Chasing the Incarnation

1 04 2019

A haunting image that has been etched into my mind manifested itself to me in a Russian Orthodox church during the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Annunciation. At a certain point during Matins (I won’t bore you with the context too much), the bearded priest stood before the icon of the Annunciation and chanted one of those old leftover ancient Slavonic chants with censer in hand. I am not sure why this made such an impression on me: it was a good hour into the service, and I know little Old Slavonic (I can sort of muddle my way through understanding what is going on.) The priest wore a sky blue phelonion gilded in gold, the robust baritone voice echoed through the church, and the melismatic chant reached back into time and grabbed from it some hidden reality that gleamed like the clouds at dusk…

A very romantic image, but I am not here to talk about liturgy again. Part of the impact of this experience probably comes from the youthful devotion I had to the mystery of the Annunciation, and particularly its Marian aspect. My youthful mind was enthralled by the vision of God becoming flesh at the beckoning of an inexperienced but pure maiden; by the idea that her womb would become “wider than the heavens” as the Orthodox liturgy states. Having a penchant for creating strawmen just to knock them down, I came to characterize the Western Church as having an overly legalistic approach to the Christian mystery, whereas the exotic East held aloft the banner inscribed with the truism that God became man so that man might become God. I could often jump on the bandwagon of accusing others of being overly pessimistic and condemnatory of the (transfigured) flesh, upbraiding them for their lack of appreciation for the full splendor and power of the Incarnation.

Years ago, however, I concluded that the modern esteem of the flesh is probably due more to indoor plumbing and antibiotics than it is to some sort of latter-day epiphany of God’s mercy and human dignity. Try talking about the transfigured material reality to a woman whose infant just died of a now easily curable infection or to someone who lived in the same house with their livestock to keep warm. My conclusion is that the only reason anyone can praise the earthiness of the Incarnation is because they no longer live in a situation where death and decay are the daily reality. We are isolated from our bodies, not more in touch with them. Being “in touch” with our corporeal reality would mean a submission that we are no longer comfortable with. In other words, if we can now talk of a “theology of the body,” it is because we are far enough removed from its tyrannical rule to forget what the past was like not so long ago.

I say all of this having consumed quite a bit of optimistic Thomistic hylomorphism in the last few weeks. Truth be told, I like these people. I think what they have to say is interesting. If it works for you, go with God I guess. But I am no more convinced about wine flowing wherever the Catholic sun doth shine or of the inherent beauty of conjugal love than I was when I first concluded that one could only romanticize these things in the context of low infant mortality. Any other approach is a ridiculous joke.

And perhaps it’s all still a ridiculous joke. The third rail of modern discourse is fast becoming the issue of gender. Without touching that rail, I would like to point out that in spite of our bodies being the most medicated and modified in history, there are those out there who are still not comfortable in their own skin. Whereas modern Catholic Tantrists seem to indicate that one’s genitals hold the entire mystery of God within them, there are those who would even have power over them. We level entire mountains and change the course of rivers, yet what is between our legs is supposedly sacrosanct? Didn’t this horse leave the barn a long time ago?

So I’ll just say it: due to the inevitable change and decay that is their essence, all bodies are sick. No one is happy in the body. You can talk about degrees of disorder, you can try to cover bodies up with perfumes or discipline or medicate them, but they are constantly failing. You can base no permanent thing on them. My own suspicion has been that Christianity itself suffers from eschatological separation from God: the Second Coming is two thousand years too late and now people are just making excuses. In this case, they are putting upon the dumb beast of the flesh more than it can sustain, and they wonder why the world laughs. Why is it that practically all the tension within the Church now is centered on things of the flesh: sexual abuse, divorce, homosexuality, clerical celibacy, etc.? It’s as if every other issue has been settled other than those issues. On the progressive side, they demonize the conservatives for dying on a hill of non-essential opinions on sex, not realizing that they are at the real risk of falling into complete indifferentism. On the other side are those who absurdly have to equate ideas concerning Natural Family Planning to those concerning the nature of God himself. And I am just left wondering when they both are going to get their minds out of the gutter. “Flesh became God so that God could become the Flesh.”

I am no Defender of the Faith by any means, but I will give out some advice. Good Christians have been trying to live the Mystery of the Incarnation for two millennia, yet in doing so they created a society based on anxiety for the comfort of the body. Whenever a Christian apologist touts how the Church helped create modern science, this is what is really meant. There is nothing wrong with that all things considered. I like antibiotics and the Internet. But perhaps it is time to admit that, in spite of all of our gadgets, we are still not happy in the body. We are not these bodies. If you believe in the resurrection of the last day, your body will be different. Perhaps materially the same in some mystical manner, but not the same concerning what characterizes our life now in this valley of tears. Bring back a healthy hatred for the corporeal. This society has already indicated it hates the body, and the body is a tough sell you don’t need to make.

I pointed out to a couple of people recently how the early Church more often represented Christ as the Good Shepherd rather than as a dead corpus on the now ubiquitous crucifix. I have heard that this was because crucifixion was a reality that the early Church did not need to be reminded of. But now the Crucifixion is put in front of us and we just think, “Good thing that doesn’t happen to us anymore.” We pretend to know what it means but we really don’t. Death and gore are things we keep far from us, for better or worse. We are deluding ourselves. Maybe we need to pray to the Good Shepherd to put our disgusting and decaying bodies on his shoulders so he can get us the hell out of here.

 

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One response

3 04 2019
turmarion

This is really a big synchronicity for me. I’ve thought for a long time that the matter and body-positive propaganda you see in a lot of modern Christianity is very much a modern phenomenon, and not in line with most of Christian thought throughout history. I’ve discussed this somewhat, but less effectively, in the series on dualism on my blog. Also, in the preface and appendix of his recent translation of the New Testament, David Bentley Hart makes much the same point. He says that there’s much more matter/spirit dualism in the New Testament than it is currently fashionable to admit, and that while such dualism is not absolute, it’s still very strong.

In anticipation of being accused of Gnosticism, he says maybe it’s better not to view such stuff in the NT as proto-Gnostic, but rather to see Gnosticism as perhaps post-NT. That seems to be a good way of looking at it.

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