“We Shall See Him”
Having moved recently to North Carolina, it was time for me to get a North Carolina driver’s license. It was an arduous process; finally, on my third trip to the license center, I had all the appropriate paperwork. Only one obstacle remained: the vision test.
I have terrible vision. I’ve worn glasses since I was in kindergarten, but with glasses my vision is perfect. So I easily glided through the first part of the vision test:
C G H D E J F K L P D R
Got that. Then, the road signs:
Easy. Keep right.
Got this. No U-turns. Next:
I have seen it before, hundreds of times. But I had no idea what it meant. And again:
These darn yellow signs.
In North Carolina, like many other states, you’re expected to know these signs just by their shape, regardless of the words.
This got me thinking about how I look at things. I was expected to be recognize these signs by their shapes; their meanings lay not in the X, not in the RR. The color and shape gave dim figurations of meaning.
More than half of our New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul, an apostle who never really “saw” Jesus in the way the other apostles did: in the flesh. Yet when we read the accounts of those who actually did sojourn with Our Lord on this earth, I don’t get the impression of the road sign; “5 feet, 5 inches, dark hair, blue eyes.” We don’t have much to go on about what Jesus actually looked like.
Reading the epistles of John the Theologian, I realize how important seeing is for him. But it’s not seeing in the sense of physical description. It’s seeing in the sense of icons. With those road signs, the mere shape and color designates the meaning. In John’s writings, the fact that Jesus is both God and man gives us the color and shape. But he never fills in the interior: “hairy arms, bushy eyebrows…”
Our eyes, actually, tend to lead us in the wrong direction. “[E]verything there is in the world—disordered bodily desires, disordered desires of the eyes, pride in possession—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world, with all its disordered desires, is passing away.” (1 John 2:16–17, New Jerusalem Bible).
We can see, though, with clear eyes, when we recognize God’s work in this world. “You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children—which is what we are!” (1 John 3:1) And coming to know God—coming to read his signs, and be able to see him without seeing the interior of the sign—means seeing him: “We are well aware that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.” (1 John 3:2)
St John makes the point again: “No one has ever seen God, but as long as we love each other, God remains in us and his love comes to its perfection in us.” (1 John 4:12) Effectively, I think, St John is painting an icon here. St John, so often covering his eyes in the depiction of the Transfiguration, and so often covering his mouth in his own icon.
And yet, through his words, he gives us an icon of what he saw. But St John did not see “flesh and bones,” he did not need to look into the interior of that sign; he gives us its meaning.
So why is St John, the beloved disciple, an eyewitness of the Lord, the last to write an account of the gospel, so reticent to show us a movie? A play-by-play of Jesus’ life? Why is he so cryptic and allusive, chiastic and literary in his structure and so intent on claiming his own vision of the Lord?
Or, posed another way: if Saint John the theologian had had an iPhone, would he have used it? Videos provide such reassuring visual proof and sedulous veracity to the facts. We’re obsessed with them now—the typical consumer can now purchase a dash cam for his car to support his side in any accident; YouTube nets about $1.5 billion dollars a year, and we all know how much we love watching crazy but true events caught on camera.
So why doesn’t St John give us a video? Why is he so evasive and elusive? Sometimes we just want a movie, like Jesus Christ Superstar. Or Mel Gibson, or Franco Zeffirelli, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Martin Scorcese? Jesus obviously makes good fodder for Hollywood, but St John’s language and narrative is more poetic and literary than filmic and life-like.
In the end, St John leaves us with a seemingly scattered, impressionistic view. He’s painting an icon and not filming with his iPhone. Our “disordered desires of the eyes” want that assurance, the knowledge of how Jesus appeared on this earth. But the reality is that St John never saw Jesus Christ as God while on this earth. After Jesus dies and is risen—after Jesus reveals the power and mercy of God—St John can see Jesus as God; and then those interior signifiers, like his face and diet and manner of speech, become insignificant. “We shall see him as he really is.” St John can’t really give us more information than that, because when we get there, we’ll look just like him.