obsessed with incarnation
For the longest time theologically I was sort of obsessed with the Spirit, both the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God––the spirit that is power, the spirit that pervades the universe, the spirit that is the source and the summit in whom we live and move and have our being, and also that indefinable part of ourselves that we sometimes call our spirit, the deepest part of our own being beyond all name and form, the cave of the heart. But that has slowly shifted. Now I seem to be totally obsessed with the Incarnation. And that of course is what we celebrate at Christmas––yes, the birth of Jesus, but really the Incarnation of God. Or maybe I should make that more specific: What I’ve been fascinated with is the Word-made-flesh.
This idea of the Word, the logos, it may be too abstract for us, too philosophical. What I think of the Word as is what the philosophers used to call the Transcendentals––Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. And I was taught that wherever and whenever there is a moment of beauty, wherever and whenever there is a glimpse of truth or an occasion of goodness, that already is a manifestation of the Word, a revelation of the primal intelligence that is the heart and design and intention of the universe. And if you look at it in this way, then there isn’t a culture on earth that hasn’t had some visitation of the Word, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated; and there isn’t a culture on earth that hasn’t sought to express it in some way, even if in lopsided and hedonistic ways at times.
I ran into this teaching from the 6th-7th century monk Maximus the Confessor that I liked very much. He distinguished three different degrees in the embodiment of the Word. In the first place, there is the very existence of the cosmos as an embodiment of the Word, which can be seen as a theophany. I’ve grown to love that word too: ‘theophany,’ a moment when God is manifest, revealed. And the very existence of the universe, of creation, is a theophany. That was the foundation of most ancient religions, aboriginal traditions and so-called primitive traditions, and that itself is a very real moment of Beauty and Truth. And for us too, a kind of a natural mysticism or nature mysticism may be our first experience of Power-Greater-Than Ourselves, our first experience of awe, breathless in wonder at the Grand Canyon, gaping at the sweep of stars in the night sky, dumbstruck by the colors of the sunrise and sunset over the Big Sur. That’s an experience of the Word, an embodiment of the Transcendent.
The second degree of embodiment of the Word for Maximus is the revelation of a personal God, a God who is engaged, involved in history. Usually that engagement with history is recorded in actual words, in sacred scriptures. Hence perhaps one could point to the shruti and smriti of India, but more especially the scriptures of the prophetic traditions, and so the Law and the Prophets, the TENACH of the Jewish tradition. (Remember how Psalm 119 goes on for hundreds of verses back and forth praising the Law, praising the Word). In Islam too: the Qur’an is such an embodiment of the Word for Muslims––Allah actually speaking, in Arabic, to the prophet, (peace be upon him) as Muslims believe––that their reverence for it is closer to our reverence for the Real Presence in the Eucharist. (That’s why it was so unfathomably heinous that soldier––or a Christian minister!––would desecrate it.)
Now, if there is any danger in those two embodiments of the Word––in the cosmos or in scripture––it could be a tendency for this cosmic theophany to be a kind of impersonal divine essence without any involvement or intentionality; and the danger of the second one is that God can seem to be simply an interventionist, like the Wizard of Oz manipulating and pulling strings, removed and not really in communion, just shouting out orders from above. And that’s where Christmas comes in. Christians believe that this Word-made-flesh as an infant is what brings those other embodiments, valid as they are, to their full meaning. Christians believe that the divine cosmic energies and all of history have led us to this baby, have led us to the face of Jesus and the transfigured Christ. That’s the top of the mountain for us, the high point in history.
But we don’t stay there long on the top; now we come back down, but what we find when we do is that we haven’t lost the other two embodiments of the Word either. We recapture everything in the light of Incarnation. We get it all back in its fullness, in its completion. And we realize that every line in scripture has been pointing to this, that everything written about in the Hebrew Scriptures has been pointing to the Word becoming flesh, that all the Law and the prophets find their fulfillment here. And anything true and good found in any religious literature, and even in any literature anywhere, is not just pre-Christian but pro-Christian––pointing to this event, this high point, this embodiment. And we stand when the Gospel is proclaimed because our hearts too burn with love when Jesus speaks to us, and the Church speaks of the Real Presence of Jesus when the Word is proclaimed. And we haven’t lost the theophany of nature either! When Saint Antony of the Desert, the great father of monks, moves out to his Interior Mountain at the end of his life he is shown as having a whole new relationship with the created world; he cultivates plants to meet his needs and even talks to the animals and persuades them to leave his crops alone, and he tells the philosophers (as Evagrius tells us in the Practica ad Anatolium), “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.” Why? Because of the Incarnation. An even better example is Saint Francis of Assisi, who by the way was crazy about the Incarnation. That was why he focused so much of his spirituality on the real human suffering of Jesus on the cross; he wanted people to know that this was really a human being. He also, by the way, is the one who invented and promoted the presepe, the manger scenes; he wanted people to know the real humanity of this Divine child. But then he also preached to the birds, scolded the wolf, and sang songs to the elements as if they were his siblings––“All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and Brothers Wind and Air, through Brother Fire and Sister Water,” the cosmos as a theophany. This is a very ancient Christian way of thinking that we need to recover in the light of Christmas. Gregory of Nysssa wrote, “Who, looking at the universe, would be so feeble minded as not to believe that God is all in all; that God clothed himself with the universe, and at the same time contains it and dwells in it?”[i] Maybe we could actually learn something from the aboriginal tribes and so-called primitive peoples about this theophany in the light of the birth of Jesus, and recover this embodiment of the Word that does nothing to distract from the Christ event but points toward it and flows from it.
Olivier Clement wrote that, “The Incarnation needs to be put back into the whole scheme of creation.” Yes, maybe our human brokenness has transformed the celebration of the Lord’s nativity into a “tragic act of redemption,” but more than that the Incarnation remains above all the fulfillment of God’s original plan. The Incarnation is “the great synthesis, in Christ, of the human and the divine and the cosmic.”[ii] I say it in a much simpler way: it is because of the Incarnation that we are called back to the things of this world. One of our Advent hymns has the line “Your cradle glows already now…” But really, everything is glowing now because we realize that everything can be a theophany, everything is holy, everything is potentially saturated with the Divine. In shopping malls and on TV, all the gaudy Christmas decorations have the right idea, but they are just imitations of the real thing––aluminum trees and electric lights!––, a faint echo of the fact that everything is holy now, as Saint Benedict says, we believe that the Divine presence is everywhere.[iii] It is because of the Incarnation that we love music and dance; it is because of this baby that we love fine food and drink! It is because of the body of Jesus that we love our own bodies (which themselves are a book to be read) and each other’s bodies too in protection and admiration and conjugal love. It is because we believe that the Word was made flesh that all the tools of the monastery are regarded as sacred vessels for the altar,[iv] and why we care for our planet home and all living creatures great and small that dwell on it. And even more importantly, it is because of the Incarnation that we take care of each other, and uphold the dignity of every human person, and work for human rights, care for the elderly, the poor, the sick and the immigrant, even for criminals and our so called enemies, and uphold the dignity of and cherish every life from the moment of conception until death, because of this baby in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily.
Christmas is about Jesus being born; but it is also about a marriage of heaven and earth. As the Fourth Ecumenical Council taught, this feast is really about God and humanity being united “without division or separation”; this feast is about the possibility of us being deified, divinized. “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity!”