In the second half of the medieval era, an age infatuated with the details of the Gospel accounts, no scene was painted more than the Annunciation: the angels’ announcement to Mary that the Son of God would be incarnated in her womb. What we miss today about the devotion to Mary that rose to new heights in that period is that it was first and foremost a devotion to the Incarnation as the key fact of salvation history. We tend today to skip over the Incarnation, seeing it as merely a necessary step to the cross and the substitutionary atonement. Late medievals, too, paid devotional attention to the crucifixion, but as with their devotion to the Incarnation, the focus here was squarely on the miracle that God, in his love, has become flesh for us, suffering all that we suffer, in solidarity with us.
This chapter will begin with the thoroughly embodied Christ-image of Aslan in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and the unflinching humanity of Dorothy Sayers’s portrait of Christ and the disciples in her Man Born To Be King (which Lewis said he read devotionally each year during Holy Week). It will then move to the medieval sources of these authors’ imaginative visions. First we will look at the deeply embodied vision of Dante that Sayers discovered and translated later in her life. Then we will trace the history and shape of “cross-centered devotion” that grew up from the 11th century and beyond, rooted in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, Abelard, and others, and flowering in an outpouring of art and literature focused on the suffering humanity of Christ. Medieval passion-devotion recently came back to modern America in vivid form in the film The Passion of the Christ, which Mel Gibson self-consciously developed out of that same Catholic tradition.
When they read this chapter, I want Protestant readers to ask themselves: why do we skip over the incarnation and downplay the embodied, human Christ, in our theology and devotion? Can we benefit from a re-engagement with the period in the church that birthed lavish Marian devotion and the Eucharistic theology of transubstantiation—both attempts to get as close as possible to the physical, embodied Christ?