And above the firmament over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. And upward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were gleaming bronze, like the appearance of fire enclosed round about; and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. (Ezek 1:26-28)
A figure of a human being who is the glory of the LORD. Who else can this figure be but the LORD himself—the same LORD who appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exod 3), the same who permitted Moses to see the backside of his glory (Exod 33). Yet here he appears in human form, brilliantly shining in the divine splendor. It seems a bit odd, given the emphatic biblical insistence upon the radical difference between Creator and creatures; yet anthropic theophany, while unusual, is not unknown. In the Book of Daniel, for example, God images himself as the Ancient of Days:
His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. (7:9-10)
Daniel’s vision raises interesting questions, particularly with reference to the Ancient of Days, to which we will return below. The question before us now is: who is the figure in Ezekiel’s vision? Robert W. Jenson gives a straightforward (some might say too straightforward) answer: he is Jesus of Nazareth! Yes, you heard me right. Ezekiel, declares Jenson, was visited by a man who would not be born for another 600 years. How this can be is the explanatory task of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Jenson’s begins his theological exegesis with a discussion of “glory” (kabod):
Ezekiel’s concept of “the glory of the Lord” (כבוד־יהוה, kabod yhwh) is specific to him and central to his discourse. In biblical Hebrew, kabod is initially “weight,” in both literal and metaphorical uses. Taken metaphorically of persons, it has much the same meaning as “weight” does in some English uses, as in “he carries a lot of weight in the group,” or indeed as English “glory” itself does in “he deserved all the glory.” A person’s kabod is the intrinsic demand for honor that his or her personal presence makes. The presence of the Lord is then infinite kabod. (Ezekiel, p. 42)
When the holy Transcendence reveals himself to human beings, what form might he take? Weight melds with light: “In Ezekiel and the tradition in which he stands, advents of the Lord occur as light theophanies, displays of godhead in brilliant color, in fire and lightning” (p. 42). The divine presence is expressed in brilliant luminance. We may think of the impact upon us when suddenly confronted with a blinding light. We feel its blazing weight and are forced to close our eyes or turn away. Recall the LORD‘s response to Moses’ request to see his glory: “But you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exod 33:20). Pure divinity is too bright, too shattering, too overwhelming for human beings to safely perceive. For our sake it must be mediated. Jenson elaborates:
For the glory of the Lord to be present in the temple or at Chebar is, therefore, for the Lord to be there himself. But it simultaneously holds that his presence must be somehow mediated; it remains that no one can directly encounter naked deity and live (Exod. 33:20). It follows from these two propositions together that God can be present only by a mediator of his presence and that this mediator must nevertheless be the same God that he is. We have already seen that God both is himself present in the temple and is there as the glory of God. (p. 42)
The ineffable God reveals himself in his glory. The genitive is crucial: the divine glory does not exist as an accidental property; it is the glory of the LORD, distinct from him and yet somehow identical to him. The same grammatical construction holds with other divine realities: “the angel of the LORD, the name of the LORD, the Word of the LORD. They are related to God and yet inseparable from his being. Jenson explains: “The glory of the Lord—and the angel and so on—are the Lord as himself a persona within a narrative of which he is simultaneously the author” (p. 306). Jewish exegesis would later come to identify this glory with the Shekinah, the divine presence. Christian exegesis, however, requires a further move: namely, the identification of the mediating other as God’s only begotten Son:
The doctrine of the Trinity brings these phenomena to conceptual statement: for God to be present, in the temple or elsewhere, is for him to be present as an other than he—remember always the genitive in “glory of the Lord”—yet as an other that is the same God that he is. In the terminology of developed trinitarian theology, for God to be present anywhere—even to himself—is for him to be a second “person” of himself. In the temple or by Chebar or in St. Thomas Church on a Sunday, or even at the place he is for himself, God is there for us—and for himself—as a second identity of the same one God. So far the general teaching of the church fathers. Thus the appearance over the throne can be none other than this “God the Son,” the second person of God. (p. 42)
Ezekiel sees Jesus? Yes, exactly. Of course, the prophet is incapable of recognizing the human figure as Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus has not yet been born—but if we think that this poses a problem for the risen Christ, then we understand neither divine eternity (which of course we don’t) nor Pascha (only a little). But the Church Fathers, as well as iconographers and ancient hymnodists, knew differently. As St Gregory the Great writes in his commentary on Ezekiel:
We should observe how the order is maintained: above the living beings is the firmament, above the firmament is the throne, and above the throne a man is delineated. For above holy men still living in … the body are the angels, and above the angels are superior angelic powers closer to God, and above the powers is … the man Christ Jesus.” (p. 43; also see “The Real Presence of the Son Before Christ”)
Two dogmatic claims underlie Gregory’s identification of the theophanic man with the Nazarene (p. 43):
- “The second person of the Trinity is the perfect and complex word and image of God and is just so identical in deity with the Father.”
- “God the Son and Jesus of Nazareth are but one ‘hypostasis.’”
Unpacking the two propositions is beyond the scope of this article. The key is to think them together, remembering that the Church’s Trinitarian dialectics are always about the man Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised from death on the third day and exalted to the right hand of the Father, not some abstract metaphysical entity. Jesus Christ is both Word and Image of the Father. In him the Father has spoken such a perfect Word that “any difference in being between speaker and speech—ineluctable with creatures—disappears”; in him, the Father has so perfectly mirrored himself “that there is nothing to his [i.e., the Son’s] being but the Father he reflects” (p. 43). In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb 1:3). We are thus driven to the theological conclusion and exegetical rule: “Therefore the person who speaks or shows himself in any theophany of the Old Testament must be this God the Son, God the word, God the second person of God” (p. 42).
Yet we still wonder: How can the figure in Ezekiel’s vision be Jesus of Nazareth? Here Jenson takes a surprising Byzantine turn. He invokes the transfiguration of Christ and asks whether the glory the disciples beheld was created or uncreated:
There is another biblical scene of a human figure shining with divine glory; and on this occasion the figure is straightforwardly identified as a man, and indeed as Jesus (Mark 9:2–8 and parallels). On the mountain of transfiguration the disciples are in decisive ways in the position of Ezekiel: under extreme circumstances they see the figure of a man shining with God’s glory. The difference is that the disciples know this man from before, so that identification as this man and so as truly a man is not problematic.
To be sure, Western theology has tended to domesticate the scene by denying that the glory with which the transfigured Jesus shone was God’s own glory, the divine kabod. It was, Western theologians have argued, a “created” light, that is, a radiance of the human body in its proper human perfection, a beauty that is enabled only by God’s grace but that nevertheless fulfills a possibility of our created nature. Eastern theology, however, has steadfastly maintained that the “Tabor light” was “uncreated,” that this human’s brilliance on the mountain was the very glory of Christ’s divinity, permanently beyond created possibilities, yet really “communicated” to the creature Jesus. In my judgment, the Easterners are in the biblical right of it. (p. 44)
Just as the divine figure of Ezekiel’s vision radiates the divine glory, so does Jesus on Mount Tabor. Jesus reveals to his disciples who he truly is and will be in his glorification—the incarnate Son of God. We might call it a resurrection appearance ahead of time, or as Jenson puts it: “the figure of Jesus on the mountain anticipates his own future as the risen and glorified one” (p. 44). In this respect the Transfiguration differs from the Ezekelian theophany. But let’s conjecture with Jenson a bit further. Might we not think of the theophany as an eschatological preview and “visionary anticipation of the waking anticipation on Tabor” (p. 45)?
I promised a brief comment on the theophany given to Daniel. Who is the Ancient of Days? Several of the earliest patristic witnesses identify the Ancient of Days as God the Father. Hippolytus, for example, states that for Daniel the figure is “nothing more than the Lord, God and Master of All, the Father of Christ himself” (quoted by Gretchen McKay, “Daniel’s Vision of the Ancient of Days,” p. 141). This reading makes good typological sense, given the appearance of the “son of man” in Dan 7:7: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” The identification of the son of man with Christ is made explicit in Rev 14:14: “Then I looked, and lo, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand.” Thus interpreted, the Ancient of Days became the basis for representations of God the Father in 2nd millennium New Testament Trinity icons. In the post-Nicene Church, on the other hand, writers began to identify the Ancient of Days as Christ himself. St John of Damascus comments: “Daniel saw a type and image of what was to be in the future, that is, the invisible Son and Word of God was to become truly man so He could be united with our nature” (On Divine Images 3.26). This identification became normative in the hymnographical traditon (see Bogdan Bucur, “The Son of Man and the Ancient of Days”). St Romanos the Melodist’s 2nd Kontakion for the Feast of Theophany is particularly illuminating:
Let us all raise our eyes to God in heaven, as we cry like Jeremiah: The One who appeared on earth, this is our God, who also willingly lived among men (cf. Bar 3:38), and underwent no change, who showed himself in different shapes to the prophets, whom Ezekiel contemplated like the form of a man on the fiery chariot, and Daniel as a son of man and ancient of days, proclaiming the ancient and the young to be one Lord: The One who appeared and enlightened all things.
“According to Romanos, then,” Bucur writes, “Daniel 7 proclaims one Lord—specifically, the one-who-would-be-incarnate, Jesus Christ—simultaneously young and old, son of man and ancient of days: ἀνθρώπου ὑιὸν καὶ παλαιὸν ἡμερῶν, τὸν ἀρχαῖον καὶ νέον ἕνα Κύριον” (p. 12). The Christological identification generated the Ancient of Days icons, such as the above-left icon from St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai (7th c.).
In the spirit of Jenson, I raise a point of clarification. From Ezekiel’s standpoint and perspective in historical time, the Word had not yet become flesh—hence it is meaningful to refer to him as “one-who-would-be-incarnate”—but from the perspective of atemporal Divinity, the Word is eternally enfleshed as Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation, we might say, is an atemporal fact. Christian faith has no interest in a logos asarkos, and this is true whether divine eternity is construed apophatically or eschatologically. The risen and glorified Jesus of Nazareth is the revelatory subject of the Old Testament theophanies. Every theophany is Christophany.