28 March 2013

The Cross of the Incarnate One

 by Georges Rouault (1871-1958)
Meditation for Maundy Thursday

John 1:1-18

It’s unusual to hear the opening lines of John’s Gospel read during Holy Week.  We’re used to hearing how the “Word became flesh [– incarnated –] and lived among us” (John 1: 14) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Incarnation for Christmas.  Crucifixion and Resurrection for Easter. Sometimes during Christmas we sing carols about how Jesus was born to die or that the shadow of the cross is cast over the manger.  Scripture doesn’t exactly put it this way. Our hymns do, but not scripture.  Rarely, though, do we bring the Incarnated One, this one born in a manger, and place him on a cross.

In John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen says, “Anyone can be sentimental about the nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer. ‘If you don’t believe in Easter,’ Owen said. ‘Don’t kid yourself—Don’t call yourself a Christian.’” I take his point, but I would like to suggest that this is a perfect example of what I think we should not do.  With all due respect to Mr. Irving, I think he gets it wrong. We can’t separate Christmas and Easter.  Nor can we favor one over the other. We cannot separate Incarnation from Crucifixion and Resurrection. 

If anything, the early church reversed the order, they considered the Incarnation the “main event,” the greater mystery, not the death and resurrection. Why?  Because as the early theologians often said, “What God has not assumed, God has not saved.” That’s how the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) put it. "What God has not assumed, God has not saved.” In other words, in order for humanity to be saved, it has to be assumed, taken on, saved from within, enfleshed, incarnated.  This is what makes the incarnation so extraordinary.  And without the claim of incarnation the crucifixion is “just” the death of another innocent human victim in history, and the resurrection, still mysterious and wondrous, is the resurrection of a human victim.  Without the Divine-human mix in Jesus, his life and ministry lose something of their power. It’s the Incarnate One on the cross.

Theologian Wendy Farley makes this clear:  “The cry of dereliction of the Incarnate One on the cross inflames history by enacting the deep truth that there is nowhere we could go on earth or in the heavens above the earth or in the deep under the earth and fail to find the Beloved.  Nothing severs the unity between Divinity and humanity.  Nothing obscures from the Beloved the radiance of our own spiritual beauty.” [1] Divinity and humanity linked on the cross.  Nothing can obscure that connection.  Nothing can sever that link, that union, that relationship – even the abyss of death.  Humanity and Divinity; Divinity and humanity.  Flesh and spirit; spirit and flesh.  Not either/or, but both and.  Always both-and, held together in tension.

All of us are servants of the Incarnate One who calls us to love and to serve one another, not in the abstract, but concretely, physically, in spirit and flesh.  This bread and this cup are not “spiritual,” they are real, tangible, material.  The bread and juice we will take into our bodies and digest; and they will become part of us.  We’re called to embody Christ in tangible ways, called to embody love. 

Being a servant of the Incarnate One was beautifully demonstrated today in the images of Pope Francis washing feet this evening in Rome.  Washing the feet, not of priests or cardinals, but twelve young offenders, aged 14 to 21.  And for the first time, a Pope washed the feet of two women, which was significant enough, but one woman was a Serbian Muslim.

Pope Francis, Maundy Thursday
 foot washing in Rome.
There are people in the church and beyond the walls of the church this night who need to know that this Christian life is more than just an ephemeral spiritual exercise that has nothing to do with real life; instead, it’s about real life, really real life, the real lives of real women and men and children who have been to hell and back, who need to know, in tangible, personal ways that God is with them and for them, that love continues to be embodied and incarnated in the world.  God is with us.

We’re going to read the opening verses of John on Good Friday and again on Easter morning to drive the point home.  The cross and resurrection proclaim the grace of the Incarnate One, who comes in the flesh for the sake of humanity, in order to heal and restore us and make us whole, who comes to serve, who comes in love, “who having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1), and calls us to do the same.

[1] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away:  A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 166.

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