Reflections on Incarnation

The Word became flesh. We reflect on this, perhaps, too little. But at the very beginning of the third century, somewhere between 203 and 206, the theologian Tertullian, called the father of Latin Christianity and founder of Western theology, wrote a work entitled De Carne Christi: a treatise expressly on the flesh of Christ. Sometimes theological and spiritual writing speaks of the Incarnation in ways which testify in theory to the truth of the Word made flesh, but seem in practice rather abstract and even fastidious -­ as if the religion of the Incarnation requires us, paradoxically, to maintain a certain reserve when it comes to human bodies. But for Tertullian, the flesh of Christ is more than an idea, necessary to complete our intellectual affirmation of Christ’s humanity. If theology can sometimes seem more comfortable with the flesh become word, in Tertullian the Word become flesh is evoked with concrete immediacy and intensity. He offers us an unusual level of engagement, both imaginative and speculative, with what is actually at stake ­- the fact that the life of God gives itself in, and unfolds itself through, our interior and exterior experiences of bodily existence, our own bodies and the bodies of others. He asks us to think of the body as, for us, God’s own place -­ not an obstacle or a veil to Divine presence, and more than something simply entailed by the Incarnation, but in itself, in all its dimensions, as the place of enactment of Divine life ­- which it already is, in Christ, and which it is becoming, in us.

The palpable intensities of the human body are themselves fields of connection, of union, with the Divine. The Son of God, Tertullian writes, shows Himself and communicates Himself in

muscles similar to mounds of dirt, bones similar to rocks and even hillocks and gravel, the interlacing of nerves like forking roots, the branching network of veins like winding streams, the downy fuzz like moss, hair like grass, and the hidden treasure of marrow like the ores of the flesh.

Such language forces us to bring together what theology and spirituality can seem to hold somewhat apart. Grace is in our muscles and bones, our nerves and veins, the down and the hair and the marrow of our lives in the flesh. And this is because, in Christ Himself, the grace of human union with the Word realizes itself in the interior and exterior actions and undergoings of His bodily life. He was God as flesh, and because of this it is, not just by means of the flesh, but in the flesh, that we come to God.

To deepen our sense of the implications of this, we can turn to St Irenaeus. Born twenty years or so earlier than Tertullian, and dying at about the same time as the younger man was composing his theological poetry of the flesh, Irenaeus, in perhaps the most famous of his theological insights, taught that the glory of God is a living man, and the life of man is the vision of God. There are various ways in which Irenaeus’ saying can be interpreted ­- but they all seem to configure themselves around the same conviction as Tertullian’s: that human bodily life, not in abstraction from the body but in and through its very depths, knows, in Christ, a uniquely privileged intimacy with the Divine.

We can take first Irenaeus’ idea that the glory of God is a living man. Here the living man can be thought of as Christ Himself, who precisely as a man, in the bones and muscles of which Tertullian speaks, receives and manifests Divine glory. But the living man may also be any human being existing in Christ, fulfilled through Him as an epiphany of Divine glory, in flesh rendered more deeply itself because freed from sin and mortality. And there is a third possibility, which is distinct from the perspective of sin and redemption even though it can be integrated with it. According to this third possibility, the living man may be man as such, even as a sinner ­- because human being, in its very constitution by what Tertullian calls the ores of the flesh, is gifted with manifesting the glory of God, which sin may obscure but cannot efface. Here human being as the image of God -­ the ground of His love for us, the foundation of His desire to be among us -­ is located by Irenaeus in the living man simply as flesh. We are therefore in the image of God not only because of our spiritual powers of intellect and will, as if the body had somehow to be seen through if the Divine image is to be discerned. The glory of that image is manifest in embodied life itself, in the nerves and the veins and the marrow. And if we ask how this can be, the answer must be that embodied life is not simply other to God, but on the contrary reflects the image and glory of the Incarnate Word, the Word made flesh, Who is our archetype. According to one interpretation of Irenaeus, then -­ not to mention of St Paul ­- it was both from the Incarnate Word and to foreshadow Him that men and women were first created. So although, in the order of creation, the first Adam, in Eden, precedes the Second, in Bethlehem, in the mind of God it is the other way round: the Second precedes the first. It is in derivation from the Word made flesh, and for the sake of being consummated in Him, that humanity ­- and indeed the entire cosmos -­ is brought into being in the first place. This is a point to which we shall return.

But if we look for a moment to the second part of Irenaeus’ saying ­- the life of man is the vision of God ­- we can discern at least two ways of understanding it, in both of which the emphasis falls once more on the flesh. One interpretation is that Irenaeus means that it is in seeing God that our life, raised to eternity, consists. But what are we to make of this seeing God? Perhaps we should not think too readily beyond its bodily implications. Is seeing God, in other words, no more than a metaphor for intellectual or spiritual vision? Or can we speak of seeing God more literally, for example in thinking about heaven in terms of seeing the Risen and Ascended flesh of the Word? Christ’s bodily visibility is certainly not annulled by the Resurrection and Ascension, even though it enters into a unique mode, as the Resurrection appearances attest, and is eventually, in the Ascension, withdrawn. But perhaps that withdrawal is only for a time? Can’t we think of heaven as being essentially focussed upon the flesh of Christ, giving itself to us in a renewed and everlasting transcendental visibility? Surely the flesh assumed by the Word, and taken up by Him to the right hand of the Father, doesn’t simply fall away as somehow extraneous to heavenly vision, so that the Word made flesh ceases, in eternity, being our mediator? Can’t we say that His Crucified and Risen Flesh mediates always, not only as our Redeemer, while we are still on earth, but also in heaven, as the ground and context of our vision of the Divine Persons? Our Resurrection, embracing the restoration of our power of sight, and indeed of all of our bodily powers of apprehension, could then be better grasped as essential to the fullness of Heavenly life; and we could say, more rigorously than usual, that it is indeed true that the life of man, not of his soul alone but of man himself, is intimately fulfilled in the vision of God.

But there is a second way of interpreting what Irenaeus says, consistent with the first but different from it. The life of man is the vision of God can be taken to mean, not our vision of God, but God’s vision of us. In other words the vision of God can be interpreted as God’s own vision, and this would then be identified as having the life of man as its object, so that we would have here another statement of the Son’s intimate affinity with our flesh. He desires to enter into our life ­- to see us by seeing with us. The life of man, visible to us in the flesh as our own life, is the vision that the Son desires to be His in coming among us: our human flesh is the object of Divine predilection, our bodily life -­ the muscles and the bones, the down and the hair and the rest -­ is what He seeks and finds, not only in us but in Himself, in the Incarnation ­ His desire, for our sake, to dwell among us by dwelling in us.

And of course this desire has a redemptive dimension. If, in dwelling among us, the Word makes visible to Himself, as His own life, the life that is ours, it is thereby to heal us. But His dwelling among us may also have a dimension even larger than redemption, from the perspective we mentioned earlier and to which we can now return. If creation itself takes place in light of the Incarnation of the Son, if the Second Adam ultimately precedes the first, then quite apart from sin and redemption we are in the Incarnate Word before He is in us. The Incarnation can then be thought of as taking place above all to manifest this. The whole creation originates and is consummated in the eternally foreseen Word made flesh. We can say that it is His flesh that gives flesh to the world. Even beyond fallen flesh and the horizon of redemption, the origin and destiny of our flesh is revealed and completed in the flesh of the Word.

After this excursion through Irenaeus, let us return for a moment to Tertullian. His treatise on the flesh of Christ emerges near the very beginnings of post-­Biblical theological reflection, and in that treatise he was contesting ways of thinking which were already influential, and which henceforward have seemed to offer a perennially fascinating distortion of the Gospel. According to this distortion, the flesh of Christ was somehow set apart from ordinary human flesh. This setting apart can be thought of in various ways. It might be denied that the flesh of the Word was really human flesh at all. It might also be claimed that the flesh of the Word originated in a special way -­ for example, from the stars, which exist according to a higher grade of being than mundane nature. Most subtly, it could be said that the flesh of the Word had its own special and superior way of existing, like but also unlike that of other human beings. None of these ways of denying the identity of Christ’s flesh with our own is orthodox. And indeed no way whatsoever of denying this identity will be orthodox, because it is essential to the Christian conception of salvation that the Incarnate Word takes to Himself everything that is ours, except sin, because only in this way can the wounds and consequences of sin be redeemed. If there were any positive difference between Him and us, then that difference, as expressed in us, would fall outside the scope of redemption, and accordingly we would not be saved. When Tertullian so intensely evokes the palpable and pulsing affinities between the flesh of Christ and our own, and between our flesh and what we might call the flesh of the world ­- the dirt and the rocks, the moss and the grass, the roots and the streams ­- all this is meant by to show where the flesh of Christ belongs. It belongs here: in the world because for the world.

In fact the Gospel can be said to consist in precisely the claim that in belonging here the flesh of Christ also belongs to God. For the world, in its very flesh, is not alien to God, not a realm from which we have to take flight in order to find Him or be with Him. As creation, the world comes from the Trinity -­ a truth which, in the Incarnation, the Son has clarified and fulfilled by Himself coming to the world. And we can better appreciate the point Tertullian is insisting upon, if finally we reflect upon the miraculous conception of the Word made flesh.

At first sight, however, this doctrine can seem to cut across the identity of the flesh of the Word with our own, because His miraculous conception might be thought to remove His flesh from ours, since it originates differently, beyond the order of human procreation. And sometimes, indeed, one finds accounts of Christ’s conception which suggest there was something other­-worldly about His flesh, rendering it inaccessible to our own experience of embodiment. The flesh of the Word, it is implied, is mysteriously secluded from us, placed at an enigmatic distance which we are unable to traverse.

But another interpretation of His miraculous conception points in a different and better direction. Let us take for granted that flesh as such is not alien to God, and that this is shown when the Word Himself takes flesh and dwells among us. What more eloquent way could there be to testify to a Divine affinity with the flesh, than by insisting that the flesh of Christ owes itself to the action of the Holy Spirit? If the Holy Spirit initiates the flesh of Christ, and that flesh is identical to ours, doesn’t this suggest in turn that, in Christ, our flesh is revealed as itself a reflection of the Divine?

Something obstructs this interpretation, however, which is the suggestion that it is by means of natural procreation that original sin gets transmitted. There are actually two ideas here. The first is that the procreation of the flesh is fundamentally a natural process, operating in a certain independence from God. The second is that, since the Fall, there exists a very intimate connection between the procreation of the flesh, on the one hand, and our alienation from God, on the other. Of course these two ideas work together. The claim that procreation is basically a natural process, removed from God, is what makes it possible to suppose that since the Fall procreation has been hijacked by original sin. And within this way of thinking, it seems obvious why the sinless Word takes flesh miraculously exempt from procreation. If original estrangement from God is secreted in the link between procreation and the flesh, the miraculous origin of the flesh of Christ ensures that, in Him, this whole disastrous pattern is overcome. From this it is a very short step to suggesting that His flesh cannot indeed be identical to ours, but instead has the prerogative of mysteriously purified difference from our inescapably tainted embodiment.

But as Catholics we do not have to think in this way. The transmission of original sin, The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. We are not obliged to accept that it takes place by means of procreation, or that the flesh is thereby especially intimate to it. And so we can suppose a different kind of explanation for the miraculous conception of the Word made flesh. Perhaps it is to be explained, not because procreation transmits estrangement from God, but paradoxically because it channels an affinity with Him, handing over, as it does, the flesh in which His image is realized. But why, in that case, would Christ be exempt from procreation? Perhaps because the deceptive appearance of it as a purely natural process had to be removed, so that its actual truth could be clarified. Christ’s exemption from procreation miraculously unveils what procreation, in a veiled way, brings about: the image of God in the flesh.

And why should such a clarification occur at the founding moment of the Incarnation? Precisely because the Incarnation speaks always and only of Divine union with the flesh. From this point of view it is fitting that, in the very beginning of the revelation of this truth, there should be a wonderful confirmation that the flesh is, indeed, the site of God’s Self-­gift to the world.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]