In faithfully obeying the will of His Father and loving His neighbor with self-giving love, Jesus not only showed the goodness of cultural activity and artifacts (e.g., the woodshop of Nazareth), He also subverted the evil that animates human culture, transforming the ultimate instrument of violence and brutality (the cross) into the ultimate icon of peace.
Category: Incarnation and Embodiment
The Incarnation of the Son of God affirmed at once the goodness of all things human, and that everything human is fallen and needs to be redeemed.
“Too often we try to define the essence of Christianity by a summary of doctrines. We turn to texts and to theologians in order to discern the ideas and beliefs that are distinctive to Christianity. That’s akin to thinking one can understand Hamlet just by reading the script; but it is only properly a play when it is performed, and there is a kind of understanding of Hamlet that comes from its performance that cannot be found just in the script.” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p. 134)
“Now it is no accident that for us the Virgin birth is paralleled by the miracle of which the Easter witness speaks, the miracle of the empty tomb. These two miracles belong together. They constitute, as it were, a single sign, the special function of which, compared with other signs and wonders of the New Testament witness, is to describe and mark out the existence of Jesus Christ, amid the many other existences in human history, as that human historical existence in which God is Himself, God is alone, God is directly the Subject, the temporal reality of which is not only called forth, created, conditioned and supported by the eternal reality of God, but is identical with it. The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself. Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. And marked off in regard to its goal: it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. It is to that mystery that these limits point – he who ignores them or wishes them away must see to it that he is not thinking of something quite different from this.” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.182)
It is not busyness that eats the life out of the soul, if busyness means simply having lots to do. To be human is to have lots to do. What wears down the inner life is the impossibility of sustained concentration in a world where everything under the sun is relentlessly, rapidly, even simultaneously presented to the senses with demand for some kind of response, though no response is expected. It’s the bewildering fragmentation that accompanies unlimited access to everything. It’s the barrenness that results when one’s most significant contact, quantitatively speaking, is with virtual reality, insulated from the solid pleasures and stubborn challenges of pre-virtual reality: back porch conversation, rainstorms, weeds, machinery parts, street beggars, and handheld musical instruments. It is the lethargy, the listlessness that breeds when all is instant (or trying to be), when one has forgotten how to be deliberate, and to write in pencil. It’s not busyness that eats away the soul; it’s the acid of catered sovereignty, of dwindling finitude.
“But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.” (Tolkien, “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”)
I have been doing theology long enough now to have felt, quite powerfully, what might be called “the theological itch.” In its wholesome expression, this itch is simply the call of wonder: there is always more – much more – to know about God, His Word, and His works, and we His admirers can’t get enough. We long for new insight into His character and His ways with men, and so our theology is never at rest, even at its most satisfied and contented. But what I have in mind when I speak of this “itch” is actually something quite unwholesome. It is the impulse of an intellect that needs novelty to stave off boredom; that is always daydreaming in order to survive the quotidian; that regards the known as conquered territory and lusts imperially for the as-yet-unknown. There is a cure for this itch, but it is not to be always expanding the boundaries of knowledge (right and good as that may be in its place). It is rather to live, to embody, to practice what one has seen and heard and learned. Take prayer, for instance. One may know a great deal about prayer, what it is, and how God would have us pray. But if a man becomes bored in learning about prayer – begins to think within himself, “I know this already” – then he had better start praying at once, or all his learning will be for the worse, not the better. What is needed to ignite the study of prayer is not information but (if we may put it thus) incarnation. What is needed is not experimentation in the mind but enactment in the flesh. God Himself may become a tiresome object of study, if learning does not issue in worship, contrition, rejoicing, and obedience. The Logos must take flesh.
This, I think, is one of the blessed fruits of the doctrine of the Incarnation: it reminds us that even as we will for all eternity lose ourselves in the ocean of the knowledge of God, this knowledge is not simply a surface, without length or breadth, over which we may row our tiny barks and never reach shore; it is also a bottomless depth, and we may precisely where we stand sink ourselves in fathoms of glory by embracing and enjoying and enacting what we have already received. There is a call to press on to know the Lord, but the call is not only to go onward, but also to go deeper. Lost in the mysteries of the universe and the universe’s God, we may sit down and feast on bread and wine from His hands. Lost in the wonder of His covenant, we may cradle a child in our arms and teach him or her the wisdom of God. Blinded by the glory of the Three-in-One, we may love one another as He has loved us, bending down and washing grimy feet. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word took form, took shape, took a body in time and space; and if our theology cannot do the same, than it is not according to Christ – and it will wander in darkness. It is time to put down our books and pens and notebooks, and eat the Christmas feast. And may our God bless us, every one.
by C. S. Lewis
Walking to-day by a cottage I shed tears
When I remembered how once I had walked there
With my friends who are mortal and dead. Years
Little had healed the wound that was laid bare.
Out little spear that stabs! I, fool, believed
I had outgrown the local, unique sting,
I had transmuted wholly (I was deceived)
Into Love universal the lov’d thing.
But Thou, Lord, surely knewest thine own plan
When the angelic indifferencies with no bar
Universally loved, but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular,
Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit’s sweet water into astringent soul,
That we, though small, might quiver with Fire’s same
Substantial form as Thou – not reflect merely
Like lunar angels back to Thee cold flame.
Gods are we, Thou hast said; and we pay dearly.
“There is no failure of correspondence between how Christ appears and the truth he reveals: he is not an impalpable and unworldly redeemer, a ladder for souls, rising up out of the quagmires of flesh and time, but the Lord who saves precisely because he can be grasped, precisely because of his concrete particularity, his real and appearing beauty, which draws others on into history, into the contingencies and particularities of time, into the concrete community of the church. He embodies a real and imitable practice, a style of being that conforms to the beauty of divine love, but that is also a way of worldly godliness; he is no beautiful soul.” (David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 320)
I finished reading Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World last night. In the context of various other things I am reading, it was a bombshell on the playground of my mental life. Some thoughts now running about vigorously in my head (I would not want to blame poor Schmemann for all of these):
First, this work is probably the most helpful thing I’ve ever read on the “sacramentality” of the world. I’ve been mildly obsessed lately with how “heaven” intersects with “earth,” with how we may articulate the relationship between the world above and the world below in a way that is not dualistic. According to Schmemann (it is always perilous to paraphrase something as brilliant as his work), religion emphasizes the world above (heaven) as escape from the world below (earth), and tries to replicate the life of the world above by living apart from the world below; secularism by contrast emphasizes the world below and ignores the world above. Both of these, he says, are outgrowths of the fall of man, which was (and is) “noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world” (page 18). God intended all created things to be “sacramental” to man, in the sense that man was to “respond to God’s blessing with his blessing” (page 15). It was precisely man’s refusal to use the world in this sacramental way – it was his insistence on eating and drinking the blessing of God apart from God, and without thanksgiving to God – that was the essence of man’s fall. It was in this “noneucharistic” partaking of the world that heaven and earth were rent asunder – heaven is now pursued by religion, earth by secularism, while both agree that “this world” is no longer the sphere of “life in God.” The world, by both religion and secularism, has been secularized.
It is in the Eucharist, and in the liturgy of the church as a whole, says Schmemann, that this “life in God,” abandoned by Adam but restored in Christ the Last Adam, is enacted once again; and it is out of the liturgy of the church that she goes forth into the world on a mission to “live in God” once again. Her life in the world is an extension of her liturgy, one might say: she receives all of life, in Christ, as God’s blessing, blesses Him in all of life, and in this life disciples the nations.
Second, even before reading Schmemann, I had been thinking about the distinctive “atmosphere” generated by “eucharistic living”; and I found Schmemann deeply confirming at every turn. It is amazing how cold and harsh is the “climate” of so much life among the religious. Where is “the joy of the Lord” and its strength? Where is serving Him “with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things” (Deut 28:47)? Where is the light and laughter, the delight in fire and food, in oil and wine, in His daily benefits in the land of the living? Why the suspicion of created things that nourish our bodies and gladden our hearts? Why do we “secularize” these things, distancing ourselves from them as much as possible so as to concentrate on “holy” things with deadly seriousness? Can we possibly expect our children to be excited about such a life, or to have any idea how to connect it with the “real world” they must live in every day?
I will go back to this work again and again. But my deepest desire is to live in this way, to live a heavenly life firmly embodied in this wonderful created world.