very source of creativity itself.
We might also note, rather urgently, that the stakes are rather high in this shared artistic endeavor with God. John of Damascus goes on to note something else about that familiar passage in Genesis. We are created not only in the image but also the likeness of God.
Those are not the same words; in fact, in Greek the word “likeness” is not a noun but a process, not a state of being but a state of becoming.
We are created in God’s image, yes, but we’re still on the way toward God’s likeness.
To be human is to be engaged in a profound process of assimilating to God, of resembling the One who made us, of being constantly formed and transformed into the divine creatures God intended to make from the very beginning.
The choices we make in this life shape the course of that journey; that’s why the stakes are so high, and that’s why visual artists can help us.
Visual artists can help us see at least a bit more clearly the imprint of God not only in our own faces, but also in the faces of those who are different from us, even different species, and in Earth herself. And by seeing more clearly the presence of God all around us and among us and in us and in each other, hopefully we will act and live differently.
As we launch into June, LGBTQ Pride Month, we need to see just exactly how high the stakes are for the varieties of gendered sexualities in the human race. Beyond the usual platitudes—“love is love” or “we embrace diversity”—we need to see much more clearly that those who do not conform to the standards of White Patriarchy are increasingly at risk of serious physical harm, especially with easily accessible firearms.
This risk pertains no matter where we happen to live or work or play in this country, from shopping malls and suburban streets, to national parks and urban office buildings—and this risk continues for black and brown people, just as it always has been present for women.
And still, it was good.
Everything depends on the goodness of God’s creation, and therefore on the goodness of God—a divine goodness in which we are invited to participate ever more fully.
That’s a key word—participation—for a celebration of the Trinitarian character of God. Rather than some abstract metaphysical doctrine, affirming God as Trinity is meant to draw us ever deeper into the never-ending mystery of God’s own life of self-giving, reciprocal love.
Returning to John of Damascus for a moment, he used a mostly untranslatable Greek word to describe this Trinitarian mystery of God—the word is perichoresis.
Some scholars have noted that there is at least a trace of our word “choreography” in that Greek term. John apparently was inviting us to think about the Trinitarian relationships of God like a cosmic dance—and if you’ve ever been swept away by the alluring rhythms of a tango or the gracefulness of a waltz, the energy often spills off the dancefloor and you can feel it pulsating across your skin, rumbling in your muscles, your heartrate rising.
And that, John of Damascus said, is how God creates. The creative energy and fertile relationality of God’s own life just spills over, as it were, and the whole Universe comes into existence—the whole cosmos itself as an unimaginable dance of evolving, changing, glorious life.
That mutual and eternal exchange of divine energy among the divine persons makes it impossible to tell the dancers from the dance and the dance itself is endless, deathless love—that’s the Holy Trinity, a doctrine that could actually change the world!
The very source of creativity itself is swirling all around us and in us and among us—our very faces the ikons of Creator God as we journey into God’s own likeness, from one degree of glory to another—world without end!
Now…let’s live as if this were true.