the Perfecting of the incarnation
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
I have often wondered what Jesus means by this statement found in the Gospel of John. What is it about his death that draws all men and women to himself? I believe an aspect of this ‘drawing’ lies in an understanding of the Incarnation and its ramifications concerning our salvation. I have understood the Incarnation as the single event of the Logos, or Word, being implanted in the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit with the result being the birth of Jesus. While I believe this to be true, it is incomplete. The Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, IS our salvation. Jesus has come to assume our human nature, and it is in this assumption of all our humanity that our redemption is secured. The Incarnation began with the birth of Jesus but continued throughout his life on earth. Jesus takes on our flesh to experience everything we experience and to be tempted in all the ways we are tempted. He does this to identify with us, to become one of us, and by his divine nature to find and restore “that which was lost.”
He comes to redeem all of our human nature. However, there is one aspect common to all humankind that He did not experience fully until his death on the cross. This is the state of despair. To be human is to despair and, as Albert Camus notes, “for God to be a man, he must despair.” We have all felt abandoned by God but Jesus did not experience this until Gethsemane and the cross. By drinking the cup of affliction and despair he completed the process of the Incarnation and of our redemption. He gained knowledge of the forsakenness and lostness we all feel at times. Recall Jesus’ baptism. What a wonderful moment! Jesus, living to please the Father, receives the affirmation “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” There was no moment in Jesus’ earthly life when He pleased the Father more than when He willingly went to the cross. And yet, there is no vocal affirmation from God. No words of approval or comfort. Only silence from the Father and the boisterous ridicule of men. It is on the cross that Jesus becomes fully human, and likewise, it is on the cross that we become fully divine.
What do we learn from Jesus as he encounters despair? We can learn much from his responses. First, he cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Afterwards he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In his despair, He does not give up hope and faith in God but remembers his Father’s goodness. He quotes from the Psalms. The importance of this cannot be overstated. He has stored up words of God in his memory and He chooses to remember them and utter them during his forsakenness. This is one way lectio divina, committing Scripture to memory, and liturgical prayers bear fruit in us. We must have a reservoir of words of truth stored in our memory for times such as these in which we find ourselves now. In addition to reciting true words, Jesus surrenders his spirit to the Father. He lets go knowing his Father’s hands are good and trustworthy. Throughout certain days I will repeat “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” It is a helpful reminder that even in times of distance and darkness I can know that Christ is with me and the Father is doing his work. We must allow ourselves to be drawn to Christ. We must consent. One way is to not fight and struggle during our moments or years of despair but to abandon our understanding and commit our spirits into the loving hands of God. It is darkness. It is a death. However, this is the hidden and obscure place where God secretly works in our souls to fully effect our union in Him. It is here, a place that resembles nowhere, that we become participants in a rebirth–a birth not of flesh but of God.
the door of mercy
"Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal
obligations, but to 'soften' our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden 'thirst and hunger' for communion with God."
-Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent
It happens each year. The Christmas season comes to an end, bringing with it the dawn of the short-lived time of Epiphany. Sometime around mid to late January my mind begins to slowly turn to the fast approaching Ash Wednesday and season of Lent. It happens each year, however my heart and mind continue to experience it differently and anew. It is a time of repentance. How does this idea of repentance sound to you? What thoughts and images emerge? These are important questions to wrestle with in order to prepare our hearts and minds to receive what God has in store for us. For our heavenly Father always seeks our good, is always inviting us to rest more securely in His infinite love. It is from intimate knowledge of God’s unconditional love that true repentance emerges. Indeed, the capacity to embrace repentance depends entirely upon one’s image of God.
Our heavenly Father/Mother is ever gently inviting all people into deeper communion within the Trinity. When Jesus proclaims “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” we must remember that these words are “full of grace and truth” and are an invitation into friendship. The Greek word used in the NT and translated as repentance is metanoia, which means change in mind. It is in the spirit of metanoia that Jesus offers us to view our Father, the world, and ourselves differently. It is a refreshing and renewal of the mind, which leads to a change in life. When Jesus says “Repent, and believe.” It is as if he is saying stop living in disbelief and believe in the good news of the nearness of God. Lent is a time for us to remember and to ground our lives more profoundly in the truth of the nearness and goodness of God. It is a time to come home to God and to ourselves as well.
One aspect of the miracle of the Incarnation is the willingness of divinity to fully embrace humanity. But how unwilling we can become to embrace our own humanity! As human beings, we are weak, fickle, and prone to despair. Spiritually speaking, we become blind and fall asleep. Our awareness of this can cause us to despise this part of ourselves. We hide it from ourselves and others. We create new personas to disguise our despairing humanity and pretend that all is well. Oh, the time and energy spent on this futile endeavor which leads only to greater anxiety and despair! But Christ loves our weak humanity! He knows that we are as sheep without a shepherd and has compassion upon us. Therefore, He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are they that mourn” for in His embrace we are comforted and held secure in the kingdom of God. This is one of the gifts of the Lenten season. We are invited to learn to embrace ourselves as we truly are and to “love our own poverty as Jesus loves it.”
To experience God’s intimate embrace and mercy, we must learn to acknowledge and to fully accept ourselves in all truth and humility. Cistercian monk Michael Casey beautifully notes the correlation between the confession of sin and God’s mercy.
To believe that we are without sin (or at least really shameful sins) is to falsify our relationship with God. Somehow, in a manner that baffles human intelligence, it is the awareness of the concrete need for forgiveness that provides us with access to the mercy of God. It is only through the door of mercy that we can find access to the heart of God.” 
If eternal life is knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ, then sin can be viewed, in part, as the lack of this knowledge. This ignorance of God is a root of sin, and conversely, it is the knowledge of God, Who is rich in mercy, which is its cure. As we confess our ignorance and sin, Christ readily meets us with open arms. Like the desperate yet hopeful Zaccheus, Christ sees us in our earnest desire, comes to stay with us, and becomes our salvation. It is through confession that we experience God’s forgiveness and mercy and thereby come to a deeper knowledge of His ever-expanding acceptance and love.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are invitations to walk through the “door of mercy” to experience God’s ongoing embrace. It is a time to remind us once again that God is with us and for us, even in–or especially in–the awareness and confession of our sin. May we not shrink in doubt or fear as we sit in consciousness of our sin but let us rather recall to mind the truth of God’s heart and desire, which is to be in communion with us. May we joyfully receive the gifts of God’s mercy and forgiveness this Lenten season.
 Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969), 31.
 Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956), 26.
 Michael Casey, Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology (Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2004), 34.
I am doing something which I recall doing often in the past—writing thoughts to friends. I have not really had the space, time, energy, capacity, wherewithal, etc. etc. to think and write for a long time it seems. Lately, I notice some of that old desire and energy resurfacing. Unfortunately, you get to bear the brunt of it.
I am going to just share some thoughts from a conversation I recently had. You may think me mad but it was a conversation with myself. What is even funnier is that this was part of a prayer time I had set aside with the intention of not thinking but just simply being with God. After a few minutes I realized that I had plunged back into thinking. I had successfully turned off my brain a few times and returned back to center on God but eventually I relapsed. Here is what I was thinking about.
I was listening to a conversation with some acquaintances and they mentioned how Christianity had no answers. As I thought about this sentiment a few thoughts came to mind. We definitely live in a post-modern age where the god of religion is indeed dead. Albert Camus comes to mind. [By the way, I love Camus. He is the James Bond of philosophers.] One of his main tenets was absurdism. He believed the world to be absolutely meaningless and absurd. He describes this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is the Corinthian king of Greek mythology who had to suffer the eternal torment of slowly pushing a huge boulder up a steep hill. He would use all his strength and energy to get the boulder up to the top and just as he is about to have it ascend and reach the top it falls out of his clutch and back down to the bottom of the hill. This is his eternal fate. It is what he does perpetually. Camus says this aptly describes our lives. He relates it to our work weeks where we work set hours each day Monday through Friday. We have a weekend and then repeat. He then gives two traditional ways of escaping from the reality of absurdity: suicide and religion. Religion definitely can be used as a means of escape—or I should say misused—as we hope for and dream of heaven and a happy afterlife. He goes on to give his remedy for living in this absurd universe. In a word, it is acceptance. I find this beautiful and wise. He says that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
However, can you imagine the ridicule a Christian would receive having offered this advice? Camus is pulling wisdom from a mythological tale and part of his solution is imagining!! I find this odd that Camus is hailed by many as a true prophet for our times. Christians are often mocked for believing in tales and being deluded by beliefs and imaginative things. Can you imagine if someone suggested the solution for life is to imagine Christ happy on the cross? Both are tremendously helpful!! I do think of Sisyphus from time to time. However, Camus escapes scrutiny while Christianity does not.
Back to christianity not having answers. It is not that is does not have answers (in many ways it does not have answers). The problem is twofold. One, our expectation for the answer. Secondly, how we are looking for the answers. In addition to seeking answers in the wrong place, it is primarily how we are seeking that presents the obstacle.
The problem with Descartes. Ever since Descartes and the exaltation of the intellect, reasoning, and science, mankind ( I am using mankind intentionally since the bulk of the influence in this philosophical era stems from men) has come to believe that all can be proven by reason and science. If an idea or thing cannot be proven by scientific evidence and logical thought, then it is false or does not exist. This spirit of reasoning and scrutiny quickly spread to the realm of Christianity, especially in Protestant circles.
Let’s fast forward to Neitsche and Sartre and to where we are now. After three centuries of seeking God with our reason and science, God was officially declared dead. And even now there is a pervasive skepticism in Western cultures and peoples. The reason is that we are looking for God, the divine Source of all things, with the wrong faculty, namely our intellects. God cannot be truly known by any means of rational thought or logical reason. It cannot happen. The divine can only be known through a received grace.
Do you mean to tell me that one can only know God when He/She chooses to reveal Himself or give Himself to a person? He just willy-nilly chooses to grace some while others he does not? I asked myself these questions and they reveal in part how I view God. If we have an arbitrary and capricious Father, then there is no point in devoting ourselves to loving Him. He will dish out his mercies as he so chooses. However, if we know that our Father is full of compassion and mercy and that He greatly desires and even rejoices in giving Himself to us, then any absence or unknowing of God rests on us and not God. We can devote ourselves to such a Being or Person. However, we have given up the project of knowing God.
And I believe it is because we seek him using our intellects where he cannot be found. I believe the true method of seeking and finding God lies in the will. Another word is heart, or through love. We must nurture and prepare our souls to receive the divine blessings of God. Our culture and, you and I, want quick, ready-made answers to life and God. In this vein, there truly are no answers!! They do not exist. We must learn to devote our whole selves and life to prayer. Yes, initially this involves meditation and the intellect. It involves effort and discipline. We do all this out of love and desire. At first, we do not or may not have this desire but we ask for it. God will graciously give it because it is necessary for union with Him.
Abraham Heschel says that we must look for meaning beyond absurdity. I do not know if he was thinking of Camus when he wrote this but there is truth in it. My own thoughts are that yes, the universe and our lives are absurd and meaningless, at least in appearance, and it is good for us to accept this. The only reason I exist and am here is because the divine Source of all things loves and creates me. I get to discover that love and participate in it. However, it does take devoted seeking and yearning. We must look beyond the absurdity of our existence!! We must “plunge into the darkness” and “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love” if we are to receive the divine secret.
Thoughts on Repentance
I agree with you that repentance, or metanoia, is invitational. In the spirit of metanoia, I think Jesus invites us to view our Father, ourselves, and the world differently. It is a refreshing and renewal of the mind, which leads to a change in life. When Jesus says “Repent, and believe.” It is like he is saying stop living in disbelief and believe. Believe what?—the good news of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. The gospel of John relentlessly expounds upon the correlation between belief and eternal life. This gospel does not use the term kingdom of heaven/God but uses eternal life. I view them as interchangeable. However, I think Jesus uses kingdom terminology with Nicodemus. John culminates his theology in John 15-17 with the ideas of abiding in Christ, friendship with God!!, and the oneness of all with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When I think of the fruits of repentance, love, peace, joy, hope, gentleness, self-control, etc. come to mind. I cannot produce these things on my own. If I try, it only produces the opposite—strained effort, frustration, worry, anxiety, fear, etc. I believe the metanoia, or change in mind, is the belief in the truth that Christ abides/dwells in me and is always inviting me further into the depths of his love and discipleship/friendship. When I am resting in this truth, when I am indeed abiding in Christ, then the fruits of love, joy, peace come forth unstrained. I am resting. The fruits are the outpouring of the intimate union of soul and God. My ego has managed for a time to get out of the way. I realize I am rambling, maybe. I think the point I am attempting to describe relates to your question are we turning toward Something or away from something. There must be Something we are turning towards before we will turn away from ourselves. And this Something must be desirable. It cannot be something that we feel like we ought to do or must do. There must be an attraction. And sometimes, like the prodigal son, maybe we are unable to recognize what is truly good until we have reached “the end of our ropes.” Like you said in option 3, I think the invitation is to constantly and humbly turn our attention back to God. It is in this turning and consent to acknowledge God that it becomes possible for love, joy, peace to flow from their source within ourselves in God. I guess these would be the “fruits of repentance.” Because they would be the fruits of a renewed union with God, or the renewed consciousness of our union with God. If repentance is the turning of our attention back to God, then our life is one of perpetual repentance. Is this what Jesus meant when he said to seek, to ask, and to knock? When I am not seeking, it is because I believe I am okay that I do not need anything. However, the poor in spirit will always be diligently seeking and begging!! And theirs is the kingdom of heaven!!!
-Perhaps this aptly describes what my words have been leading to. I found this quote yesterday which I had written over a year or so ago. It is from Merton:
“Blessed are they that mourn.”
This peculiar sorrow of the third beatitude, the sorrow of the soul that realizes its exile and can no longer find any consolation save in longing for home, is the beginning of our liberation.
I have found this to be true. I found discovered two paradoxical truths. One is our intimate union with God. In some way, our souls are knit in God and God interwoven in our souls. Eckhart calls it the ground of our soul. Others have called it a divine spark. There is Something within us that has created us and loves us. It is very near. The other truth is there also seems to be a vast chasm of difference between myself and God. Maybe this is what Merton refers to when he says that our soul realizes its exile.
-I will relate this exile to my confession and need for repentance. I am not looking for pity but tears come as I think of all this. When I think of my exile. I have such high ideals and thoughts of God!! I am an idealist. Which is fine except that my life continually does not match up to my ideals. I can be/am inpatient and disgruntled with myself and family. I can be discontent with my family and my life. Lesli has told me once or twice that she feels that no one in our family can ever live up to what I expect…that I am always trying to improve everyone. “How condemning!! How shameful!!” These are my thoughts as I relate this comments. I say I want to follow Jesus and love God but I fail to love even my own family. But how can I listen to and accept the invitation to turn my attention to God? I think you are right in what are some concrete practices I can engage in that will turn my attention from self to God and to remember his goodness. I will let you know. I have recently thought of writing letters to my kids—letters of encouragement and blessing. Maybe I should add apologies in there as well!
-I am so sorry for rambling on! I have just written down what has come out without deliberate organization of thought. Maybe we can continue to write/talk. The more I think and write the more I realize I do not truly know. Or rather that there is more to consider and to integrate into my heart and mind and life.
With Joyful Abandon
“Every act should be considered from the point of view not of its object but of its impulsion. The question is not ‘What is the aim?’ It is ‘What is the origin?’”
To write or not to write that is the question posed to me. Yet behind this question lies deeper existentialist questions such as ‘to live or not to live,’ ‘to become or not to become.’ I have pondered the idea of writing for years but have allowed myself to be assailed by innumerable doubts and fears. What shall I write about? To whom will I be writing? Will the content and style of writing be good enough? Unknowns such as these have plagued me. And they still do. Perhaps this is an odd first entry for a writing project but I would like to describe the origins of this writing and for whom it is intended.
I have read and re-read the above quote from Simone many times over the past several years. It popped into my head just yesterday as I was again grappling with the idea of writing, followed by a little bit of light and clarity. I have recently been sitting with?, considering?, asking for?…detachment. Detachment is a slippery state. The more one tries to grasp it, the more elusive it becomes. Indeed, it is a gift. According to Meister Eckhart, it is the “one thing necessary.” The turning of my attention to the origins and essence of my need to write allows me to become detached from the results. I can
focus on the source of the stream as opposed to the water itself.
Teresa of Avila has further prompted me recently with the surprisingly uplifting phrase joyful abandon. It is surprising for me to be coming from her. She urges her fellow sisters on the spiritual path to “remember to walk with joyful abandon.” What an image of true Christian detachment! I myself am more familiar with melancholy abandon. Joyful abandonment presupposes great trust and faith in God. It requires an image of the divine as a benevolent Source of goodness, charity, and friendship. Jeremiah encourages us to boast in this God who delights in “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.” It is this loving Father who is the origin and source of all life and any spiritual endeavor. Teresa continues in saying, “Be confident; Don’t hold back your heart’s desires. Believe in the power of God.”
While detachment and joyful abandonment give me the freedom to write, a main impetus toward writing has been the encouragement of friends over the years. They have shared that maybe I have a gift in writing. I do not know that to be true, but I am learning that gifts are to be shared for the benefit of others. I desire to walk into that invitation with open hands. Maybe my words will be a gift to some. Maybe repulsive to others! Again, another surprise invitation from Saint Teresa. She advises those in the beginning stages of meditation and prayer to “not hide your talents.” Again, I do not know if this is a talent, but it might be the only thing in my life that could be considered a talent. Although I must profess a natural talent for melancholia.
I have discussed briefly what has helped me get to the beginning stages of writing. There are others as well which I can return to at another time. I have delayed in writing as I have wrestled with whom my intended audience will be. There are two audiences I would like to accompany on the journey. The two groups seem to be separated by a great chasm with no apparent interrelation but perhaps a connection will emerge. The first group are those on the spiritual path, primarily those following the contemplative tradition. I write so as to walk with you as a friend. I have practiced prayer and meditation for several years in the hopes of becoming drawn deeper into intimacy with God. Those who choose to walk this path know that it is a dark path. It necessarily leads one into unknowing and poverty of spirit. I recall Thomas Merton remarking after years of being in the monastery that upon his entrance into the monastery he felt that he had many answers but that now he did not have any answers. I find this to be true. It is not that we do not have answers but that our previous ones have proven inadequate. A deeper, more intimate knowledge of God involves, by necessity, the letting go of ideas and experiences that are less than Him. And everything is less than when compared to the divine being. Even though we may not have “answers,” it is vitally important to share in friendship our experiences of God. For in the mystical body of Christ all gifts are for the community.
You might now have guessed at the content and origins of this project. I would boil it down to Christian mysticism. It will not be an extensive, organized survey or academic study of the subject. If you are looking for that, please read Thomas Merton or Evelyn Underhill. It is my firm belief that true Christianity is a mystical religion. We will talk about mysticism in more detail, but what I mean, in short, by mystical is that the divine Source of all existence desires intimate friendship with us. It is in Christ that this friendship develops as He reveals the nature of God to us. Throughout the ages, certain individuals have especially accepted the divine invitations into friendship with God. We tend to call these people mystics and saints. We will meet some of these people and discuss their lives and works.
This leads me to the other group of people whom I hope to encourage. In many ways, they are the primary audience. These are people who deeply desire God and love God yet find themselves unwanted by religion, or perhaps find religion undesirable. The beautiful truth which Christ reveals is that “there is that of God in everyone” and that this God desires friendship with you and I. We all, regardless of race, nationality, religion, are created in the image of God and there is deep within us all a secret, eternal divine spark. We must tend to and cultivate this spark. I hope we can find ways to discover and rediscover the spark. It is this spark which is the origin of these writings.
Let us walk with joyful abandon in the knowledge that you promise us friendship through and with Christ. Let us remember that when you promise bread you do not give a stone.
"Worship the Lord in
the beauty of holiness"
Mr. Russell Tillman