Saint Athanasius is remembered today. Excerpts from On the Incarnation:
The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display, the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it (not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it).
…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.
…The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.
…Thus is happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.
…In ancient times before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible; all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised his body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ trample on it as it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.
…There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.
Alasdair John Milbank (born 23 October 1952) is a distinguished contemporary Anglican theologian. In a recent interview, he shared these thoughts about the church and incarnation:
The Church is at once very very spiritual and very very concrete. The Church continues that sense of the Incarnation, and I mean that quite literally, that the church is a communion of souls, it extends to another world, but it also is the material practices, it’s also physical churches, it’s also sacred sites, it’s also the continual sacralization of space, its also parish boundaries. I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Notthingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?” Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy. I want everything put back again, in one sense. I believe in the lot. Pilgrimages, you know, everything. The importance of sacred sites, the traditions about the unseen, even about there being other creatures hidden within the dimensions of this world. These are things which I think we should take seriously that exist in many different traditions. And I think that one of the problems we have is that we have the wrong idea about monotheism, you know, that of course there are gods and angels and spirits, and what have you, in incredible plurality. The point about the divine unity is that it’s beyond all that. Monotheism is not denying the gods. The most radical monotheists have always seen that. There are many spiritual powers, and there may be some place between the good and the bad among them like the early Irish theologians acknowledged. Who knows? The point is that the supreme God is one who transcends any of that kind of thing, so for me, the Church is supremely concrete and supremely spiritual and I think that there is a sense in which, in a fallen world corporeality can lead us into despair, it’s a site of decay. And we can only not despair if corporeality is restored. So without the Incarnation and without the resurrection, we are not really going fully to value embodiment as glorious.
After a lifetime outcast as childless,
she gave home to one who should not
have been with child.
God—sheltered by humanity—first heard
welcome from two women proclaiming
over unborn children.
Still questioned by her kin, speaking her
child’s name, they called to confirm it
with her silenced husband.
Her boy “grew and became strong in spirit,
and was in the deserts till the day
of his manifestation.”
Wound in wilderness and bearing his
mother’s barrenness, he had learned
from her to wait, with his last breath,
for the greater one. Watching since
the womb, he decreased willingly
and died asking: “Is this, now,
Even before her son, her heart knew of swords
and losses, and (even then) she returned
thanks and consolation.
She believed that God’s Kingdom was
for such as these, and she knows now
what His love has conquered.
A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival.
If there is a human person who is God, then the whole world, centered on that person, is God’s body.
As further elements of that one body become obedient to God, the world is healed: we may, bizarrely, speak as if God’s body is at present maimed by human or demonic rebellion. On this account, perhaps, God renews His involvement with the world of finite things by making them His body (as once, before His limbs rebelled, it was). Only because He is more than the cosmos can He heal the cosmos.
Incarnation gives us all that honest pantheists can really want: at present we are not God, but hope to join Him.
As modern Western people, our dichotomized categories and preconceived notions about body, soul, matter, and spirit are tragically inadequate to the task of engaging with the full mystery and beauty of reality. Ancient people understood reality in ways that we have lost the ability to understand: its full dimensionality, interiority, and microcosmic qualities. As a modern myself, I’m not able to see just how far short our concepts come from being able to appreciate what is truly around us. Moderns have flattened the creation into just a few simple dualities such as: energy and matter, time and space, or (the ugliest reduction of all) supply and demand. In this simplified and demystified world, we’ve blinded ourselves to both the true beauty and meaning of the world outside as well as to the power of the same world as it also exists within ourselves. For human beings, the material world is supposed to be a powerful portal into the realities of life and beauty, into full communion with our Creator. Instead, we have lost this capacity, and we have allowed the material world to become a curtain that hides the rest of reality from our eyes. To undo this, requires long practice. However, there is also some value in trying to understand the categories of thought that blind our minds. This essay is my attempt to share how my own categories of thought have begun to shift.
Ancient Christians (and all ancient peoples in many essential ways) understood the world to be multi-layered, with simultaneous aspects of the same things coexisting within or across space and time. For example, stars and angels were often understood as the same thing but with multiple aspects: changeless cosmic bodies moving in a stately pattern according to the highest laws and mighty spiritual powers who are both conducting a sacred dance and waging a heavenly war.
The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. [Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.]
C.S. Lewis makes this same point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (chapter 14):
“I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“…In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Ancients also saw the world as microcosmic or structured like fractals, with the whole complex pattern recurring at progressively smaller or larger scales. The entire cosmos existed at multiple levels simultaneously:
Many ancient philosophers as well as the Bible taught that each individual human person is a replica of the whole cosmic pattern, a particular union of heaven and earth, and a complete temple to God.
Likewise, the tabernacle/temple is a miniature presentation of the entire cosmos.
Finally, the entire cosmos itself is a temple modeled after God’s heavenly temple and throne room (with humanity as the priest and the divine image who makes God present within all of creation).
This kind of teaching is taken for granted throughout the scripture. For example, when Christ said that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21). Ancient Christian authors also reflected often on this theme. For example, Augustine wrote:
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea. …Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? …Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves. …Where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? …What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it. [Confessions (Book X)]
Ancient people understood the heavenly realm or the spiritual world to be both inside and above the physical world or earthly realm. Each of these spatial analogies are true, and both are metaphorical. As moderns, we have only kept a distorted understanding of the idea that the heavenly world is “above” the earthly realm, and this idea only makes it easier for us to reject the relevance or the reality of the heavenly world. Ancients believed that the spiritual world was “within” all of the physical world because the spiritual or heavenly realm expresses deeper truths about us and our world. Heaven, as it exists inside each thing around us, can shows us how each thing is made and what each thing truly is (at the core of its being). Finally, these more essential realities are said to be “inside” because they tend to be “hidden” or “mysterious” to us. We cannot as easily see, take, and try to possess or control the heavenly realities that surround us within the material world. This presumption of possession and control is a terrible mistake that we make constantly as modern people. It blinds us more profoundly than anything else to the true beauty and value of all that surrounds us. Thinking of the world in simply material terms, we make the world less sacred, and we make is more easy for us to think that we can “have” or “use” the things around us. As we try to “make use of” the material things surrounding us to increase our power and comfort, we become completely ignorant of the more powerful and uncontrollable spiritual qualities that are internal to these things. We utilize material things without realizing the spiritual death that we are bringing upon ourselves. We are like orcs chopping down trees while heedless of the ents.
Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers does an excellent job of unpacking the old idea of heavenly or spiritual realities being “within” all earthly or material realities. Although recommending the book highly, I am critical of his implication that the “internal” metaphor can be an almost complete explanatory category. Heavenly and spiritual realities are neither “above” or “within” in any complete or literal sense. Wink would agree with this, but his ideas rely heavily on the “‘withinness” of all spiritual realities.
One more way that we moderns have demystified the world is by splitting the world into material and spiritual realities that do not have any vital need to coexist. In the ancient mind, heaven and earth depended upon each other in a wide variety of complex ways. The spatial metaphor of “above” did teach that heavenly realities were more meaningful, substantial, or vital (“higher” in some sense). However, this idea of heaven being above the earth did not mean that heaven is in any sense distant from the earth. Heaven was always understood to be close at hand. We are in both heaven and earth at the same time every day, and heaven only becomes distant as a result of our own blindness and sin. Paul and other New Testament writers talk repeatedly about us being seated in heaven and carrying out vital activities in heaven at the same time as we are on the earth. We are clearly understood to be in both places. However, the heavenly Jerusalem still needs to “come down to earth” and be married to the earth in a wedding celebration that will heal the rift that has opened between heaven and earth as a result of our human rebellion and blindness:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” [Revelation 21:1-3a]
Earthly and heavenly realities are created to be complementary (as are material and spiritual realities by extension). Each aspect of the world offers something to the other. Earthly things are good and offer to us a relationship or contact point with heavenly things. Likewise, heavenly things are good and can show us the true nature and value of earthly things. As embodied creatures, our communion with heaven is clearly intended to be mediated by a right relationship with the material world (understood as the good and revelatory gift of God that it always is).
To regain contact with reality as a marriage of both the earthly and the heavenly, we must go back into the history of terms such as “body” and “soul” or “spirit” and “matter.” There are well over a thousand years of profound Christian writings (and even more importantly, practices) regarding a whole host of terms about our human abilities and parts. As just a few examples: heart, spirit, soul, body, strength, will, passions, flesh, and nous (“understanding” is a good translation, but we generally just don’t get this term today). Of course, these terms are all rich Greek and New Testament concepts, several with deep Hebrew roots as well. Regaining the good use of these (and several other such terms) should start with word studies, and these words have very physical (enfleshed) roots, particularly in Hebrew. Word studies are not abstractions, because language is always grounded in concrete metaphors from the bodily experiences of human persons. “Spirit,” for example is “breath” or “wind” in Hebrew, which is both remarkably tangible but also impossible to fully see or constrain.
To get at what “spiritual” and “heavenly” mean, it is critical to keep both the earthy word origins as well as the earthly target clearly in view. As the Lord’s prayer says: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As humans, our wholeness is primary, and we cannot separate any part of ourselves fully out from the rest of us or place any part of ourselves into competition with other parts. Ultimately, our spirit, soul and body are mutually dependant entities, and we must start with our bodily experiences as the basis of our spiritual lives.
Another fact that keeps the study of these terms profoundly practical and embodied (vs. abstract or theoretical), is that all of these terms were first developed and debated in the context of learning to worship and pray (by Jews and later by Christians). We don’t realize today that virtually all arguments over the technicalities of terms such as “will” or “nous” or over the human nature of Christ (as well as over trinitarian doctrines and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures) were grounded in the daily practices of worship and prayer. Christ prayed “not my will but your will be done,” and Maximus the Confessor had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off because he insisted that Christ had a fully human will. Maximus was a scholar, but his scholarship was grounded in practices of prayer that imitated Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as well as practices that relied upon Christ’s restoration of our human will to freely cooperate with the will of God. The emperor who ordered that Maximus to be rendered incapable of speaking and writing was actually the one obsessed with pure abstractions. He was intellectually offended at the idea of Christ having a human will. Maximus, however, was motivated by his own experiences of prayer and of striving to be unified with God’s will.
From my little reading in the monastic traditions (desert fathers and mothers), it seems that “nous” and “passions” are the two most seriously lost or misunderstood terms. I won’t try to write about “nous” other than to say that I think it has something to do with having our perceptions wide open to God’s presence. My focus hear, however, is the interrelationship of seeming dualities such as matter and spirit or body and soul. In this context I will say more about the passions, but first I must back up to talk about our bodies.
Monastics systematically subdued and trained their bodies in order to regain their bodies as an essential and powerful means for communion with their loving Creator. They loved their bodies and wanted their bodies back from the tyranny of the passions, and that is why they pushed their bodies to the point of ruination. A weak body that worked powerfully as a mediator and conduit of God’s presence in all of the created world (the original purpose of our bodies) was far more healthy and delightful than a strong body that was enslaved and insensible to God’s presence.
Saints bodies are precious to themselves and likewise precious to those who love the saint. Christ’s body, even dead, was precious to the myrrh-bearing women. Christ’s body, even dead, was a means of God’s presence and communion with us. This is why the Orthodox still treasure and honor the bodies and even the cloths of saints. Elijah’s mantle carried his holiness, and Elisha’s ancient bones brought a dead man to life. Even since God’s Spirit brooded like a mother bird over the surface of the primordial waters and ever since this Spirit indwelt the clay of our first parents, this Spirit has been deeply involved with material things. Our human bodies both make manifest God’s presence (as does all matter) and also bring that presence to us via all five senses.
Paul seems to use “flesh” to denote the desire for things other than God. “Fleshly” and “worldly” vs. “heavenly” in Paul’s writings are not actually about material vs. immaterial. Platonists and Gnostics despised material things. In Plato’s cave, the shadow world had to be left far behind. This is not the Christian message. God’s material creation is good, and it is a powerful tool for communion with God. Paul’s terms “flesh” and “world” do not denigrate the human body or the material world. “Fleshly” and “heavenly” indicate purposes or orientations (specifically, realms of power and authority), with the same good material things being subject to different purposes and powers. Material things are “heavenly” insofar as we allow them to mediate God’s presence and God’s communion with us. These same material things are “fleshly” or “worldly” insofar as we abuse them to serve as distractions, alternatives, or barriers to God’s presence with us.
In a similar way, “passions” (within the writings of the monastics) were not simply strong feelings or bodily desires. This term, again, has to do with orientation or purpose. Within a long and profoundly practical tradition of writing and teaching about Christian prayer, the “passions” came to mean all of the habitual needs and desires that we develop for anything other than God. Feelings that do not control us or draw us away from God are not evil. However, we tend to need much work to learn to desire God, and our strong desires are often cruel taskmasters that work against our ability to love and long after God. Death is sometimes called the greatest passion because all of our desires for things other than God lead naturally to death. Christ’s death is also called his passion. In a remarkable reversal, St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ turned death from the most powerful weapon against our human natures (threatening to destroy them) into our most powerful weapon against sin (setting free our human natures). Christ made our passions and death itself a means of our salvation.
At this point, I want to close with a series of reflections that draw primarily on my personal experience. I find that it is delightful and profoundly comforting to be able to recognize and respond throughout my day to Christ’s presence with us in human history—to be able to enjoy (with my own body) the material results (or relics) of his incarnation as a man among us. What I mean is to be able to venerate his image, his cross, the bodies of his ministers and saints, the chalice from which I receive his body and blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council restored the use of icons to the church after sophisticated thinkers (who wanted to make Christianity as spiritually and philosophically tidy and impressive as Islam) had taken the icons away.
St. John of Damascus wrote beautifully in defense of icons. Adam and Eve were the first icons (same word as images and idols) of God, and God told humans not to make any images of God because God did not want humans to replace themselves as the image of God. The tabernacle and temple were full of images. However, the mercy seat appeared empty (although filled with the fire and cloud of Spirit glory at key times), and the priest was the primary image or mediator of God’s presence. With Jesus Christ, the image of God in humanity is perfectly restored, and all images of the human Jesus Christ are images of God. Jesus Christ brings together the glory-cloud and the priest at His transfiguration. Also, all images of Christ’s saints are primarily icons of Jesus (including his living icons—us the church militant).
Now that Christ has come to live a perfect life among us, participating fully in our material existence, the only way to combat idolatry is to reverence, cherish, kiss, and adore every material thing that points to Jesus Christ (which turns out to be just about every single particle of matter that surrounds us). The only way to learn to worship the true God is to venerate all of the icons, images, and holy object that have been taken up into the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ over the thousands of years since his life among us. I love the line from Winks book: “We discover our body as ‘temple’ by going to a temple.” I would add that we also discover all of creation as a temple (it’s clear purpose throughout the Bible).
Here’s a little from St. John of Damascus (7th century):
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
Even when we can’t see or feel it, we are blessed by having any small sign of Christ’s presence tangibly offered to us. Here is an extract from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a short scene described from memory by Prince Myshkin, the title character, when he is pressed to suggest a subject for a painting):
There is a ladder to the scaffold. Suddenly at the foot of the ladder he began to cry, and he was a strong, manly fellow; he had been a great criminal, I was told. The priest never left him for a moment; he drove with him in the cart and talked with him all the while. I doubt whether he heard; he might have begun listening but not have understood more than two words. So it must have been. At last he began going up the ladder; his legs were fettered so that he could move with only short steps. The priest, who must have been an intelligent man, left off speaking and only gave him the cross to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he was very pale, and when he was at the top and standing on the scaffold, he became as white as paper, as white as writing paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden, and I expect he felt sick as though something were choking him and that made a sort of tickling in his throat. Have you ever felt that when you were frightened, or in awful moments when all your reason is left, but it has no power? I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…When that weakness was beginning, the priest with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips—a little plain silver cross—he kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed for a few seconds to come to life again, and his legs moved. He kissed the cross greedily; he made haste to kiss, as though in haste not to forget to provide himself with something in case of need; but I doubt whether he had any religious feeling at the time. And so it was till he was laid on the plank…It’s strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. I fancy that there is a continual throbbing of ideas of all sorts, always unfinished and perhaps absurd too, quite irrelevant ideas—‘That man is looking at me. He has a wart on his forehead. One of the executioner’s buttons is rusty.’—and yet all the while one knows and remembers everything. There is one point which can never be forgotten, and one can’t faint, and everything moves and turns about it, about that point. And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and…knows, and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron! He must hear that! If I were lying there, I should listen on purpose and hear. It may last only the tenth part of a second, but one would be sure to hear it. And only fancy, it’s still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What a thought! And what if it knows it for five seconds!
Paint the scaffold so that only the last step can be distinctly seen in the foreground and the criminal having just stepped on it; his head, his face as white as paper; the priest holding up the cross, the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that’s the picture. The priest’s face and the executioner’s, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background, in half light, as the setting…That’s the picture!
Since reading this passage, my life now maps in many ways to this prisoner on the way to the executioner’s block. I’m offered the little cross to kiss (in daily and weekly prayers and sacraments), and I’m recalled to life long enough to take one more step, to get up and move forward for one more day or week or minute. Although, in day-to-day living, I am only occasionally aware of my needs to this extent.
To close with a few images that resonate more regularly in day-to-day life, Saint Macarius (4th century) describes the human heart this way:
Within the heart are unfathomable depths. . . . It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there. [The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 15.32]
Outside of ourselves, Chesterton has lovely passages about our “cosy little cosmos,” and how it should feel like a warm and welcoming home (rather than a vast and uninhabitable universe). Chesterton captures the idea of the whole material cosmos as conveying the presence of our Creator and Father in heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins also does this remarkably in many of his poems (for example, when he describes the stars as our glimpse into the home of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows“). Finally, I’m reminded of Robert Kirk’s claim (in The Secret Commonwealth) that there is “no place nor creature but is supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole universe.” Taken together, these images of the universe from Chesterton, Hopkins, and Kirk suggest that the physical sciences of astronomy and atomic physics are both exploring the domains of human and angelic life. Madeline L’Engle is another author who makes this point that microscopes and telescopes both point into the realm of heavenly powers. This is the entire premise of A Wind in the Door, and Meg’s battle cry at the end of that story captures much of this:
Be caterpillar and comet,
be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
sea gulls and seraphim,
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the ﬂaming of creation
Even Disney Studios has given it’s own voice to this ancient understanding of our entire cosmos as the home of us and our ancestors:
Pumbaa: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, wit’ you, everything’s gas.
Pumbaa: Simba, what do you think?
Simba: Well, I don’t know…
Pumbaa: Aw come on. Give, give, give… Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?
Simba: …Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Timon: You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?
Pumbaa: Who told you something like that?
Timon: What mook made that up?
Simba: Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?
There are no one-to-one corollaries between the material and the heavenly realms. The connections between “earthy things” and “ethereal things” work like language—like metaphors and the etymologies of words—with multiple clusters of association and with rooted histories branching back into the past. Scientific knowledge is wonderful. However, when we think of knowledge as the exploration of how matter and energy interact (or any other reductions), we impoverish our understanding of the world that we seek to know. True knowledge is always a form of love. The starting point, therefore, is simply to honor all matter—from galaxies to nuclei—to love both their stories and their structures as beautiful and mysterious revelations.
We must regain ways of seeing and talking aboutGod (and all of God’s creatures) within all of Creation. This is simply learning to “pray without ceasing” during every type of work throughout our daily lives. This means learning to have a different consciousness of the physical world and of our own bodies. Our modern lives do not teach us this. Ancient prayer practices did teach this greater consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. In addition, all of the natural processes of maturation and suffering (such as losing a loved one) still do teach us these ways of understanding. We simply have many distractions in our current ways of living. We have to move slowly but deliberately to recover these older ways of seeing.
When Christ ascended to heaven to be hidden behind a cloud (and enthroned beside God the Father in glory until his return), Christ was hidden from view like the sun—just veiled by the clouds. Many ancient hymns draw close parallels between Christ and the sun (reigning victorious from heaven and giving light to all). I often tell my children that Jesus is not far away. Although he has a glorified body in heaven that we cannot see, I emphasized that his heavenly body is “as close as the sun.” It is just hidden by clouds for now, not immediately visible but close at hand, still indirectly seen and felt. I also remind my children that the body and blood of Jesus are given to us in the chalice from the altar—as food and drink that we take into our bodies. We know Jesus Christ through many different things and in many different ways, including this sunlight and this bread and wine. His closeness to us is profound.
Note: here are two books that I felt were particularly helpful to me with some of this a few years ago:
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken.
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith.
I’m also drawing (very ineptly) upon my understandings of many other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Fr. Stephen Freeman.
For if he has brought to completion his mystical work of becoming human, having become like us in every way save without sin (cf Heb 4: 15), and even descended into the lower regions of the earth where the tyranny of sin compelled humanity, then God will also completely fulfill the goal of his mystical work of deifying humanity in every respect, of course, short of an identity of essence with God; and he will assimilate humanity to himself and elevate us to a position above all the heavens. It is to this exalted position that the natural magnitude of God’s grace summons lowly humanity, out of a goodness that is infinite. The great Apostle is mystically teaching us about this when he says that in the ages to come the immeasurable riches of his goodness will be shown to us (Eph 2: 7).
We too should therefore divide the “ages” conceptually, and distinguish between those intended for the mystery of the divine incarnation and those intended for the grace of human deification, and we shall discover that the former have already reached their proper end while the latter have not yet arrived. In short, the former have to do with God’s descent to human beings, while the latter have to do with humanity’s ascent to God.
…Existing here and now, we arrive at the end of the ages as active agents and reach the end of the exertion of our power and activity. But in the ages to come we shall undergo by grace the transformation unto deification and no longer be active but passive; and for this reason we shall not cease from being deified.
From “Ad Thalassium, On Jesus Christ and the End of the Ages” by Maximus the Confessor.
In my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. …It has something to do with incarnation. …Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.
Irenaeus concluded—amazingly—that Adam came into being as a result of Christ and his passion, that Adam was made in the image of the incarnate Christ, who himself is the beginning and the end.
From Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter C. Bouteneff. Here it is with more context (including several other profound points):
Adam as the sinner is the antitype of Christ as the glorious; indeed, the Jewish tradition that saw Adam as a priest, a patriarch, and a king, was utterly transformed in early Christian thinking, which saw Adam as failing in all these vocations and Christ as fulfilling them. The glory of Adam became the glory of Christ. The modern word “typology”—expressing this relationship and so many of the characters and features of the OT with those of the NT—hardly does justice to the transformative thrust of Christian thinking.
…One of the fullest expressions of this thinking came from Irenaeus, who interpreted the Lukan genealogy together with Romans 5:14 to mean that Christ joins the end to the beginning, recapitulating in himself all nations, languages, and generations. Irenaeus concluded—amazingly—that Adam came into being as a result of Christ and his passion, that Adam was made in the image of the incarnate Christ, who himself is the beginning and the end. This trajectory of thinking, which cannily stands temporal chronology on its head, was definitive for the patristic era and right on through the fourteenth century in Nicholas Cabasilas, who puts it this way:
It was for the New Man that human nature was created at the beginning. . . . It was not the old Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old. . . . For those who have known him first, the old Adam is the archetype because of our fallen nature. But for him who sees all things before they exist, the first Adam is the imitation of the second. (The Life in Christ 6.91–94)
“Typology” must be understood against the backdrop of this reconfiguration of history, which, then, began not in some calendrically datable time five thousand, six thousand, or even 13.7 billion years ago, but with Christ and his incarnation and, even more, with his passion. Indeed, to the extent we dwell with the fathers in this perspective, the significance of the age of the world is entirely limited to the sphere of science and bears no theological significance whatsoever.
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still—a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls. The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy.
From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.
The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon (excerpts from chapters 1 and 2):
The problem, which is historical, is easily stated: Just where did Matthew and Luke discover the historical material that fills the first two chapters of each of these gospels? Since this material had not been part of the early preaching of the apostles, how did the two Evangelists know about it? The only reasonable answer, it seems to me, is that the “source” was Jesus’ own mother, of whom we are told, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). Later in the first century, when Matthew and Luke wrote, she alone was still alive to remember those details, which could have been known to no one else.
…The evidence, however, indicates that this was not the case. Joseph was not a person given to anxiety. He appeared, rather, as a man of extraordinary serenity. We find Joseph in five scenes in the gospel of Matthew, and every single time he is sound asleep (Matthew 1:20–24; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). Whatever troubles Joseph endured, they did not include insomnia. Perhaps we see Joseph’s mark on Jesus—particularly the example of his serenity and simple trust in God—when we contemplate a later New Testament scene:
…Mary’s “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) was also the first step along the road to Jesus’ “Not my will, but Yours, be done” (22:42). I believe the correspondence between these two verses indicates, likewise, the important spiritual mark of Mary on her son. It was from her that he learned to respond in faith to the call of God, not counting the cost. Their destinies were inextricably entwined in the mystery of redemption.
…There is no doubt that Jesus was literate, for we find him reading, and there is every reason to believe he learned the Scriptures as did any other young man from a working-class Galilean family: at the local synagogue. Normally, in fact, in a small town such as Nazareth, copies of the Scriptures, or any other books, were available only at the synagogue.
…Jesus was not “working out” a religious theory. He was taking possession of his own identity. This was a process of growth, and Jesus’ study of the Hebrew Scriptures was integral to that growth. He did read books, and he learned from them. The works of Moses, David, Jeremiah, and the others truly contoured his mind and conscience. The mental horizon of Jesus, as we discern it in the four gospels, took shape during those long years at Nazareth, where—Luke tells us—he went to the synagogue “according to his custom.” So when Luke also tells us, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature,” it is wrong to imagine his growth was unrelated to what he read—any more than his increase in stature was unrelated to what he ate (Luke 2:52).
…Nonetheless, to speak of the “influence” of the Hebrew Scriptures on Jesus’s mind dramatically transcends our normal use of that expression. The Law and the Prophets shaped his self-awareness in an unparalleled way because the Savior found in those writings his identity, vocation, and mission. His grasp of those texts—an understanding at the root of Christian theology—is the very substance of Jesus’ “self-regard.” It was in studying the Hebrew Bible that Jesus became convinced, “I must be about the things of my Father” (Luke 2:49).
…Christian theology begins with—and is inseparable from—understanding the Old Testament as Jesus understood it.
…I believe it is misleading, however, to inquire “when” with respect to Jesus’ self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is not objective. One does not acquire it as “information,” like the study of biology or business law. Self-knowledge is an extension and activity of the self; it is, by definition, subjective. It is necessarily tautological—that is to say, self-knowledge is its own cause. The knowledge of one’s self is inseparable from being oneself.5 It is important not to “objectify” Jesus’ self-awareness and then try to determine at what point—“when?”—he acquired the knowledge of his identity. Self-knowledge is intrinsic to, and an extension of, self-being. His consciousness of his identity came from his identity. Self-knowledge, however, does take place in a process of growth. It is historical, like all components of human consciousness. Human self-knowledge is an ongoing “event.”
…There is a subtle hint in this juxtaposition. Luke seems to imply that the sustained contemplation in Mary’s heart was in some way related to her son’s increase in wisdom. The author paints here a provocative picture of the home in Nazareth where Jesus and his mother, joined in a common faith during the three decades of their shared life, continued to mature spiritually in each other’s company. Given the delicacy of this subject, it is important not to sail off into speculations beyond the data provided by Holy Scripture. Does the Bible give any sign of this personal and interpersonal growth of Jesus and his mother? As it touches their relationship—especially their shared faith in the Father’s purpose and the mission of the Holy Spirit—is it possible to discern in the relevant biblical texts some indication of this spiritual development? I believe it is.
…However we name it, nonetheless, both stories—in the temple at Jerusalem and at the wedding party in Cana—portray Jesus and his mother as “not agreed.” They are not in harmony. The two conversations convey, between Mary and her son, a sense of initial opposition. Their questions to each other disclose a rough patch, as it were, a foothold of friction that serves to move the narrative forward.
…I suspect, by the by, that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Recall that Jesus, when his parents discover him in the temple, has been engaged (for three days, apparently) in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a pedagogical and rhetorical method where a favored device is the “counterquestion”—the answering of a question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels. The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother.
…Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth and who was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.
…Mary was not just a temporary or purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. The relationship between Jesus and his mother was transpersonal and transcendent to biology. She was truly the mother, and not simply the “bearer,” of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If she knew Jesus at all, if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything, then it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine.
…Perhaps our English “ma’am” comes closest to the sense of the Aramaic idiom. It is especially noteworthy that in John’s gospel Jesus addresses his mother this way as he is dying (John 19:26). In this gospel, Cana and Calvary are the only places where Mary’s son speaks to her, and the same word is used both times.
…Jesus was declining his mother’s suggestion that he intervene in the wine problem. De facto, he was telling her no. And how does Mary respond to his objection? She ignores it! Mary does not argue the point with her son. She simply turns and boldly says to the waiters, “Do whatever he tells you.” She thus puts the pressure squarely on her son, manifestly confident that he will not disappoint her. It is worth remarking that “Do whatever he tells you” are Mary’s last recorded words. We know the day’s outcome: Mary’s son, at the direct instigation of his mother, transformed the water into wine. We surmise, too, that the wedding party was transformed, once the guests discovered that the host had “kept the good wine until now!” Indeed, Jesus’ own ministry was transformed. Here it was that he “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The “signs” have begun. Up to this point, it was possible for their contemporaries to think of Jesus and John the Baptist mainly in terms of similarity, inasmuch as both were teachers. No more, however, because “John performed no sign” (John 10:41). After the Cana event, people in the region would tell “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).
…The organic particularity of Jesus’ life included a bit of overt pressure from his mother. The doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that we were redeemed through the personal experiences of God’s Son in human history—the very things that the Word underwent—from the instant of his conception, through his birth and infancy, through the events and phases of his life, through his tears and laughter, through his ministry and teaching, through his obedient sufferings and death on the cross, through his resurrection and entry into eternal glory. Human redemption “happened” in the humanity of the eternal Word as he passed through, transformed, and deified our existence.
…“Imagine,” Augustine wrote of Jesus, that the Almighty did not create this man—however he was formed—from the womb of his mother, but abruptly introduced him before our eyes. Suppose he passed through no ages from infancy to youth, or that he neither ate nor slept. Would that not have proved the heretics correct?9 An adequate Christology, then, affirms that the Word’s becoming flesh refers to more than the single instant of his becoming present in the Virgin’s womb. He continued becoming flesh and dwelling among us, in the sense that his assumed body and soul developed and grew through the complex experiences of a particular human life. We see this actually happening in these two conversations between Jesus and his mother.
…She was, like himself, a person of faith. Indeed, her faith pertained very much to his own person and mission.