Someone recently commented to me that he did not call himself a Christian because it seems presumptuous. God alone makes that call.
I understand the impulse behind this hesitation. This world seems too full of people who call themselves Christian and act very much unchristian like. Some Christians talk of their God and then make the claim, “My God is the Christian God.” They use the adjective in order to make the truth of their statement and their actions unassailable.
I want to spend a little time on this third Sunday of Advent, while I have it, to think about this word Christian. Regarding its cognate, Christmas, it is commonplace to state that we do not know the precise date of the birth of Christ, that December 25 was chosen as a day on which to celebrate his birth so as to coincide with the winter equinox. We nevertheless celebrate the chosen day because the importance of the story resides, not in its correspondence with history, but in the strength of its central metaphors to lead us in our living. The question for us today, is what kind of living does this story want us to do? Because if it’s merely Christian living, we’re back were we started — some Christian living seems patently unchristian.
I want to get at this question by taking a look at incarnation. Incarnation is that explicitly theological word used historically to express the nature of Jesus. It comes from the latin to be made in the flesh. Our gospel reading is an explicitly incarnational text when it says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
But I am less interested in the doctrine of the incarnation. Something the church put forward a thousand years ago so as to put a check on the different arguments about who Jesus was or is. I think this is sadly the wrong way to go in thinking about Jesus — that his very life calls out to be interpreted and lived. As a doctrine incarnation is full of all sorts of troubles for us today — not only are its concepts outdated, but more importantly a doctrinal approach to Christmas leaves us hungry and unsatisfied because the call of Jesus has always also been about the religious question — who is God for us? In other words the faith that Jesus calls us to is not a static thing, but a constant re-appraisal of our own self in light of the self’s need to live morally.
The title of today’s worship service bulletin, “The Lure of Christmas,” could be taken a few ways, I suppose. Every year, people ask me when we’re going to sing Christmas carols. Christmas has a certain lure that calls out to sing that music most closely associated in our minds and hearts with it. Certainly the crass commercialization of Christmas stems from its lure — even before Thanksgiving stores are luring us to Christmas with visions of the best gifts under our trees. We can all remember, even if only through the eyes of the children around us, what the anticipation was like for that magical day when time stands still to open some presents, and lounge around with a new book to read, while the ham bakes in the oven, with its own allure. All of these lures are real.
But the lure of Christmas I want to talk about is that something that Luce Irigaray calls incarnation. She calls it incarnation, but she purposefully avoids all talk of Jesus even though her subject is Jesus’ — the bond of love. Her book is called To be Two and is about the immersion of the self in the other. In that immersion, she suggests we discover the lure of love.
Joy’s laughter ripples. The iridescence of this morning leaves union chaste: in us, between us. One hears clear and crystalline notes, outbursts of children’s laughter, songs of birds. One also imagines angels whispering, souls quivering, while leaves and flowers grow to become living bouquets. The flowers are light, without pretense; ethereal, colored or only white. Smiles of the spring, they bear witness to a muted hope. Life whispers. The earth, like a great nest, houses us, nurses our rebirth. p. 2.
I’m not sure if Irigaray is a Christian or not. That’s not the point anyway. The point is that the love she describes, this chaste union, is chaste not because it is asexual but because it is pure — because its lure has to do with something primal. It is an original love. It is a love that leads us to love and to be let loved.
Christianity has too long limited its conversation to a different kind of love we have taken to calling by its Latin name — agape. Christian love as agape has always been burdened with a sense of duty, and so the joy of union is never chaste, but always sacrificed and the sense of self is lost in the immersion of the other. For Irigaray, this is way incarnation has always had the unfortunate overtones of sacrifice. And in fact, one of the classics of Christian devotional literature, a little piece written by Saint Anselm in the 11th century called Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Human — is less a work about incarnation that it is about sacrifice. Anselm would re-write John’s prologue so that the word that was God died and became love.
I grossly caricaturize Anslem. That idea, though, about love leading to sacrifice, or sacrifice leading to love, has nevertheless struck some great thinkers since Anselm as unbefitting God. Perhaps it was befitting a part of God to imagine God’s love as duty, but not the whole of God. Perhaps God was instead reaching out to the world in the sort of alluring way Irigaray describes incarnation. Perhaps God is in fact, the “poet of the universe” (Whitehead) — a divine Eros which is felt in each creature as a lure toward rebirth, toward “life, not for the sake of life itself, but for the evolving network of relations in which my life is worth living . . . ” (Keller 100)
I felt strongly enough about Wislawa Szymborska’s words, after reading them last week, that I quoted them today in the bulletin. While Szymborska speaks to an audience of poets, her intent as a poet is to speak of fundamental things, to discover what life is at a primal level, for all of us. In one of her most famous poems, called “Astonishment,” or “Wonderment” (she writes in Polish, so the translations differ) she writes that whatever else humans might think, know, or not know about this world, “it is astonishing.” And what is most astonishing is that we feel this even though the world is not deviating from some norm we already know, but it is simply astonishing per se, even though there is nothing to compare it with. For her wondering eyes, there is nothing usual or normal about the world, she says. It is extraordinary, and we cannot cease to be amazed by it.
Szymborska’s Nobel acceptance speech is a reflection on this poem and a criticism of a kind of stale incarnation — an incarnation which, according to some biblical authors, the author of Ecclesiastes included, God does not change. She is astonished by this assertion. The world is constantly changing and in experiencing the wonder of it, each moment becomes an incarnation of that wonder, of that bubbling joy. We are lured away from ourselves and into a mystery.
While many parts of our biblical tradition clearly affirm Ecclesiastes view that anything that is subject to change is imperfect, and therefore that whatever is really real, because related to the divine perfection does not change, the author of our Gospel reading, John, does not buy that. For John, incarnation is an embodiment of possibility. The prologue to the gospel, which we read, famously describes a becoming of God into the world through the word.
Perhaps that seems rather more staid and dry that the eros-driven lure that I’ve been talking about. But we have to understand that in Greek thought logos, translated here as “word,”is a term in ancient philosophy loaded with ideas about being and becoming. These ideas are much like Szymborska’s poetry — A poem, a word, is a possibility of incarnating a moment of wonder, of living out of a sense of sublimity for a moment of sharing. Martin Heidegger, who studied the Greek logos in depth, wrote, in what could be a commentary on our reading from John, that the logos that is to come is no mere word — because it gets at the originality of life more than words can. The logos he says, “gathers language [of words] into simple saying. In this way language is the langauge of Being, as clouds are the clouds in the sky.” In other words logos is the divine eros — and God is the poet of the universe driving us to experience the infinite joys and wonders of a love like his.
And here is the most remarkable thing. Even more remarkable than John’s wonderful, but non-orthodox description of Jesus’ incarnation is that this incarnation is no exclusive thing for God to share with Jesus alone. Because the intimate one-ness of God with Jesus’ becoming has to do not with God, but with the world — that same intimacy is offered. John describes this open process powerfully: ‘to all who received him, ‘he gave the power to become children of God.’ In other words, to embrace this logos is to become gods.
We began by talking about what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps now it is clearer that the word Christian describes a process, and not a state of being. And as a process, the word does not define superiority, but intent, possibility, hope. To be a Christian is to read the poetry of the world and to add to it. As Szyborska notes in her imagined conversation with Ecclesiastes, at a point somewhat after our reading, to add to the poetry of the world becomes life-giving when we treat the world, not with a sense of superiority some kind of human or another, a poet or a Christian, for example, but when we treat it with openness to the moment. Let me finish by reading a short poem by this poet of incarnation — Wislawa Szymborska called “A Moment.”
I’m walking on the slope of a hill newly green.
Grass, small flowers in the grass,
just as in a children’s book.
Hazy sky, already turning blue.
A view of other hills spreads out in silence.
As if there had been no Cambrians or Siluries here,
rocks growling at one another,
no fiery nights
nor days in clouds of darkness.
As if no plains had moved through here
in feverish delirium,
in icy shivers.
As if only elsewhere had the seas been churning,
tearing apart the edges of the horizon.
It is nine-thirty local time.
Everything is in its place and in genial accord.
In the valley, the small stream as a small stream.
The path as a path from always to ever.
Woods in the guise of woods world without end amen,
and on high, birds in flight as birds in flight.
As far as the eye can see a moment reigns here.
One of those earthly moments
implored to linger.