giving birth to God (part I)
I remember back in 2012, after the massacre of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, people were wondering if it was okay to still celebrate Christmas. Fr. Raniero mentioned the other day that some folks were wondering the same thing this year, is it okay to celebrate Christmas with all the rotten things that have happened lately, including even just this week. I have this wonderful group of friends up in Santa Cruz and besides meditation and music the two biggest things we were involved in were interreligious dialogue and environmental issues, two issues whose stocks have plummeted drastically in this current cultural political atmosphere. And I wrote to a friend who was feeling a little low that I thought our new mantra should be, “Now More Than Ever!” And I think the same thing about Christmas. Now more than ever is it important for us to understand the implications of this great mystery, the manifestation of God in human form, and to understand the dignity of what it means to be a human being in the light of that.
Vigils, our prayer at 5:30 AM, is a liturgy at which it can sometimes be hard to pay attention. As our Br. Bede likes to say, Vigils can be rather “prolix.” (I used to think that that word meant that it had a lot of words, but I looked it up. It actually means “lengthy and tedious”!) But every now and then a line will really pop out at me, and I’ll want there. I wrote to one friend who was a little dismayed by all this that ouro elbow the guy next to me or whisper to someone as we’re taking our robes off right afterward, “Did you hear that?!” And one morning recently one line stuck out to me. It’s from the Discourses of St. Anselm. He wrote: “All nature was created by God, and now God was born of Mary! God had created all, and Mary gave birth to God!”[i]
Now this is language that we are somewhat used to hearing, but somehow it sounded brand new and shocking to me. I saw this great cycle revolving around the word “nature”––nature created by God, and God born of Mary. If you’ll excuse me dabbling for a moment into evolutionary theory: All of nature is created by God––you might even could say it pours out from the God who is the ground of being, the womb of possibility. And nature gets set in motion, and the minerals and chemicals become life, teeming with life––single-cell creatures, organisms, then plants and fish, amphibians, birds, mammals. And then that life takes another leap and gives birth to thought and self-reflexive consciousness, and this glorious creature called the human being emerges, in God’s own image, we are told. And then in the fullness of time (as Paul says[ii]), this one particular human being––Mary, this woman, who herself is nature reaching a certain level of perfection––returns the favor, completes the cycle and gives birth to God.
God gives birth to nature, nature gives birth to Mary, and, by giving birth to Jesus, Mary gives birth to God.
One of the things that is interesting about this is that––did you ever notice?––we normally don’t refer to Jesus as “God” in the Christian tradition. Normally we say Jesus is “Lord” but not “Jesus is God.” It’s almost as if we’re embarrassed to say it. Fr. Bede Griffiths wrote about a rare instance in the Syriac tradition where Jesus is actually referred to as “God,” but the exception proves the rule. We usually reserve the word “God” for the transcendent godhead that we, following Jesus, traditionally have called the Father. God is the name we give to “the absolute, eternal, infinite, transcendent Being”; God is the one who is above all thought and word; God is “the Holy Mystery beyond human conception.” Jesus, on the other hand, is the manifestation of that absolute, eternal, infinite, transcendent Being, above thought and word. If God is an incomprehensible mystery, then Jesus is “the manifestation of [that] incomprehensible mystery, the self-revelation of this incomprehensible mystery.” [iii] Paul writes several times in his epistles, Jesus is the “mystery hidden for ages,”[iv] as if God is saying, “This is what I meant all along.” Jesus is the human being “who makes known what this ineffable God is like.” In other words you might say that we don’t usually say, “Jesus is God” because it’s not enough to call Jesus God; Jesus is not simply God. Jesus is God-In-A-Human-Being; Jesus is the Human-Person-in-God. Jesus is God-the-Word-Made-Flesh. That’s what we celebrate in marking Jesus’ birth.
For Christians this is the completion of revelation, in Jesus revelation is brought to perfection, and so to see Jesus is to see the Mystery of God as far as it can be seen. But to see Jesus is also to see humanity, humanity brought to its perfection. As Thomas Aquinas taught, Gratia perfecit natura––“Grace perfects nature,” grace brings nature to its perfection. That’s why Jesus is referred to as the “Second Adam.” As Adam, the first human being, was the archetype of humanity, so this child is the blueprint for a new humanity. But just as it’s not enough to call Jesus “God,” it’s also not enough to just call Jesus a human being: Jesus is the Human-Being-Totally-Open-to-God; Jesus is the Human-Person-Totally-Transparent-to-the-Divine-Reality, which the rest of us, unfortunately, are not––at least not yet. In order to understand the mystery of Jesus, in order to understand the majesty of the Incarnation, we have to hold this tension together. It’s not enough to call Jesus God––he is always God-made-flesh. It’s not also enough to call Jesus a human being: he is never not also always divine.
God gave birth to nature. And Mother Nature, with God’s inspiration (literally), gave birth to humanity. And now humanity completes the cycle in Mary and gives birth to God. What I’m trying to say is that maybe this is supposed to be the norm now. If Jesus is the final revelation of what God is like, then from now on we should always think of God as God-With-Us, as God-Made-Manifest. We’re never supposed to think of the Divine One, we’re never supposed to think of God, without thinking of God-the Word-Made-Flesh. And we’re never supposed to think of humanity without assuming that it is and we are meant for perfection in divinity. We’re supposed to assume from now on that there is no breach between heaven and earth, or between God and creation, no gap between the Creator and the Created, except in our own mistaken skewed clouded view of Reality––the breach, the gap, has been overcome by God’s own initiative, by God’s own incarnation. But, you see, that was the plan all along, and this is its fulfillment, if only we have the eyes of our hearts enlightened by the mystery––the shock, the scandal, the majesty––of this God-the Word-Made Flesh.
We always have to think of divinity and humanity together. Our most ancient mystics and writers understood this. I was so astonished the first time I read what Saint Basil wrote, that, like Jesus, “through the Spirit … we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations––we become God”![v] But that’s just to affirm what Saint Augustine taught: that God became a human being so that human beings might become God.[vi] And as soon as we wrap our heads around that we have to hold on to another seeming contradiction, because Irenaeus of Lyons also chides us, in case we think we’re gonna escape this whole messy thing called humanity: but “how could you be God,” he says, “when you have not yet become human?” Christmas is all about gratia perfecit natura––grace bringing nature to its perfection.
From now on, this is the norm. The birth of Jesus, the Word-Made Flesh, the Manifestation of the Mystery of God in this tiny child means God is with us, God became one of us, so that humanity can share in divinity.
[i] From the Discourses of St. Anselm, Benedictine Daily Prayer, 1690.
[ii] Gal 4:4.
[iii] Quoted in Wayne Teasdale “In What Sense is Jesus Called God?”, 12.
[iv] Eph 3:9; Col 1:26.
[v] “Treatise on the Holy Spirit,” Cap. 9, Office of Readings, 632.
[vi] Sermo 13, Office of Readings, 125.