Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.
Now we begin what my editor friend Jenn Woodruff Tait calls the “final peroration” (and I call the “trumpets and cymbals”) of my book’s closing chapter.
The whole thrust of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis has led up to this last, rousing call to my fellow modern Christians – especially those with whom I most closely identify: American evangelicals.
To adapt the blunt phrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the Incarnation, stupid.”
Yes, the Incarnation of Christ launches the redemptive plan that leads to cross, the tomb, and the resurrection and ascension. But it is more. It is the Creator God entering his Creation. And not only entering Creation, but entering the part of Creation that is us. In the Incarnation, God experiences us from the inside.
This stunning event exalts two things: First, the humanity of Christ. Second, the humanity of humanity – of ourselves. To really “get” the Incarnation allows us to live all of life in light of Jesus Christ, and to affirm our own humanness—our own materiality, our own affectivity, our own rationality, our own cultural creativity.
It wipes away the Gnostic super-spirituality that is a serious problem of modern evangelicalism.
The medievals “got” the Incarnation with a particular acuteness that we can learn from – and it affected everything else they did. It allowed them to value their bodiliness, although not always their sexuality; to value their affectivity; and to value their rationality. It allowed them to value their culture: to keep Word and world, science and religion together.
The Incarnation was the linchpin of their theology, and the linchpin of their spirituality.
We don’t get this Incarnational correction, of course, just from medievals. We get it from Scripture and from Christian tradition – the two thousand year, worshipful, moral tradition of exegesis of scripture.
But Protestants who wish to grasp the Incarnation again are fighting upstream.
To take just one example: In a crucial (quite literally) sixteenth-century moment, a central symbol of the Incarnation was removed forcibly from the church. This was the moment when some zealous Reformers, disturbed by the questionable accretions of a millennium of medieval tradition, went beyond tearing down paintings and smashing statues to take the very body of Christ off of the crucifix. Left behind was only an abstract symbol of a judicial transaction.
The difference between worshiping in a space where there is no body of Christ on the cross, and worshiping in a space where there is a body of Christ on the cross, is that in the latter space, you cannot ignore the humanity of Christ. In that space, your own humanity—bodiliness, affectivity, rationality, community, society, culture—always stands (no, hangs) before you in the person of, the body of, the humanity of Jesus Christ the Lord.
And we wonder why so many Protestants look yearningly across the Tiber to the Roman Catholic Church.
In a sense, this whole book has told the story of what happens when you lose your hold on the Incarnation. But as I conclude, I think of a particularly personal example that has occupied me during the last two years.
Over the past two years I have been involved in founding and running a center for re-engagement between our faith and our work. I remember the moment, while directing this initiative and writing this book, that I realized the link between the two: The reason we have to have such a center is that by losing a vivid sense of the Incarnation, we have lost the sacredness of our own work.
How do we get back to understanding that our very daily work must nourish itself from our identities in Christ? We dwell, focus, meditate on the Incarnation—as the medievals did.
We must once again allow the world-changing miracle of the Incarnation to become, not just a part of our theology, but the beating heart of our theology and our spirituality and the way that we live our Christian lives.
We should get up every morning and look at a painting, a sculpture, an image of Jesus Christ in the flesh.
We should meditate not only on how Christ’s precipitous descent into the flesh and blood of humanity makes possible the sacrifice he made for our sins, but also on how it raises up the value and wonder and splendor of our own humanity. We humans are not explained, in a Darwinian sense, by biology. Not even, in a Kantian sense, by morality. No, we must hear again the truth Athanasius so staunchly defended, the medievals so lavishly celebrated, and modern imaginative writers such as C S Lewis captured again in the only way it really can be captured, apart from worship: in story that speaks to imagination: We were created in God’s image, and when that image was stained and saddened by sin, God became man so that we could become (again) gods—and reflect (again) that image.
Protestant readers in particular—I want you to ask yourself the question I began to ask on that sleepy Wednesday night, alone on the top floor of Christianity Today’s Carol Stream, Illinois offices, across from the Aldi’s grocery store and the MacDonalds restaurant, as I worked on an issue of Christian History magazine about “Mary in the imagination of the church”:
Why do we skip over the Incarnation and downplay the embodied, human Christ, in our theology and devotion?
Must we leave behind entirely the wisdom of the medieval period—the period that birthed both lavish Marian devotion and the Eucharistic theology of transubstantiation, as it attempted to get as close as possible to the physical, embodied Christ? (What, after all, is our questionable theology of an imminent “rapture” but the attempt to recapture that closeness – if only in our imaginings of the future?)
And if we did recapture the wisdom of the Middle Ages, then how could this medieval learning be reflected in Protestant practice?
Renewed emphasis on physical aspects of worship, such as art and architecture?
Openness to affective/imaginative modes of devotion?
Once and for all getting over the fear of so-called “works-righteousness” to live our ethics in compassionate, public (and of course theologically informed) ways?
Reclaiming ascetic spiritual disciplines as practices that, though subject to abuse in the past, hold crucial benefits especially for those of us accustomed to First World comforts and temptations?
All this is worth considering as an “ancient-future” path from weakness to strength.