instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Five thoughts about the Incarnation

Adapted from a presentation I gave the RCIA class.

1. The Incarnation is part of a love story.
It's the oldest story in the book: God meets man, God loses man, God gets man back. The Incarnation is the beginning of the climax of the story. It's that moment when the hero suddenly appears in the doorway, and there's no doubting why he's there. Sure, he still needs to pay the rent and shower his true love's upturned face with kisses, and the villain isn't going away quietly, but this grand crazy gesture of love will be completed and will not go unrequited.

We ourselves are living in the denouement of this great story, tying up the loose ends until we all get to "and they lived happily ever after." There's plenty of drama, but there shouldn't be much suspense; we know how the story ends -- and we know our own story ends the same way, as long as we join ourselves to the yes of the beloved and pattern our own lives after the Lover and his grand crazy gesture that began when He became what He loved.

2. The Incarnation is unique.

Having described the Incarnation as an event in a well-known and oft-repeated story, I will point out that the story of the Incarnation is not just the Christian version of a dying-and-rising-god archetype.

Quite apart from the fact that the dying-and-rising-god archetype is hokum, the story of the Incarnation is not a "once upon a time" story. It happened in the days of King Herod (died 4 BC) -- or possibly when Quirinius was governor of Syria (~ AD 6). Before you argue that apparent inconsistencies between the written Gospels -- or even within one, as with Luke having Quirinius governor of Syria in the days of King Herod -- show that the history is made up, consider that the existence of even a confusing or conflated history means that this is not a story of a god, this is the story of this God. The Christians alive when the Gospels were written weren't taught allegories and myths by educated scribes, they were told stories of historical events by the people who claimed to have witnessed them.

The New Testament gives us genealogies, historical markers, names, places -- all things that fix the Incarnation to a specific time and place. This historical concreteness means that we can't abstract Jesus' life into some generic category of theophany, nor His teaching and sacrifice into some generic category of benevolence. Maybe a god can flit through time under different names and appearances, or do his work only in the abstract past. A man has to start somewhere, and we are told where and when Jesus started.

Believe the Gospel or not, Jesus is no more a fairy tale character than is Herod the Great.

3. The Incarnation is scandalous.

"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming, " some scribes once said of Jesus. "Who but God alone can forgive sins?"

They were right on the doctrine, but wrong on its application, because they didn't know Who this man was. Even after Jesus cured the paralytic, they couldn't put "only God can forgive sins" and "the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins" together and come up with the right conclusion.

My guess is that the Jews who saw but did not perceive simply couldn't overcome a cognitive bias against the Incarnation. The God of Abraham was too holy to become human. You couldn't even speak His Name, much less look upon His face and live. How could such a God become bound in time and flesh?

What's more, even if God were to become man, how could He become this man, this Galilean from Nazareth? Sure, he's clever, or at least glib, and he's got a knack for what the unlearned might consider to be miracles, but ... well, just look at him! Does he look anything like God would look like? And the awful things he says about us! If the LORD were truly here, do you really think He's berate us for our faithfulness to His law?

The bias wasn't limited to the scribes and Pharisees, either. When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, "they worshiped, but they doubted." It was of the pagan centurion that Jesus said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."

Which isn't to say pagans don't generally find the Incarnation scandalous too, they just have different reasons. For one, it would mean the Jews were right about their God being the only God. Also, when a god comes down from his abode to walk among the humans, he doesn't actually become a human; that would be silly, if not philosophically impossible. Even if a god could become human in some real sense, why in heaven's name would he?

At a greater distance, we find the scandal of particularity, a particularity that is inescapable if God becomes man. This man, and no other; this place, and no other; this time, and no other. Christians would have the world believe that all contrary claims about theophanies just happen to be false, while their claims about Jesus of Nazareth just happen to be true. What a coincidence! What rare good luck for Christians! What are the odds?

Rather than doing something sensible, like appearing to everyone in every place at every time, God decides to save the world when nobody's watching, and now everybody has to believe what a handful of people say another handful of people believed -- but only this handful of people; the other handfuls of people, who say different things, are wrong.What a way to run a universe!

I'll add that even Christians can find the Incarnation scandalous. They may downplay or simply avoid thinking much or at all about the dogma, out of disregard or even disdain for the created physical world we incarnate human beings inhabit. They may also be embarrassed by the Incarnation, in effect accepting the arguments of the faithless.

Being a faithful Christian is simple, but not easy.

4. The Incarnation is a partially revealed mystery.

We know a few basic truths about the Incarnation. Chief, I suppose, is that, in the Person of Jesus, God became man. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."

Thus, contrary opinions aren't true. Jesus wasn't just pretending to be human, He wasn't a man who became joined to the Godhead somehow at His baptism or resurrection, He wasn't the incarnation of some created spirit or demi-god, and He's certainly not a merely human teacher more or less wise in the ways of God.

Given that Jesus is true God and true Man -- "a man like us in all things but sin" -- additional truths follow. As a human, He was capable of learning, growing, changing. He felt emotions, He got hungry and thirsty and tired; He ate and drank and slept. He had -- He has -- a human intellect and will, a human soul.

But He is one Person, a Divine Person, united to a human nature. This means the whole of His human life -- the parts recorded in Scripture, along with every other moment -- is divine revelation focused through a human lens. His whole life has value and meaning to us. I think we can apply the traditional four senses of Scripture -- literal, analogical, moral, and anagogical -- to Jesus' every action.

And we can certainly make use of acceptable communication of idioms, and say that Jesus is Lord, or that God was crucified, or (a perennial favorite) that Mary is the Mother of God.

And yet, the Incarnation remains a mystery. There's a lot we just don't know -- about Jesus' conception at the biological level, for instance, but also exactly how His human and divine natures interacted in time. But a mystery isn't just a matter of ignorance, it's something that we can contemplate forever without exhausting. The total love of the Father for the Son's human nature, the Son's total human love for the Father, how those both overflow onto all of creation and in an exceptional way onto those predestined to be adopted children of the Father and participants in that love: all this and more is part of what we mean, whether we realize it or not, when we speak of the Incarnation.

5. The Incarnation changes everything.

The Incarnation happened. God became man... and now man can become God.

You can become God. So, not to pry, but... are you? Or is becoming God something you haven't quite gotten around to yet? Maybe you've got a few more important things to cross off your list, or maybe becoming God simply isn't worth the trouble. A lot of us make God a counter-offer, like the man whose doctor told him the best thing for him would be to stop drinking, and he replied, "I don't need the best, doc. What's second best?"

Note too what the Incarnation means for everything around you as you work out your salvation in fear and trembling. God became flesh, a Divine Person assumed a material body, which is a spectacular honor for matter. It means that matter matters. We think small, we think of a manger containing the infinite Word, but step back and look: all of creation has contained the infinite Word. In its own way, creation is capable of God too, and as St. Paul tells us, "creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God."

Everything -- everything -- comes from God, is ordered to God, and returns to God. The exitus-reditus of the Fall and Redemption, of the Incarnation and the Ascension, is a movement everything around us joins in. We can, and should, take up these things in our worship of God and our mercy and justice toward each other. It is human nature, and it is perfected by the Divine in the person of Jesus Christ.