“I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known, and so I created the worlds both visible and invisible.” — Islamic Tradition
CHRISTMAS IS A YEARLY CELEBRATION of the incarnation of God’s only son, the Lord of Love and Prince of Peace, on Earth. I would like to share with you an insightful view and perspective of the incarnation of Jesus as a fully humanized being, taken from Cynthia Bourgeault’s beautifully written and profoundly insightful book THE WISDOM JESUS. Its author is an Episcopal priest who has written several books exploring Jesus’ life as a mystical teaching and sacrament.
Having emerged from a Catholic upbringing myself, and having spent seven years in Catholic Seminary, I do enjoy sharing this author’s vision of what Christianity could be simply by adopting a more metaphysical view and understanding of it core truth and of the One whose birth we celebrate this week. Cynthia takes us from where we’ve been in our religious path of worshiping God, to where we are now at the threshold of opportunity for a radical shift in our attitude and consciousness, and forward to how we could easily move into a more spirit and love based path to knowing God. I will share selections from her book in two or more blog posts. I hope you will enjoy her as much as I do.
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IN THE FIRST PART of this book we explored Jesus’s teachings as a comprehensive spiritual path. In this second part we will be shifting our focus to consider Jesus’s life itself as a teaching. By “a teaching” I mean a model, of course; all authentic teachers walk the talk. But more than just a model, I want to consider his life as a sacrament — that is, as a spiritual force in its own right. The traditional definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” But what to my mind this definition does not make sufficiently clear is that a sacrament does not merely symbolize a spiritual reality; it lives that reality into existence.
Jesus’s life, considered from this standpoint, is a sacrament: a mystery that draws us deeply into itself and, when rightly approached, conveys an actual spiritual energy empowering us to follow the path that his teachings have laid out. This sacramental life of Jesus rests on four cornerstones which are both historical events and cosmic realities: his incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension. Together they compose the foundation of the Christian mystical and devotional life, and to open oneself fully to the meaning of these great mysteries is to be able to read the inner roadmap of the Christian path. In the next four chapters we will be exploring each of these mysteries in turn. My hope is to move beyond the usual theological and critical-historical explanations in order to follow the living mystical thread that will allow us to appropriate each one of these mysteries as food for the journey.
Since the ground we will be traversing is also the sometimes prickly shared territory of Christian liturgy and sacramental theology, let me remind you once again of my own background here, so that you will know where I am speaking from. While I wear the collar of an Episcopal priest, most of my lived liturgical life has been within the wider stream of Benedictine monasticism, primarily Western and Roman Catholic (although the Episcopal liturgy is in most respects identical), and it is from this perspective (as well as my earlier training as a medievalist) that I will primarily be speaking when I describe the ritual celebrations that unfold these great mysteries. I am less familiar with the Orthodox traditions (except through my exposure to the Christian inner tradition), but at ease within the Celtic and Oriental Orthodox spiritual streams, whose extraordinary insights I will draw on at appropriate moments. As Meister Eckhart once observed, “There is no being except in a mode of being,” and the Western Catholic mode of being is the stream in which I have primarily come to know what I know. With that disclaimer in place, let us see what we can discover about the first great mystery, the incarnation.
“For God So Loved the World . . . .”
I remember being struck many years ago by an insight from the contemporary mystic Bernadette Roberts that crucifixion wasn’t really the hard thing for Jesus; the hard thing was incarnation.” Crucifixion and what followed from it — his death and resurrection — were simply the pathway along which infinite consciousness could return to its natural state. What was really hard for infinite consciousness was to come into the finite world in the first place. With nothing to gain from the human adventure — nothing to prove, nothing to achieve, and a dangerously unboundaried heart that left him defenseless against the hard edges of this world — Jesus came anyway: that, claims Bernadette Roberts, was the real crucifixion! As we saw earlier, Paul grasped that same point in his beautiful hymn in Philippians 2:9-16. The first self-emptying that Jesus goes through is the self-emptying that lands him in bodily form on this planet, a human being. There is definitely something spiritually counterintuitive about this business of incarnation, and to really get what’s at stake in this mystery is for me the acid test as to whether you understand what Christianity is all about.
Unfortunately, this understanding is hard to come by: not only outside of Christianity, but inside it as well. Make no mistake, Christianity is intensely a religion of incarnation. Millions of people caught up in mass hysteria during the Christmas season can’t all be wrong! But even the sentimental excesses of the season only go to reinforce the point. There is a deeper truth at work here that stirs us in spite of ourselves. Who among us has not awakened in the wee hours of Christmas morning to catch the live broadcast of the Ceremony of Lessons and Carols from Westminster Abbey and thrilled to the sonorous reading of those immortal words from the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”? There is a deep soul-truth here that both contains and redeems our frantic efforts to penetrate its meaning at a more superficial level.
If you were to imagine the great world religions like the colors of a rainbow, each one witnessing in a particular way to some essential aspect of the divine fullness, Christianity would unquestionably hold down the corner of incarnation — by which I mean the vision of God in full solidarity with the created world, fully at home within the conditions of finitude, so that form itself poses no impediment to divinity. There is another beautiful phrase in John’s gospel proclaiming: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (John 3:16). At its mystical best, Christianity reverberates with the warmth of this assurance: with the conviction that creation is good, that God is for us, and that what ultimately gets worked out in the sacred mystery of Jesus’s passage through the human realm is a profound testament to love.
Who Screwed Up?
Unfortunately, Christianity as a religion has never had a sufficient metaphysical understanding of its own core truth. The message gets obscured by its primary interpretive vehicle: the theology of fall and redemption. Virtually all Christian teaching begins from the supposition that Jesus’s incarnation is brought about by the fall of Adam and happens in response to it. “As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive” is the classic Pauline formulation of this idea (I Corinthians 15:20). The primordial parents Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and plunged the world into chaos; Jesus came to rescue it. Thus, incarnation is framed from the start within the context of God’s response to a mistake that should never have happened in the first place. This assumption, in turn, deeply colors our understanding of the phrase, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” It sounds like: “God didn’t give up on us; God bailed us out.”
In a more mystical nuancing of this same basic idea, we encounter the theology of “0 felix culpa”~”O happy fault”~ to quote the first line of a traditional Gregorian Advent hymn which expresses this theology particularly clearly. Rather than blaming Adam and Eve, this line of argument claims, we ought to be grateful for them because their mistake set in motion the chain of events through which Christ would fully reveal himself to this world. Without that initial fall there would have been no need for the redemption. In the most subtle versions of this teaching (as in Karl Barth’s Christ and Adam) linear cause and effect are reversed, and we see Adam and Eve falling into this space/time continuum out of God’s “prior” decision (that is, already made in eternity) to reveal himself in human form. Rather than being the cause of the fall, Adam and Eve become the instruments of the ultimate divine self-communication. This is a much more affirmative teaching, which brings the theology of fall and redemption to its most mature expression.
But I would like to push the metaphysical envelope still further and see if we can approach the mystery of the incarnation through a conceptual framework that does not rely on fall and redemption at all but unfolds along an entirely different line of understanding. Instead of a cosmic course-correction, this other approach envisions the steady and increasingly intimate revelation of divine love along a trajectory that was there from the beginning. The best expression of this idea is actually contained in a beautiful saying from Islamic tradition (although its roots go down into perennial wisdom ground): “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known, and so I created the worlds both visible and invisible.” Both the saying itself and the understanding that illumines it derive from a profound mystical intuition that our created universe is a vast mirror, or ornament (and the Greek word “cosmos” literally means “an ornament”), through which divine potentiality — beautiful, fathomless, endlessly creative — projects itself into form in order to realize fully the depths of divine love. And remember that “realize” has two meanings: “to recognize” and “to make real.” The act of loving brings hidden potential to full expression, and the more intimate and costly the self-giving, the more precious the quality of love revealed. This subtle and beautiful understanding of creation will also, as we shall see, have something very important to show us about our true work as human beings.
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We are each one an incarnation of Divine Being. Our personal incarnations were stressful and limiting, descending from the peaceful Realms of Light and landing in the dark wet terrain of busy embryonic cellular activity; from flying freely in the air of spirit to crawling on our bellies until our toddling forms learn to walk and run. How we yearn for the freedom we knew before incarnating. I remember very vivid dreams of flying above the ground at breakneck speed in my youthful years. Who hasn’t had such dreams? And I can relate to the thrill a jet pilot must enjoy flying through the air at supersonic speed. One has to be fit and well trained to fly a jet. Likewise our human capacities need compassionate care and vital nourishment in order to be fully fit and available in accommodating the incarnate divine beings we are.
Yet here we are, fully awake and learning how to navigate a multidimensional universe of energy-shaped-and-driven hard and complex materiality only God comprehends. Being incarnate gods ourselves, we have been gifted the privilege of sharing in Divine Consciousness and comprehending reality that is incomprehensible to the human intellect—for the darkness cannot comprehend the Light in the same way that Light comprehends the darkness. We incarnate to bring Light into the dark corners of Creation to bring forth a heavenly world here on Earth where we are. This gives us great cause for celebrating, at Christmas time and throughout the year.
I celebrate you, dear reader, this Christmas, along with my own Divine incarnation—and my gift to you and myself is unconditional love and acceptance. May the joy of Love fill you full to overflowing during this Holiday Season. Until my next post — which will be published this coming Wednesday,
Be love. Be loved.
Credits: Artistic drawing by Rose Meeker, author of MAGIC AT OUR HAND – Releasing Our Lives into Order and Beauty