Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 1)

The liturgical season of Advent began this past weekend and as part of my Catholic community's Sunday liturgy, we heard words of wisdom from W.H. Auden. What humans have in common, he once said, is that we are all waiting. And that what it is we are waiting for defines us.

These words have stayed with me for the past two days and have made me reflect upon what it is I'm waiting for. I've come to the conclusion that I'm waiting and longing and working for transformation – my own and the world's.

The type of transformation I'm referring to is grounded in love and blossoms in lives and relationships of compassion, justice, integrity and wholeness. The love that inspires and fuels such transformation dwells deep inside each one of us as well as beyond us.

Like I said, I'm waiting and working for this love's breaking through in ever more resolute and transforming ways into my life, the lives of others, the church, and the world. I do what I can to facilitate and embody this breaking through, but I also know that it's not all up to me. I have to also make room for the Spirit – working in and through others and within those mysterious ways beyond our human comprehension.

No doubt like many of you reading this, I look to the historical Jesus as the one who most beautifully and powerfully modeled such a balanced and integrated life of prayerful waiting and mindful action; as the one who embodied in his human form and expressions the transforming love that is God.

This is why Jesus is my man and why I enjoy so much discovering and sharing the work of those scholars, prophets, mystics and artists who identify, explore and challenge us with the liberating life and message of the one we know as both Jesus of Nazareth and Emmanuel, "God with us."

This Advent at The Wild Reed I intend sharing excerpts from two books that do just that. These books are: Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology by Michael Casey and The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message by Cynthia Bourgeault.

I start today with an excerpt from Casey’s Fully Human, Fully Divine.

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At the time the Gospels were written, the humanity of Jesus seemed self-evident. Jesus of Nazareth was a man who lived and died; he belonged to a particular family, was formed in a particular culture, and was heard, seen, and touched by his contemporaries. Various assessments of the quality of his teaching and the nature of his mission could have been made without going beyond the assertion that Jesus was no more than an extraordinary man.

. . . [Yet] the New Testament consistently affirms that there was more to Jesus than mere humanity. For the next several centuries, the Church struggled to define this “something more” in terms that did not negate the unyielding monotheism of the Old Testament and yet offered a corrective to those reared in the facile polytheism of late antiquity. To us who do not much care about theory, this slow honing of theological concepts seems tortuous and unnecessary. The Councils of the early Church were passionate about getting it right – they did not want to lose anything of the deep mystery of Jesus’ divinity. Unfortunately, the success of this theological evolution brought its own hazards. Once it became accepted among that Jesus was fully divine, the opposite error loomed.

The heresy named Docetism is almost as ancient as the Church. It represents a radical doubt about the reality of the humanity of Jesus, preferring to see it as no more than a kindly pretense adopted by God’s Son to accommodate himself to our weakened perception. It is like an adult pretending to participate in a doll’s tea party; or a visiting abbot, for the purposes of edification, sharing a morsel at the frugal table of the monks, before repairing to a more substantial repast away from the common gaze. Docetism insulates the person of the Word from the drama of human existence. Like most heresies, it means well. It has grasped the important truth that Christ’s personhood is untouchable – not limited or defiled by moral weakness, ignorance, or malice. It has failed, however, to appreciate the astounding “condescension” of God, who has created human nature precisely as a receptor of divinity.

Today, when speaking to believers, the Church faces the same challenge it met in refuting Docetism. It is necessary to affirm that there is nothing unseemly in the fullness of divinity dwelling bodily in Christ, because it was with this end in view that human nature was designed. We cannot emphasize enough that the humanity assumed by the Word was not the untainted boldness of Adam before the Fall, but the shriveled vulnerability we all share. As Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us: “Nothing so demonstrates God’s positive attitude towards the human race as embracing my humanity. I repeat: my humanity, and not the flesh Adam had before the fall. What manifests God’s mercy more clearly than that he would embrace such misery.”

The creedal statement that Christ is a “perfect” human being is easily misunderstood. It can make us imagine Jesus as a youthful man with a great body, good teeth, and attractive face – endowed as well with charm, intelligence, and high culture. It is unthinkable for many that the historical Jesus may have been shorter than we, overweight by our standards, middle-aged and bald, with the mind and manners of a first-century Palestinian tradesman. We don’t have any reliable data on what Jesus of Nazareth looked like; our personal picture of him probably reveals more about us than about him. Look at the devotional images that people have and ask yourself what these reveal about their owners; unconscious assumptions about the human condition and about themselves.

Much dubious Christology derives from the fact that many of us have trouble accepting the spottiness of our own concrete humanity, and loving what God has thus fashioned. In this scenario, perfect human beings demonstrate their perfection by being as unlike us as possible. And so we picture Jesus in such a way that he becomes a living reproach to humanity rather than its easily recognizable expression. By thus elevating him, we unprofitably abase ourselves and create a distance between us and him that defeats the purpose of the incarnation. God became completely human, omitting nothing that belongs to our nature. He was without sin, because sin does not belong to our nature.



NEXT: Part 2


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Waiting . . . and a Resolution
Advent: Renewing Our Connection with the Sacred
The Centered Life as an Advent Life
My Advent Prayer for the Church
Advent Thoughts
Letting God Loose
Mystics Full of God
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 1)
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 2)
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 3)
Joy: The Most Infallible Sign of God's Presence


Image 1: Karen Horton.
Image 2: Valentin de Boulogne.
Image 3: Design: Pam Hummelsheim. Artwork: Domenico Morelli.


3 comments:

theclarencewhiteblog said...

I am grateful that you shared the phrase, a "balanced and integrated life of prayerful waiting and mindful action."

And Clairvaux observation that, “Nothing so demonstrates God’s positive attitude towards the human race as embracing my humanity. I repeat: my humanity, and not the flesh Adam had before the fall. What manifests God’s mercy more clearly than that he would embrace such misery.”

Thanks, Michael.

brian gerard said...

"It is unthinkable for many that the historical Jesus may have been shorter than we, overweight by our standards, middle-aged and bald, with the mind and manners of a first-century Palestinian tradesman." This is just startling to me. Simple and profound. I never imagined Jesus this way. What a great post, MIchael.

Mareczku said...

Thanks you for sharing these beautiful thoughts with us.