To See God

Across the Old Testament, there are various encounters with God of an unusual sort. Moses speaks with God-as-fire in the burning bush. Jacob wrestles with God as an angel/man throughout the night. Abraham entertains God by the oaks of Mamre. Isaiah sees God, “high and lifted up,” and heard the angels singing the thrice-holy hymn. Ezekiel saw the Lord in the midst of the wheels. Daniel has visions of the Lord. Occasionally, the language in these encounters can be quite striking. After Jacob’s wrestling match, we read:

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

This, of course, is something of a puzzle in that the Scriptures say, “No one can see My face and live.” (Ex. 33:20)

These encounters, properly termed, “Theophanies” (appearances of God), were taken up in the early Fathers as revelations of the eternal Logos [Son] of the Father.1 This is particularly mysterious in the pages of the Old Testament. The Incarnation of the Word has yet to take place, and, yet, there are these encounters.

And easy way to get around the conundrum is to say that the encounters are with angels, not God. Perhaps it is an angel who serves as a “stand-in” for God. Another work-around is to suggest that what is being seen (or wrestled with) is some sort of “created effect,” something God has made for the moment to serve as a device of encounter or teaching. Both of these work-arounds would later come to be the standard treatment by Western theologians (particularly from St. Augustine forward). However, it never caught on in the understanding of the Eastern Church.

Instead, what we find among the Eastern Fathers is a consistent understanding that it is Christ Himself who is encountered and seen in these theophanies. He is the “form” of God, the “image” of God, the “Word” of God, the “glory” of God. In all of these ways that God makes Himself known, it is in and through His Logos. As St. John says in his gospel:

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” (Jn 1:18)

This understanding of the Bibilical theophanies can be seen in icons of those events. Quite commonly, we see the central figure of the manifestation identified as Christ. There will be a “nimbus” (halo), with the Cross inscribed within it, and the abbreviations for the name of Christ: IC XC. Additionally, and of greatest importance, we often see the additional letters: O WN. These are the Greek letters for the Divine Name: יהוה  In the Greek translation (LXX) of the Old Testament, when God reveals His name to Moses, He says,Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν” (I am that I am – or I am He who is). In icons of Christ, the O WN (He who is), is generally included, indicating that Christ is identical with that revelation. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9)

Theophany permeates Orthodox Tradition throughout, informing dogmatic theology and its liturgy. That Jesus, Mary’s son, is the very One who appeared to Moses and the prophets – this is the consistent witness of the ante-Nicene Fathers, and remains foundational throughout the fourth century Trinitarian controversies and the later Christological disputes.

– Archbishop Alexander Golitzin

I have written all of the above to bring us to an abiding “theophany” that is present in the life of the Church. The Divine Liturgy is rightly understood as a theophany – an appearance of God (Christ) in our midst. We stand in the place of Moses, and wrestle in the place of Jacob. We gaze with Ezekiel and the fiery wheels with the Son of Man in their midst. We stand with St. John the Theologian and the vast crowds of heaven before the Lamb-slain-from-the-foundation upon the altar with the four beasts and angels surrounding Him.

The Liturgy presents us with a living icon on the one hand, but also with the sacramental reality as well. We not only see the icon of what has been shown to the prophets, but also do what they did not: we eat the flesh of the Son of God and drink His blood. He dwells in us and we in Him.

This is profoundly significant. Our culture has trained people to become an audience. A theater performance, a concert, and a Church service are all of a piece. Worse than this, we are trained to be an audience that expects to be entertained. In the Evangelical world and its missionary theories, a major point of a Church service is “outreach.” Since the point of the gospel (in that understanding) is to make a decision for Christ, everything in the service revolves around that decision. It is possible, of course, to structure the service around some other salutary purpose, including eucharistic gatherings. However, there is something quite unique in the Eastern Church.

One way to think of this is by considering the place of Christ’s face in Orthodox worship. The icon of Christ, either of His face (the Holy Napkin), or as Pantokrator (Teacher with an open gospel), is always in the position of greatest honor on the Iconostasis, just to the right of the Holy Doors. In many Churches, the Pantocrator is seen in the dome, holding a prominent place that overlooks the whole of the Church. The icons do with color what St. Paul expresses in words:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.(2 Corinthians 3:18)

These are not given to us as mere tools of meditation. They are transfiguring images – as we behold Christ [who is the glory of God] we ourselves are transformed into that image…”from glory to glory.”

A significant element of this experience goes to the heart of what is termed an “Orthodox mind.” It is said in the Fathers (St. Basil, for example) that “an icon makes present that which it represents.” To “see” an icon is to behold the presence. This is not an objective encounter, in that the icon is no mere object. Rather, it is “seen” in veneration of the One who is depicted.

The whole of the Liturgy works in this manner. Its prayers speak to God as well as to our hearts. The hymns soften our hearts and direct them towards the theophany that is before us. At the conclusion of the Liturgy, after the priest blesses the people, we sing:

“We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity Who has saved us!”

Earlier in the Liturgy, as the communion vessels are being cleared from the altar, the Deacon (or Priest) prays:

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless one. Your Cross, O Christ, we venerate, and Your holy Resurrection we praise and glorify. For You are our God; apart from You we know no other; we call upon Your name. Come, all faithful, let us venerate the holy Resurrection of Christ; for behold, through the Cross, joy has come to the whole world. Ever blessing the Lord, let us praise His Resurrection; for having endured the Cross for us, He destroyed death by death.

Both the hymn and the prayer begin with the recognition that Something has been seen – a theophany has taken place.

Perhaps the greatest theophanic description in the Scriptures is found in the Revelation of St. John. The whole of his vision (which is described in very great detail) takes place in heaven, before the throne of God. It is the Liturgy. In keeping with the theophanic revelation of God, St. John has this in his final scene:

And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:3-5)

Sounds like Church to me.

Footnotes for this article

  1. I am deeply indebted to Fr. Bogdan Bucur, Assoc. Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for his work in this area, as well as that of Archbishop Alexander Golitzin.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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18 responses to “To See God”

  1. Janine Avatar

    Thank you again, Fr. Stephen.

    I am not by any stretch of the imagination a Greek expert in these things (nor a good grammarian). But as I am given to understand it, the term ὁ ὤν (O WN) is unusual in the sense that it is the verb “to be” but in a nominative (and masculine singular) case. So again we get that always active sense (as we were discussing in the previous post comments), but it’s almost like saying I am “the Be.” YMMV 🙂

  2. Matthew Avatar

    For I once thought what I saw in litugical settings was actually stifling real spiritual experience. Would it be correct to say that the liturgy (in our case the Divine Liturgy) is actually THE experience that God intends his faithful to have rather than some other kind of spiritual experience?

    I cannot articulate it, but I know something is happening when I am in the Divine Liturgy … something that stays with me even after I leave. It is an experience that I have never had, even when I was in very experiential settings. I continue to walk with a thankful heart.

  3. Janine Avatar

    I can’t explain it but I have repeatedly had the experience that, during the liturgy, persons who have hurt me very much come to mind and I can forgive them and/or pray for them. This has happened far too any times to be coincidence. It’s even surprising given my longstanding hurt or angry “normal” feeling before.

  4. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I would answer yes to your question. However as years go by the heart is molded so to speak and as a result the experience matures. And with the grace of God our vision is sharpened. This is not something we will to happen. It is always ever an unexpected (and in my opinion undeserved) gift. The words I’ve heard/read are: ‘further down and further in’. This is in reference to the mind ‘descending’ down into the heart. This is a movement activated by prayer and struggle. It allows the heart and mind to be pliable to the hand of God in a very slow and steady sort of way. For me anyway such movement is imperceptible. Whenever I do see Providence, more often than not, it is in hindsight.

    I can certainly understand your experience after Liturgy. For me it is a deep, calm, (still waters) and quiet experience of joy, plenitude and gratitude. Sometimes it is a deeper understanding of my need of repentance. The Song of Liturgy continues even when the service is done.

  5. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Janine and Dee.

    Dee said:

    “Whenever I do see Providence, more often than not, it is in hindsight.”

    Thank you again.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Church indeed in all and each of the Sacraments. When I am obedient to the Holy Spirit I am humbled and “see” Him and in the Jesus Prayer as well.

    2 Chronicles 7:14
    “If the people which are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

  7. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    “No one has seen God at any time.”

    Maybe the reason this is true is because God is infinite Subject, not an object “out there” to be seen. (God is beyond being.) Seeing God is a paradox like tasting my own tongue. Or seeing my own eyes. It’s impossible, without a mirror. Thank God for the face of Jesus Christ. To see God we have to look into the Mirror. That is, seeing God by divinization. Or, in Eucharistic terms, you are what you eat. 🍞

  8. Anna Avatar

    The heart shall see Him who she loves and desires and she shall ‘know’ Him in Love.
    Thank you Father !

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’m leery of “infinite subject.” I suppose I’m just not that philosophical. He transcends “subject” and “infinite” as much as He transcends “object.” The God who cannot be known, made Himself known in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. There are numerous ways of thinking about it/experiencing it. First, God wants to be known – but the knowing is a salvation for us – not informational.

    He gives Himself to us in almost every way: in creation, in Scripture, in the sacraments, etc. It’s all dimly in a mirror at present. I rejoice in the Liturgy and the theophany that is given to us there. Everything is the Liturgy – that’s also important.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  10. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    “…the knowing is a salvation for us – not informational.”

    Amen, Father.

  11. Brandi Avatar

    This is beautiful, Father, and so helpful. I wish everyone would read it because it absolutely transforms (yet again, thank you) our understanding of the Divine Liturgy. If everyone understood what you just wrote, and took it to heart, we would all run to church to “see” God.

    “Get thee to a Liturgy!” 😬

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I agree. Such beauty, and the beautiful way Father Stephen describes it, invokes our hearts and souls to come and see our Lord, Jesus Christ, as each one can endure. Let us come to taste, touch, kiss, bless, hear, and sing praise to the Lord.

  13. Matthew Avatar

    Dee and Brandi:

    I am just beginning to experience the beauty. Thank you both.

  14. Matthew Avatar

    I only wish the Greek Orthodox Church that I attend and visit had more Saturday morning Divine Liturgies. This month there are only two. 🙁

  15. juliania Avatar

    Thank you so much, Father Stephen.
    Indeed, it does so sound!
    Approaching Lent, I returned to your words about Christ’s question on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” which uncovered Psalm 22 and answered a question I long had had about Christ’s words, since you sent me back to the Psalm itself.
    This sends me again to the Book of Revelation. My grandmother (who raised me) told me as a child that to read it was a blessing. She wasn’t Orthodox, but she was part native, New Zealand maori.

    How truly wonderful. I am deeply indebted to you!

  16. Max Avatar

    A prayer of St. Patrick

    “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
    Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
    Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
    Christ in lying down, Christ in sitting, Christ in rising up.
    Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
    Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
    Christ in every eye that sees me,
    Christ in every ear that hears me.

    I bind unto myself today the mighty power in calling upon the Trinity, the Faith of the Trinity in Unity, the Maker of the Universe.

    Salvation is of the Lord;
    Salvation is of Christ.
    May your salvation, O Lord, be with us forever.

    “For if ye had believed Moses, ye would also have believed Me; for he wrote of Me;“(John 5:46) [saying this,] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving to him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another; inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgment upon the Sodomites; and again, when He becomes visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush. And it would be endless to recount [the occasions] upon which the Son of God is shown forth by Moses. Of the day of His passion, too, he was not ignorant; but foretold Him, after a figurative manner, by the name given to the passover; and at that very festival, which had been proclaimed such a long time previously by Moses, did our Lord suffer, thus fulfilling the passover.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5535-41)

  17. Christopher Avatar

    Beautiful! My sponsor on my journey into the Church recommend this blog to me. Keep writing!

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Since I was 18 and my mother sat me down and said: “Son, God is real and you need to find Him!”

    From that moment 58 years ago I have looked for a person.

    When I first walked into an Orthodox parish 36 years ago, I encountered that person and His Mother in the icon behind the Altar.

    Once I recognized Him and was welcomed by Him, sinner though I am, I knew I was home.

    In His Grace and Mercy, He keeps reminding me He is a Person to encounter and begin to know, not I idea to be played with intellectually.

    As a Person, He leads us into some amazing places in our lives and in our hearts that are unimaginable as mere “ideas”.

    Good theology is a careful description of the Person: Incarnate, Crucified, Buried, Resurrected and Ascended.

    Even in deep sin, I never quite forget that He is a Person. A Person who, inexplicably, loves me in ways that humble me when I let Him.

    Soon my wife and I will gather with our parish family to celebrate His Mercy and partake of His Body and Blood. Really His Body and Blood!

    He gives so much despite my unfaithfulness and sinfulness.

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  1. My last comment begs the question of how the story of Christ in Holy Scripture relates to our personal experience…

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