The Coherence of Christian Theology II

The Reality of the Incarnation

Let’s be absolutely clear on this: if one does not understand the Incarnation correctly, one will not live correctly other Christian doctrines. If one tends to emphasize the divine attributes of Jesus (and thus in some way to deny the human aspects), in sort of a Gnosticism or adoptionism, then one will emphasize belief over action, inner spiritual-emotional states over the pragmatic struggle of living in the ways Jesus lived, and participating in his life. If one tends to emphasize the human attributes of Jesus (and thus in some way to deny the divine aspects), in a sort of docetism, then one will emphasize the more superficial behavioral states of Christianity, indeed, to steer towards chilianism (the heresy of utopia) over the proper adherence to the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. Only a correct understanding of the Incarnation can keep the human being whole and avoid the anthropic schism which dehumanizes. Of course, being correct on the Incarnation does not guarantee correctness on other doctrines; one may still go wrong in some way. But the centrality of the Incarnation necessitates proper fidelity to God’s revelation in Christ: it is the plumb line of the Christian Faith.

God’s supreme revelation to humankind was not given in a nation, nor in a written text. God’s last word to us is his Son (Hebrews 1.1-4). The fulfillment of his Covenant is the Person of Christ. There is nothing else left for God to do: his final will has been accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, though it is clear that this accomplishment is even now being worked out in the final consummation of all things.

It is precisely this single ultimate revelation in Christ that is the focal point, the beginning and the end, of all Christian theology. If God did not take on human flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ, then all that Jesus said and did, however we may construe it as noble and exemplary, is empty of meaning and promise. But if Jesus is whom he claimed to be, if the Second Person of the Trinity did, indeed, receive our humanity from Mary, then everything he said and did changes everything we say and do, all our thoughts and inner passions. If Jesus is he who is from everlasting, then every particle of our physical being, all the invisible inner stuff that makes us uniquely who we are, soul and spirit, thought and energy, bone and sinew, every breath and surge of blood, is changed, transfigured in the glory that is his.

The Incarnation matters. On it depends everything that ever was, is, or ever shall be.

The Ascetical Life of Blessed Seraphim (Rose) of Platina

From The Ascetic Life of Fr. Seraphim Rose, by Father Seraphim’s spiritual son, Father Alexey Young:

I had the privilege of knowing him from 1966, around the time of the repose of St. Archbishop John Maximovitch, who was his spiritual father. Fr. Seraphim was a layman at that time–he didn’t even have the famous beard of his later years, yet–, and then he became a Reader in the Cathedal shortly after I first met him.I do not know what his Cell Rule was, nor how many prostrations he did. He never spoke of it. He was a very private man. But I and others who were close to him know that he said The Prayer unceasingly and was probably a full hesychast in his last years. I never saw him without a prayer rope moving through his fingers.

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Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm VI

Annie Dillard ends her meditations with a prayer for Julie.

There is Julie Norwich. Julie Norwich is salted with fire. She is preserved like a salted fillet from all evil, baptized at birth into time and now into eternity, into the bladelike arms of God. For who will love her now, without a face, when women with faces abound, and people are so? People are reasoned, while God is mad. They love only beauty; who knows what God loves? Happy birthday, little one and wise: you got there early, the easy way. The world knew you before you knew the world. The gods in their boyish, brutal games bore you like a torch, a firebrand, recklessly over the heavens, to the glance of the one God, fathomless and mild, dissolving you into the sheets.

You might as well be a nun. You might as well be God’s chaste bride, chased by plunderers to the high caves of solitude, to the hearthless rooms empty of voices, and of warm limbs hooking your heart to the world. Look how he loves you! Are you bandaged now, or loose in a sterilized room? Wait till they hand you a mirror, if you can hold one, and know what it means. That skinlessness, that black shroud of flesh in strips on your skull, is your veil. There are two kinds of nuns, out of the cloister or in. You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work. Forget whistling: you have no lips for that, or for kissing the face of a man or a child. Learn Latin, an it please my Lord, learn the foolish downward look called Custody of the Eyes.

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Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm V

Today is Friday, November 20. Julie Norwich is in the hospital, burned; we can get no word of her condition. People released from burn wards, I read once, have a very high suicide rate. They had not realized, before they were burned, that life could include such suffering, nor that they personally could be permitted such pain. No drugs ease the pain of third-degree burns, because burns destroy skin: the drugs simply leak into the sheets. His disciples asked Christ about a roadside beggar who had been blind from birth, “Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Christ, who spat on the ground, made a mud of his spittle and clay, plastered the mud over the man’s eyes, and gave him sight, answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the words of God should be made manifest in him.” Really? If we take this answer to refer to the affliction itself–and not the subsequent cure–as “God’s works made manifest,” then we have, along with “Not as the world gives do I give unto you,” two meager, baffling, and infuriating answers to one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?

The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims? Is this some sort of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the streets for people to see? Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flamefaced children, to remind us what God can–and will–do? . . .

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Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm IV

Facing squarely the rock mountain and the salt sea, the airplane fallen from the sky, and little Julie Norwich burned, Annie Dillard is ready. Am I?

I know only enough of God to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were: God kann nicht anders. This process in time is history; in space, at such shocking random, it is mystery. . . .

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much. “Good morning!” he says after the first hymn and invocation, startling me witless every time, and we all shout back, “Good morning!” . . .

The higher Christian churches–where, if anywhere, I belong–come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.

–Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977)

Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm III

Julie Norwich lies burned in the hospital. Annie Dillard continues her meditation.

So I read. Angels, I read, belong to nine different orders. Seraphs are the highest; they are aflame with love for God, and stand closer to him than the others. Seraphs love God; cherubs, who are second, possess perfect knowledge of him. So love is greater than knowledge; how could I have forgotten? The seraphs are born of a stream of fire issuing from under God’s throne. They are, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, “all wings,” having, as Isaiah noted, six wings apiece, two of which they fold over their eyes. Moving perpetually toward God, they perpetually praise him, crying Holy, Holy, Holy. . . . But, according to some rabbinic writings, they can sing only the first “Holy” before the intensity of their love ignites them again and dissolves them again, perpetually, into flames. “Abandon everything,” Dionysius told his disciple. “God despises ideas.”

God despises everything, apparently. If he abandoned us, slashing creation loose at its base from any roots in the real: and if we in turn abandon everything–all these illusions of time and space and lives–in order to love only the real: then where are we? Thought itself is impossible, for subject can have no guaranteed connection with object, nor any object with God. Knowledge is impossible. We are precisely nowhere, sinking on an entirely imaginary ice floe, into entirely imaginary seas themselves adrift. Then we reel out love’s long line alone toward a God less lovable than a grasshead, who treats us less well than we treat our lawns.

Of faith, I have nothing, only of truth: that this one God is a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen: one Julie, one sorrow, one sensation bewildering the heart, and enraging the mind, and causing me to look at the world stuff apalled, at the blithering rock of trees in a random wind, at my hand like some gibberish sprouted, my fist opening and closing, so that I think, Have I once turned my hand in this circus, have I ever called it home? . . .

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Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm II

I continue to swallow the necessary medicine. Dillard continues:

Jesse her father had grabbed her clear of the plane this morning, and was hauling her off when the fuel blew. A gob of flung ignited vapor hit her face, or something flaming from the plane or fir tree hit her face. No one else was burned, or hurt in any way.


So this is where we are. Ashes, ashes, all fall down. How could I have forgotten? Didn’t I see the heavens wiped shut just yesterday, on the road walking? Didn’t I fall from the dark of the stars to these senselit and noisome days? The great ridged granite millstone of time is illusion, for only the good is real; the great ridged granite millstone of space is illusion, for God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparenntly perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real. The pain within the millstones’ pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other–for world and all the products of extension–is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones’ sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother’s body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.

–Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977)