Cur Deus Homo: Part 4
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Yesterday we reflected on the self-emptying nature of the atonement by looking at the doctrine of kenosis – that the Son of God humbled Himself by stepping into the broken world by taking on human flesh.
And in our conclusion we caught a glimpse of the suffering that this self-giving act would entail, and we joined the voices of Christian saints who have affirmed the pain and helplessness to which Christ’s mortal body would be subject.
Today we continue this theme while pressing onward to the greater theme of eschatological hope.
THORNS, THISTLES (INTO A MANGER THE WORD IS SPOKEN)
When reflecting on the untimely death of his beloved son, Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:
“Made in the image of God: that is how the Biblical writers describe us. To be human is to be an icon of God. This glory is one we cannot lose. It can be increased or diminished, though; our imaging can be closer or farther, more glorious or less. Authentic life is to image God ever more closely by becoming like Jesus Christ, the express image of the Father. In what respects do we mirror God? In our knowledge. In our love. In our justice. In our sociality. In our creativity. These are the answers the Christian tradition offers us. One answer rarely finds its way onto the list: in our suffering. Perhaps the thought is too appalling. Do we mirror God in suffering? Are we to mirror him ever more closely in suffering? Was it meant that we should be icons in suffering? Is it our glory to suffer?” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 83)
As humans we cannot deny the reality of suffering, a reality only as distant as the nightly news. Perhaps we may agree with Fyodor Dostoevsky and admit that to be conscious is to be diseased.
Yet I cannot fully agree with Wolterstorff that our suffering mirrors God’s. Rather, I submit that God’s suffering mirrors our own. In the kenotic event of the incarnation, God steps into a world replete with thorns and thistles, pain and death, and there in lowly manger lay a child that is in the world only to be rejected from it.
This rejection and pain is visible even before birth through an unwed mother named Mary – whose virginal conception raises more than a few eyebrows in the early Jewish community. Even after His birth, a jealous king decrees widespread infanticide, in Herod’s edict one family’s gift becomes countless others’ loss.
He would spend His life as one of the loneliest and most misunderstood figures of all human history, and at the end of His life bear the incomparable burden of a public, shameful, literally excruciating death. Luke’s gospel uniquely emphasizes the injustice of the moment – that the innocent Christ would be made to suffer between thieves, rejected by His disciples, and abandoned by His Father.
It was on the cross that the most shocking event of Christ’s life took place, where on His lips were found the words of the Psalmist, Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani? “My God, my God; why hast thou forsaken me?” The Christ of the manger is the same as the Christ of the cross, who though in the very nature God, would Himself become the God-forsaken Son of God.
The irony of Christmas is found in the name Immanuel – literally meaning “God with us.” He is with us, though rejected by us, and in that rejection He shares in our own suffering and pain.
This is why our carols that sing of “comfort and joy,” for the Son of God are so very alien to the notion of Christmas. Joy, yes. But our Savior had neither the privilege nor the means to seek out the anesthetizing effects of worldly treasures, and lived instead as one who “had no place to lay His head.”
God with us – a name that speaks of God’s voluntary share in the human condition, and while never tasting depravity nonetheless felt its sting, even to death.
INCARNATION, RESURRECTION (WE HOLD OUR BREATHS TIL THE SPELL IS BROKEN)
But what separates our thinking from that of so-called “liberation theology” is that we affirm that Christ came to earth not merely to experience these things, but through His sacrifice they might be defeated, for God “is not the God of the dead, but the living.” (cf. Mk 12:26-27)
In the incarnation, Christ takes on a “body of dust” like our own, subject to hunger, temptation and (ultimately) death. But in the resurrection of the Savior He takes on a body unbound by suffering and mortality. Thus, the incarnation points us ultimately to a new home and a new body, one in which Eden’s spell holds no sway.
Henri Nouwen writes:
“If the God who revealed life to us, and whose only desire is to bring us to life, loved us so much that he wanted to experience with us the total absurdity of death, then – yes, then there must be hope; then there must be something more than death; then there must be a promise that is not fulfilled in our short existence in this world; then leaving behind the ones you love, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and the oceans, the beauty of art and music, and all the exuberant gifts of life cannot be just the destruction and cruel end of all things; then indeed we have to wait for the third day.” (Henri Nouwen, Letter of Consolation)
At advent we celebrate hope.
We celebrate a God who identifies with the brokenness of humanity and offers the means by which this brokenness might be restored.
Hebrew scripture records the song of Hannah, who speaks of God’s power to set broken icons aright: “Yahweh brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up…. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…” (1 Samuel 2:6,8)
We celebrate hope not because we serve a God who leads us not around our sufferings, but through them. We celebrate hope because, like Abram and Sarai, we are called to flee comfort to seek out the country that God will show us, and a horizon that breathes softly to us the word anticipation.
And finally, we celebrate hope for the child in the manger, who in His life and death teaches us that we may embrace the thorns, the thistles, the injustice, the hunger, the poverty and the oncology reports of this world, and in His resurrection body teaches us to long for the next.
At advent, we celebrate your coming. And so we join our voices with the saints once more in saying mara natha.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.
Human beings, as we’ve just noted, bear God’s image. We “take after” God, so to speak—much as we might say that a child “takes after” his earthly father. It means that we share with God some aspect of his character, his nature, even his gifts. In the immediate context of Genesis, this means two things. Because man bears the image of a Creator, we share in his capacity for creativity. And because we bear the image of God’s divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit), we share in his capacity for relationship.
Or perhaps “capacity” is too clinical a term for such elemental gifts. For these qualities are indeed divine gifts, just as human language likewise has its origin in God himself. In his recent work on the clarity of Scripture, Mark Thompson notes that “God is himself the source of human language. He is the first speaker and invests language with a deep significance for generation and nourishing personal relationships.”
If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice. It is through language that the human needs for creativity and relationship are brought together. Surely writing is not the only means of human communication, but there is a uniqueness to the craft that cannot be so easily snuffed out by a so-called “post-literate” world. When we write, we write to engage the world—or at least our small corner of it. We write in order to hone our God-given skills of creativity and make a meaningful contribution to humanity’s collective imagination. We write because it’s in our blood, in our hands, in our soul.
Christianity says that God’s Word shaped God’s original creation, but God’s Word likewise takes prominence in God’s new creation. “In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us—cribbing lines from the opening pages of Genesis. The Word of God, once confined to the page now takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Christianity calls this the incarnation, meaning that in Jesus God literally became a human being to walk among us, to share life with us, and to give his life that we might live.
Writing is part of the way we engage and share the gospel narrative. Writing is therefore an incarnational practice, a means by which the story of God is translated into the various languages of human culture.
Living the gospel narrative means not only “take and read” but also “write and give.” Every voice is different. Every voice matters.