Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part II: Incarnation

If I had to write an blog post on how the Incarnation affects my theology, my thought, and my life, I would rather have to write a book. All my theology is centred around Jesus Christ, who is incarnate - my prayer is incarnational (a point I made tangentially here), when I think of mission or ministry, it is incarnational. My perspective on a theology of creation is incarnational. My thoughts on grace, and how grace and nature intersect, are incarnational.

In short, most of my theology is Incarnational. But what does that mean? For me, the Incarnation is about three things: first, that God does not remain distant from our problems, but through Mary is incarnate and shares in our humanity. This was my point with incarnational intercessory prayer: that when we pray for others, we must take on their poverty as our own, and intercede before God on their behalf. Together with God reaching down to us in human flesh, however, is the elevation of our humanity that comes with it. As St Athanasius writes in his treatise on the Incarnation: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." The Incarnation is the concrete illustration of Jesus saying "I have become what you are so that you can become what I am."

Secondly, the Incarnation does not remove the divinity of Christ. It is the supreme example of the both/and approach to theology, where (as we confess in the Nicene creed) Jesus is true God and true man. Not half and half. Not a mix of divinity and humanity. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. The Incarnation is hardly the only instance of paradoxical unions: Catholic Social Teaching has that combination of solidarity and subsidiarity, soteriology has numerous paradoxical combinations, such as free will and predestination, or faith and works. Trinitarian has three persons in one God. Still, the Incarnation is such a special instance of this both/and principle that it is, after some thought, easy to see why so long was spent arguing about Christology, why so many councils were convened to discuss Christological dogmas. Christ is the self-revelation of God, so this very precise theological investigation of Jesus is fundamental to all theology. This unique combination of divinity and humanity means that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. It implies with the full force of theological fact that "nobody comes to the Father except through [him]." 

Third, the Incarnation elevates the visible. Before the Incarnation, people were right to be sceptical about the divine being presented in any sort of image, and hence the Decalogue has its injunction against graven images. Yet with the Incarnation, what was invisible and spiritual became visible in Christ Jesus. He is the "image of the invisible God", and therefore we can no longer scorn the created order as bearing the mark of God, not only as Creator, but even to the point of representing God. This is exceedingly important for all sacramental theology, though obviously it is most obvious in that most blessed of Sacraments, the Eucharist, where the fullness of the Godhead dwells under the species of bread and wine. In short, there is a divinisation of all of creation, not only humanity. What is this, however, if not a general statement of the fact that grace builds on nature?

These are just three of the underlying principles of the Incarnation that make this doctrine so crucial to Christianity, so crucial to theology, and so crucial to me in particular. I began to understand this in the context of social outreach ministry, when reflecting on intentional community and the vow of poverty that I hope to be making in a few years time. Why do we become poor to help the poor? It is the way of Jesus Christ, as St Paul writes to the Philippians in one of my favourite canticles:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name, 
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11)

As I said, if I could come up with enough material to write a book on anything, it would be on the Incarnation. This, however, is only the briefest collection of points, to which I will add another small one that should merit much lengthier treatment: the Incarnation, in addition to highlighting both/and's in theology, endowing with special importance the visible created order as the means by which the self-communication of God took place, as well as being both and inheritance of our poverty and the exchange of it for riches, it becomes our own model not only insofar as Christ is our model in general, but also insofar as our ecclesiology centres around the Church qua the Body of Christ. One crucial mistake of those who "love Jesus but hate the Church" is that not only did Jesus start the Church, die for the Church, is the Bridegroom of the Church...the Church is also the mystical continuation of the Incarnation, which (though mystical) is still visible. 

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