Deep Incarnation, Deep Resurrection  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Many Christians seem to think that the physical world we inhabit, indeed, our very bodies, are props that will be discarded when we die and "go to heaven".  The physicality of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the cornerstone of traditional Christian belief, all too easily falls off the radar of even doctrinally orthodox believers.  The inability of many to connect emotionally with the earth and the physical cosmos is a contributing factor to the present crisis of environmental degradation.

A corrective to this viewpoint is found in the work of Danish Lutheran theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen.  In Incarnation: on the scope and depth of Christology (Fortress 2015), a collection of symposium papers which he edited, he presents the concept of  "deep Incarnation".  Taking into account the fact that the human body contains about 25 of the 118 elements in the periodic table; that these elements were created by billions of years of cosmological evolution; that all lifeforms today are descended from one unicellular organism that existed over 2 billion years ago; Gregersen asserts that when the Divine Logos became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, what was assumed was not merely the flesh of a first-century Galilean Jew, but the 13.7 billion years of cosmological and biological evolution encapsulated in that Jew.  The Incarnation is God uniting in love with the whole of God's creation.  Likewise, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus is a foreshadowing not only of the resurrection of all human beings, but of the restoration of the cosmos itself, so eloquently proclaimed by Paul in Romans 8: 19-22.

Some of the implications of deep incarnation and deep resurrection are discussed by theologian Elizabeth A Johnson in "Jesus and the Cosmos: Soundings in Deep Christology", found on pp 133-156 of the Gregersen book.

For theology, the incarnation entails something that is not at all self-evident for monotheistic belief.  Here the transcendent Creator God who brings the world into being and sustains it at every moment chooses to join that world in the flesh so that it becomes a part of God's own divine history.  "The statement of God's Incarnation--of his becoming material--is the most basic statement of Christology", observes Karl Rahner...By becoming incarnate Holy Mystery acquires a genuine time, a life story, a death, and does so as a participant in the history of the cosmos...Becoming part of the material world allows the living God to be graciously present in a profound way that is not otherwise possible.

"Deep resurrection" pushes interpretation beyond its human scope to include a blessed future for the whole natural world...If this person Jesus of Nazareth--composed of star stuff and earth stuff, whose life was a genuine part of the historical and biological community of Earth, whose body existed in a network of relationships extending to the whole physical universe--if such "a piece of this world, real to the core" [Karl Rahner] at death surrendered his life in love to the living God and is now forever with God in glory, then this signals the coming redemption not just of other human beings, but of all flesh, the whole creation. The whole natural world, all of  matter in its endless permutations, will not be left behind or rejected but will likewise be transfigured by the resurrecting action of the Creator Spirit.

Lancelot Andrewes' Adoration  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) was a distinguished bishop, prolific theologian, and compelling preacher--he was a great favorite of James I.  But he seems to be more accessible to 21st century people through his Preces Privatae, a notebook of prayers for his own use that was not published during his lifetime.   Gifted with a passionate intellectual and spiritual curiosity, his superb classical education enabled him to read both the Latin and Greek Fathers in the original.  He drew on  this material to supplement what some might consider to be the sparse resources of the official Book of Common Prayer.  "An Act of Adoration" is a good example of Andrewes as a man of prayer.


O God the Father of heaven,
     who hast marvellously created the world out of nothing,
      who dost govern and uphold heaven and earth with thy power,
     who didst deliver thine only begotten for us unto death;

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
     who didst will to be incarnate of a virgin,
     who hast washed us from our sins by thy precious blood,
     who rising from the dead didst ascend victorious to heaven:

O God the Holy Ghost, the Comforter,
     who didst descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove,
     who coming upon the apostles didst appear in fiery tongues,
     who dost visit and confirm with thy grace the hearts of the saints:

O Sacred, Higher, Eternal, Blissful, Blessed Trinity,
     always to be praised, yet always unspeakable:
          O Father good,
          O Son loving,
          O Spirit kind,
     whose majesty is unspeakable,
     whose power is incomparable,
     whose goodness is inestimable,
     whose work is life,
     whose love is grace,
     whose contemplation is glory:

Deity, Divinity, Unity, Trinity:
     Thee I worship, Thee I call upon,
     with the whole affection of my heart I bless now
          and for evermore.

Macrina On Universal Salvation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Episcopal Church today remembers Macrina (330-379), one of the few women to appear in the Patristic writers.  She came from an amazing family; three of her brothers were bishops--Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste--and she persuaded her widowed mother to turn the family estate into a monastery.  A family monastery, as things turned out. 

Macrina is surnamed "the Teacher" because of her prominence as a spiritual leader.  She wrote nothing that has survived, but her brother Gregory frequently quotes her in two of his own works, the Life of Macrina and On the Soul and the Resurrection.  The latter contains her thoughts on universal restoration, a frequent topic in Eastern Christian thought.  It is quoted below in a post found on the Tentmaker site. 


He probably gives us her exact sentiments in his own language on universal restoration, in which she rises into a grand description of the purifying effects of all future punishment, and the separation thereby of the evil from the good in man, and the entire destruction of all evil. Her words tell us their mutual views. On the "all in all" of Paul she says:
"The Word seems to me to lay down the doctrine of the perfect obliteration of wickedness, for if God shall be in all things that are, obviously wickedness shall not be in them."
"For it is necessary that at some time evil should be removed utterly and entirely from the realm of being. For since by its very nature evil cannot exist apart from free choice, when all free choice becomes in the power of God, shall not evil advance to utter annihilation so that no receptacle for it at all shall be left?"
In this conversation in which the sister sustains by far the leading part, the resurrection (anastasis) and the restoration (apokatastasis) are regarded as synonymous, as when Macrina declares that "the resurrection is only the restoration of human nature to its pristine condition."
On Phil. 2:10, Macrina declares. "When the evil has been exterminated in the long cycles of the ├Žons nothing shall be left outside the boundaries of good, but even from them shall be unanimously uttered the confession of the Lordship of Christ."
She said: "The process of healing shall be proportioned to the measure of evil in each of us, and when the evil is purged and blotted out, there shall come in each place to each immortality and life and honor."

David Steindl-Rast on Contemplation and Action  

Posted by Joe Rawls

David Steindl-Rast (b 1926) is a native of Austria.  After receiving a doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna, he migrated to the United States and, after a few years, became a Benedictine monk of Mt Saviour Abbey in upstate New York.  Beginning in the 1960's, he gained  a reputation as a noted spiritual teacher and writer.  He is especially eminent in the area of Christian-(Zen) Buddhist dialog.  In a wide-ranging interview that originally appeared in the journal Parabola he addresses the supposed opposition between contemplation and social action.  The excerpt below is taken from The Inner Journey:  Views From the Christian Tradition, Lorraine Kisly, ed, Morning Light Press, 2006, p 74.


You can't really be a contemplative, unless you want to change the world.  You want to change yourself, and that's where the struggle comes in.  By changing yourself, you're beginning to change the world.  In fact, you're changing the world much more by changing yourself than if you're running around blindly, involved in one cause after another.  But the difference between what we call the apostolic and the contemplative orders, or vocations, is that the apostolic approach says, "We live in this world, we're responsible for it, and we have to do something to change the world for the better."  The monastic answer is, "We are not strong enough to change the world in general.  Let's change that little spot where we are.  And let's put a wall around it and say this is as far as we go, as far as our strength reaches.  And now within that narrow confine, let's change the world, make it more what it's supposed to be."  That approach has its drawbacks, too, because it can become ingrown, its own private little affair.  And the apostolic approach has its limitations, because it can become so watered down that nothing spiritual remains.  So we need the two; they are the poles of one continuum.  People who are now engaged in apostolically changing the world need to come back periodically to a monastic environment where what they are trying to achieve everywhere is to a certain extent achieved already.  And if the world could gradually become what a good monastery or Zen center is, that would be fine.  The monastic communities can provide the strength, the encouragement to realize that true order can be achieved.

Protestantism and the Disenchantment of the World  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In The Twilight of Atheism:  the rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world (Doubleday 2004), Alister McGrath(who very much self-identifies as a Protestant Anglican) explores the ways in which the Protestant Reformation, or at least large parts of it, inadvertently paved the way for the emergence of atheism as an intellectually coherent worldview in the 18th century.  It did this by de-emphasizing the sacraments to such a large extent and replacing them with such a narrow focus on preaching and Scripture reading that God became reduced to an intellectual concept, divorced from the world's material sensuality.  The quote is found on p 212.


Protestantism offered a God who was known through the preaching of the word of God; Catholicism, while not being inattentive to the importance of preaching, reinforced that message visually.  Slowly but surely, any sense of God as a living, engrossing reality began to slip from Protestantism.  The dull, joyless, and unattractive churches of Protestantism conveyed the subliminal message that the God who was to be found in them shared these disagreeable characteristics.  Protestantism has been chided by many cultural analysts for its failure to stimulate the arts.  The great Welsh poet RS Thomas castigated the movement for this failure, dubbing it "the adroit castrator of art" and "the bitter negation of song and dance and the heart's innocent joy".  Our concern is, however, rather more profound.  Protestantism encouraged the notion that God was absent from human culture and experience.

A substantial part of my activity as a scholar focuses on the history and thought of the Protestant Reformation.  As a result, I am a frequent visitor to some of the great centers of the movement, including Zurich.  I have often sat within the Great Minster of that city, looking around its vast interior, unadulterated by imagery or decoration, and noting the values it affirms--most notably, the absolute priority accorded to preaching, made clear by the size and location of the pulpit.  Its simplicity is admirable, and totally in conformity with the spirit of Zwingli's reform program of the 1520's.  But the building speaks subtly of a silent, absent, and distant God.  The Protestant reluctance to picture God has all too often led to an envisioning of the world that is bleak and barren, where it ought to be saturated with the radiance of the glory of God.  Once more, it is a small step from declaring that God cannot be pictured to suggesting that he cannot be conceived as a living reality in the rich imaginative life of humanity.

EL Mascall on the Ongoing Humanity of Jesus  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of the Visitation, Anglican theologian Eric L Mascall (1905-1993) provides some insight into the notion that Christ did not stop being human after the Ascension.  It is found in "Theotokos:  The Place of Mary in the Work of Salvation"  in The Blessed Virgin Mary.  Essays by Anglican Writers, ed EL Mascall and HS Box.  1963, Darton, Longman, and Todd.  Hat-tip to Zachary Guiliano and The Living Church (May 31, 2016).


 If Christ had ceased to be man at his ascension — and it is to be feared that only too many Christians unreflectively assume that he did — then Mary would have ceased to be his mother, our incorporation into him would be a mere fiction, and so would our relation to him. But the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation declares that the eternal Son of God, who at one moment in the world’s history took human nature in the womb of Blessed Mary, is, in that human nature, man for evermore. […] Mary is the mother of Jesus and of those who are incorporated into him, the mother of the Church which is his Mystical Body and which, because a man and his bride are one flesh, is also Christ’s bride.
The Incarnation took place at the Annunciation, when in response to Mary’s Fiat, the Word was made very man in her womb. But the further fact of her relation to the Church and its members had to wait for the Ascension and for the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the Church, whose archetypal substance already existed in the manhood of Jesus, was fully and visibly constituted in power. In the Ascension the Lord’s human nature was withdrawn from human sight and touch. From then until Pentecost the apostolic group was the Church in expectancy and potentiality, awaiting its activation by the Spirit and the communication to it of the full reality of Christ’s manhood.
When the Spirit descended in tongues of fire, it was to make the waiting group into the mystical Body of Christ in a way analogous to that in which the descent of the Spirit upon Mary at her Annunciation had formed the natural body of Christ in her womb. Nevertheless, although the Mystical Body came into being by this new descent of the Spirit, there was not a new incarnation, Christ was not becoming man a second time, he was not assuming a new nature; the human nature which he had taken from his mother, in which he had died for our sins and risen again for our justification, was being made present under a new mode. There are not, strictly speaking, two bodies of Christ, a natural and a mystical, but one body of Christ which is manifested in two forms. 
Nor does the story end here, for that part of the Mystical Body which is on earth needs to be continually nourished and sustained, as Christ’s natural body did before its glorification. It is through the Eucharistic Body of the Blessed Sacrament that this takes place. Here again, there is not a new incarnation, but in the Eucharist the human nature which Christ took from his mother is made present in yet another form, a form through which that part of the Mystical Body which is still in via on earth is repeatedly sustained and renewed.
In all these modes of manifestation, the human nature of Christ is the human nature which he took from Mary. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Mary at the Annunciation first formed it, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost released it, so to speak, in the world as the Mystical Body of the Church, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Eucharistic elements brings it to us as the Sacramental Body.
But in all these manifestations and expressions, it is one and the same Body, the Body which was formed in Mary’s womb, and so when we return from the Altar, having received the sacramental Body of Christ and having thereby been received more firmly into his Mystical Body, we can say with a new emphasis the words that, in the Genesis story, Adam said after he had tasted the food given him by the first Eve: ‘The woman gave me, and I did eat’ (Gen 3:12).
For it is the very body, the human nature, which Christ took from his mother, on which we are fed in the Holy Eucharist.
And Jesus and his members are one Body, the Whole Christ, and Mary is his mother and theirs.

Mercy and Justice in Isaac the Syrian  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Isaac was not only intoxicated with the love of God, he was intoxicated with the notion that God is love.  This even leads him at times to downplay God's justice, as contrasted to God's love.  Quotations illustrative of this are found on pp 40-43 of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev's magisterial The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Publications/Liturgical Press 2000)


God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge--far be it!--but in seeking to make whole his image.  And he does not harbor wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself.  This is the aim of love.  Love's chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution...The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness.  Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

Mercy is opposed to justice.  Justice is equality on the even scale, for it gives to each as it deserves...Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness...; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion.  If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness.  As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul.

As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God's use of justice cannot counterbalance his mercy.  Like a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God.  And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of his creatures.

And what is a merciful heart?  It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears.  By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.  For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those that harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.  And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.