The Wonder of the Incarnation

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.
– Socrates

* This is the second installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.

With Zahnd’s opening chapter focusing on the cruciform image as the foundation of beauty for the Gospel message, his second chapter focuses on the incarnation as the basis of forming wonder in the Christian journey. He draws contrast between the kitsch of some contemporary Christian art and the incarnation itself, arguing for a deeper and more theologically rich understanding of Christian beauty. For Zahnd, the incarnation expresses such rich understanding by propelling humanity toward wonder – an awe-filled posture at the God who becomes human. It was a fine chapter that drew heavily on biblical stories and prophetic texts to point toward the fullness of both humanity and divinity that exists in Christ’s incarnation, and the wonder that it provokes.

During my doctoral studies, I spent time considering the ascension of Christ and that story’s theologizing of the person-hood of God. During those months, through reading some excellent texts on the incarnation and Christ’s continuing human existence in the heavenly realms, I began to realize an essential point that Zahnd implicitly acknowledges. The birth narratives of Jesus tell us of the God who becomes flesh (beautifully illustrated in the poetry of John 1). In the life stories of Jesus we find commonality with the human-ness of a God who is hungry, thirsty, tired, happy, mournful. The crucifixion story shows us the lengths to which God will travel to fully experience the condition of the marginalized human: brutal, humiliating, and wrongful execution. The resurrected Jesus is, however, too often portrayed in sermons and Christian artwork as almost angelic, a ghostly-type figure stripped of the humanity we witnessed pre-crucifixion. Though John’s gospel ends with Jesus’ interaction with the disciples (mainly Thomas) trying to prove his continued humanity, I never really considered Jesus’ ongoing humanity beyond the resurrection. The ascension story shows Jesus rising into the heavenly realms to return to God’s full presence.

Here, Zahnd talks about the incarnation as an hour-glass where the divinity (top half) meets humanity (bottom half) in the middle point. What struck me in those months of doctoral research, and continues to profoundly shape my view of God, is that in the incarnation, God descends, becomes human, and the world experiences a divinization: God’s divine presence enter and changing all things. But also in the incarnation (specifically, the ascension), God-as-human in Christ ascends, still fully human, and the blessed Trinity experiences a humanization of itself. It is a mystical union where we are filled with the presence of God in the Spirit and the divine Trinity is filled with the humanity of Jesus from creation.

This is where I believe our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters are able to perceive a reality we miss in the west. Their doctrine of theosis, that in our salvation we become like God, gives voice to the wild and wonderful notion of God becoming and remaining human in Christ. There is now and always will be a part of God, the person of Jesus, that is fully human. It is a solidarity to creation that is profound and deeply moving.

How does this play out in our liturgies and faith formation? I believe the Eucharist is an easily recognizable experience of this, but so is the community that gathers in song and story that acknowledges and realizes God’s sustaining presence in each other. Perhaps you can think of other ways.

What were your thoughts on Zahnd’s second chapter? How does our worship, prayer, and spirituality embody the same solidarity that God embodies, and how does that move us beyond cliche and kitsch and into wonder and awe?

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