The Scandal of the Incarnation

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Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!

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Prayer as Heavenly Sight

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Heavenly worship from John’s Revelation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his magnificent work Prayer, introduces several theological tensions in the act of prayer. One of these tensions is the contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Balthasar explains

Creation evinces a mysterious tension which is identified in the very first words of scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. As the subsequent course of salvation history shows, this opposition is not simply cosmological but also theological, contrasting God’s being and place with man’s being and place. What is absolutely clear is that earth is not heaven, even before man puts a spiritual distance between himself and heaven as a result of the fall.  Even before the fall there are times in paradise where God makes himself present, walking “in the cool of the day”. And afterward we often read of Yahweh’s “coming down” (Gen 11:5, 7, 18:21, etc), we read of Jacob’s ladder linking earth and heaven, of God’s “looking down” on the earth… (p 277)

So there is a contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Heaven, where God dwells is not earth where man dwells. “But”, as Balthasar says,

this is not the way God desires to reveal his heavenly mystery to earthly men. The Son “comes down”, and in him heaven becomes tangible on earth… Mankind’s yearning to look into God’s dwelling place is satisfied, beyond all imagining, through God’s arrival in the house of man “to come and eat with him” (Rev 3:20)… In Jesus, heaven is no longer an image but a Person. (p 278)

What did God do through the incarnation of the Son? Paul says in Ephesians 1 that he united heaven and earth. God and man were brought together in a vital union. This is why so many of the theological masters along with Balthasar explain the very person of Christ as the kingdom, or as heaven and earth united. Man and God are no longer in separation, but are in a cooperative synergistic union. This is the point of the hypostatic union: God and man are united in the person of the divine Son.

But it is not simply that in Christ, heaven and earth are united; because Christ died, rose, and ascended. He was not simply united to our human nature: human nature was resurrected and ascended in him! Balthasar explains:

To contemplate Holy Saturday is to contemplate the collapse of heaven into the horrors of the nether world. But the Son of heaven rises from the dead, and the forty days he spends with us establish the fundamental sense of Christian existence: our beloved God, who became man, who became “heaven on earth”, who thus wooed our love on earth, and whose love we only reciprocate when he had died for our sake — he is now “earth in heaven” (p 278)

By “earth in heaven”, not “heaven in earth”, Balthasar means to say that in the person of Christ, earth is raised with Christ. The cosmos which had fallen was raised up to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Put another way, in his resurrection, Christ accomplished not simply the defeat of death, he accomplished the final union of heaven and earth in his person. But it is not simply that Christ rose; he ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. Balthasar explains further that “by the ascension to heaven the Man Christ… has taken our humanity to heaven with him, authentically, although hidden” (p 284).

What all of this means is that Christ’s descent and ascent — theologically divided into four parts: incarnation, descent into hades, resurrection and ascension — is the movement of heaven to earth and earth into heaven. Or to put it more relationally: the Father sends the Son so that fallen man might be brought back to the Father. This is a movement of heaven down and earth up.

Paul explains this movement in Philippians 2:5-11 as Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. But it is not simply that Christ was humiliated and exalted. Heaven and earth were brought into a union that, as Balthasar says, is hidden but real. And believers are, as Paul aptly says, “raised with Christ” and “seated with him in the heavenly places” in Ephesians 3. This is again a hidden reality that cannot be seen with the eyes. And yet it is true: humanity (indeed the entire cosmos!) has been joined in a union with the Father in Christ.

It cannot be seen with eyes. However, there is a way to see it — and finally we get to the title of this article: prayer is the means of locating, finding ourselves in Christ before the Father. Christ has been raised and has ascended to the Father; and so have baptized believers! We have been raised and seated with Christ in heavenly places. The principle means of seeing this reality is in prayer.

Balthasar explains:

This irreducible tension, [that Christ has united heaven and earth], is part of our whole Christian life, and thus it belongs particularly to Christian contemplation.

The view of the Fathers, and of Augustine in particular, follows from this. Contemplation makes present the heavenly dimension and truth of the Christian life; action is the working-out of this truth in the transient conditions of this world (p 284)

Prayer is the sight of the reality that “we already have a share, concretely and authentically, in this union” of heaven and earth (p 287).

I have for about a year now understood prayer in terms of finding my place in the Son before the Father. This the tension: we do not see it, but we are in Christ seated in heavenly places. The world in fact has been risen in him. The universe itself is raised and included in God’s triune life. This reality is located by contemplative prayer. It is seen, as Paul says, with the “eyes of the heart” and not by physical sight!