Friday, January 03, 2014

on the incarnation, with apology to athanasius*

A few weeks ago, my Bible study group sat with John 10 for an hour or so, headlined so neatly in the NRSV as “Jesus the Good Shepherd.” And, yes, in fact, John does have Jesus declare himself to be the good shepherd…and the one true vine, the bread of life, the light of the world, the way, the truth, the life.

But John 10 also has a frustrating little paragraph where Jesus declares himself to be the GATE:

“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Uh, what was that? You’re the…gate? The…sheepgate? Eh? We struggled with the text together for a while. Was this an exclusivist text, meant, as its so often read, to condemn all NONBELIEVERS to hellacious existences? After all, if Jesus is the freaking GATE, you can’t ever get in without going through him. And John goes on, later, to claim almost exactly that.

But that just wasn’t working for us, especially with the good shepherd imagery that comes next…the shepherd who goes after any single lost one, the shepherd who knows all his sheep and whose sheep all know him. The good shepherd is not an exclusive metaphor. So what was up with this GATE thing?


I’ve been thinking about incarnation a lot recently. ‘Tis the season, I suppose. Flannery (my favorite) writes about it a lot, mostly in fiction, but on occasion in explicit terms. In one of her letters, she says she is always astonished at how much the Church talks about the body:

For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.” (The Habit of Being)
…but the body, glorified.

Now, here’s the thing: being embodied is not the same as being incarnate. My friend Josh often points out that in order for incarnation to happen, there has to be an original THING, existing before the body, taking on flesh. Humans are all embodied creatures – we do not and cannot exist without bodies. But Christ was not just an embodied human being. Christ was God, incarnate. Christ was God, in human form. God became incarnated. Pleased in flesh to dwell, as opposed to us humans, whose flesh is the only thing allowing us to dwell anywhere at all.


I sit here and eat my scrambled eggs and kiwi fruit, drink the strong brewed coffee, chew, swallow, digest. My friend Beth taught me how to appreciate the tiny delights of cooking, savoring not just the taste of food, but the sound of a knife chopping crisp peppers, the heft and feel of a ripe mango in my palm, the rich, earthy smells of potatoes crisping in the oven or beans baking, slowly, in a crockpot. And, at risk of being small: all of this is what God chose to inhabit. All of this is where God chose to dwell.
My cuticles are dry and ripped. My elbows are protesting this winter storm by cracking open no matter how much salve I apply. My back is aching a bit, scaring me about the state of my one remaining, faulty ovary and the cyst that’s been slowly growing there for a few years.
I was at home last week, hugging my family and kissing their cheeks, glad for the closeness and the affection. A guy I saw last month ended our midnight pancake date with a big bear hug and a bearded kiss on my cheek – something I’d generally hate from someone I’d just met, but something that he somehow pulled off casually, comfortingly.
This, all of this, is what we got when we got Jesus. Our bodies are broken and frayed and unpredictable. They allow us to get close to other people, and they also provide impenetrable barriers keeping us from them. And God – the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, the one who spoke over the depths of chaos and called forth life, the one whose only response when asked to declare herself is “I am,” THAT God – decided to dwell in one of these decidedly handicapped, limited, clay-pot-like vessels.
These bodies are awesome, and they also suck all manner of unmentionables (how strange, eh, that even our insults involve bodily functions). So why in the WORLD would the creator of said world decide to live in one, if even for a while?

And there it is, that awkward little sentence from Jesus, trying to explain that he is God Incarnate: I am the gate. I didn’t jump the fence, you guys. I didn’t get beamed into this existence for a second and swept back out. Nobody teleported me here. I didn’t use magic. I am not a thief coming after your precious livelihood, trying to get you to believe some existential bullshit that has nothing to do with your skin-and-bones, day-to-day, embodied human existence. I came in the same way you did, crying and screaming and covered in gunk. I was borne by a woman, born with a body, had growing pains and cuticle problems and I will, eventually, one way or another, stop breathing, quit the blood flowing through my veins, shut down and die.

Jesus didn’t jump the fence. God, incarnate, here, with us. And somehow, though I haven’t quite puzzled this one out yet, that makes life worth living; makes it possible to live the life that is really life; makes these bodies and this moment and those people part and parcel of life abundant.

And, holy crap, thanks be to God for that.

*Athanasius of Alexandria wrote an ancient treatise, "On the Incarnation of the Word," which says things like "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," i.e., everything I just wrote and more, in both better and more beautiful ways.

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