Incarnating the Incarnation
Today is the first Sunday of Advent in the year 2020 CE. In the tradition of the Christian Church, it marks the beginning of the liturgical year. This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. Already there is a problem with the patriarchal, classist language. The whole idea of God's Incarnation in and through Jesus is to break apart that paradigm. And yet, we still use the language of oppression and colonization to start a new Church cycle. In the Christian texts, Jesus never calls himself King, and the dominion of God, which Jesus never claims as his.
How do we then talk about the message of today? The return of Christ not merely metaphorically, but a real sense, tangible and experiential. I preached my very first sermon on this Sunday in 1992. Afterward, the Senior Pastor of the Church I served asked me if I believed that Jesus was coming back. I answered, "Yes, that's what he said." Then he gave some weak "liberal" response that didn't capture the essence of what the return of Christ was supposed to mean. The image and memory of this conversation are still vivid and clear in my mind. It caused me to stop and think about what I had just said and defended why I said it and ultimately believed it. That thought still echoes in my mind and challenges me in different ways at different times.
If we think of the physical life of the person called Jesus (in English), there is a birth, life, and death in a literal sense. It is not possible to deny the reality of that life and its effect on humanity. We are told the story decades after the physical manifestation of this person. The people who told these stories were affected by those who experienced Jesus in the flesh. The tradition of the oral communication of the teachings and life of the person Jesus shaped whole communities. First, those in the area of Palestine, mostly Jews and their cousins, the Samaritans. It then spread to the non-monotheists of the Roman Empire. The whole Pentecost story talks about the effect of extending the story of Jesus to the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural populations of the Empire and spreading across the Empire, unable to be contained.
In Christian tradition, the manifestation of God in and through Jesus is called the Incarnation. It is the theological expression of a name applied to Jesus, Emmanuel—God with us. The whole concept contains the personhood of Jesus in that name. The expression of God and God's nature lived out in the flesh in the person of Jesus. The Gospels give evidence to this through the wisdom, teachings, and miracles credited to Jesus. Those things continued, credited to the Holy Spirit, the expression of God in a non-physical form. A metaphysical presence that connected the followers of Jesus to Jesus and to others who were followers of Jesus. This spiritual essence of God works in and through the lives of believers and non-believers. It draws them to a life that honors the nature and Spirit of Jesus.
One of the issues in the Christian tradition raised on this Sunday is the idea of Christ's return. Now over two millennia, the person of Jesus and the title of Christ (English transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah). The Jewish thought expressed in the word Messiah is "Anointed One." More specifically, the person set apart by God or God's community to provide leadership and a means to "save" God's people. That understanding first applied to Jesus because the message was God's breaking through. In the same sense, all religious movements begin as a reformation of or restoration of a particular religious community. Jesus' message was initially for the Jewish community and those closely allied theologically, like the Samaritans and even Gentiles who adopted Jewish practices and beliefs.
As the community of Jesus, followers grew and expanded beyond Jerusalem and Galilee, more Gentiles who were still polytheists began to respond to this message. The whole idea of God's saving work in and through Jesus needed reimaging and rebranding to apply to those with no understanding of Judaism's traditions and theology. The Messiah's knowledge had to be expanded and put in the cultural context of the non-Jewish citizens of the Roman Empire. However, the more one moves away from the original context and audience and language; many things become lost in translation. The comparison of Christ with Caesar was a more straightforward way to explain the Messiah to people who didn't know the Jewish people's history. This dilution of the original meaning and translation to a European and Empire context allowed a theology of domination and oppression that could excuse a Christian institutional theocracy that continued Empire for 2000 years.
Most people don’t have the time or inclination to think about the deeper theological meaning of Christ's return. Christian writers coined this expression to express the hope of overcoming an Empire and Emperor that persecuted them. Suppose they could believe that the Christ could return, not as a humble Palestinian itinerant rabbi, but as a King, a warrior God who would rescue them and destroy those who came against them. Not only eliminate but make them pay, make them suffer in retribution for all the pain and suffering that the Empire inflicted upon the early Christian community. Once again, when Christianity's institutional expression became dominant and gained political power, this message of hope and rescue became a tool used to keep people in a humble position and willing to be subjugated by the new expressions of the Roman Empire.
Where does this leave us on the first Sunday of Advent? Did Jesus talk about a literal physical return? Possibly so; all we have are the words citing that in documents written decades after the event by people who heard about it second hand. That alone does not make it false or a fabrication. We have no proof either way. So once again, where does this leave us? Can God's physical presence return in a real sense and not just as an expression of some esoteric metaphysical experience? What does the Incarnation mean tangibly with Jesus? How did God manifest this person in a way that was different from all the other humans used by the Divine to reveal the purpose and destiny of humanity using a paradigm of love? Does the presence of the Holy Spirit activity working at large amid all of humanity give us a clue on how this might work?
If we are to model our lives after the fashion and person of Jesus, then at some point, we must talk about the whole human and divine thing. The teaching in the Christian tradition is that believers are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit that came after Jesus to be the presence of God or the Divine. And while we might not want to go there, how does that work in a person, and can we express it in that way. Indeed, we believe that once one becomes a believer, by water and the Spirit, that person is no longer the same as before these events. The question is, does the presence of the Holy Spirit only come when one becomes a Christian? If so, why are there so many other expressions of the Divine's manifestation apart from Christianity? The phrase itself, "being filled with the Spirit," suggests that humans are empty vessels with no spiritual dimension as a part of their humanity. This can't possibly be true. Even before one has any religious experience, all humans have a sense of something beyond themselves. The intuition and curiosity of this otherness indicate an awareness before someone tells us about it. Some people are more sensitive to it, while others learn to suppress the feeling altogether.
Letting go of that possibility of the human cup filled with the Divine as something separate, we must explore other options. There is a real probability of another way that the Divine and human are connected. We could even suggest an intrinsic connection between the two from birth (or conception, if you will). If one believes that Christianity is not the only expression of human spirituality and a manifestation of the Divine, then what? We could get into a whole discussion about the Godhead's 2nd person, but let's not. If, however, we can say that as followers of the teachings and sayings of Jesus as the Christ, the incarnational manifestation of the Divine, we can go somewhere with this, without negating other spiritual experiences and expressions of the Divine.
As a Christian in the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition, there is an understanding that the Holy Spirit works with us from the very beginning. The act of Incarnation lifts all humans out of any sense of total depravity. It begins a process of restoration and recreation of a spiritual connection within each person. As each person responds and moves forward in this process, the Divine becomes more evident and experienced more fully. This experience continues to the point where there is no separation between the human and divine parts, and one begins to realize there never was. Our motivation moves from self-gratification at the expense of anything or anyone else to one where we recognize the need for an ethic of love and connection to all people and things in Creation and even the Creation itself. The paradigm of Jesus' teachings and those who followed in that tradition is this ethic of love. This love carries us beyond the limits of our human body and reaches out across all time and space. This connection, as we know, it is the "Communion of Saints." The holy communion removes physical presence limitations and connects all through each person's spiritual essence who came before and will exist afterward. Without the need for an actual physical being, we can then understand a new meaning of Incarnation.
What might be the reality of the Incarnation of God through Jesus is more than a baby being born to peasants living in Palestine during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The truth does not diminish the events or effects of God's presence in and through the person of Jesus. Neither does it negate the idea that Jesus was more than just an ordinary rabbi. What happened in the world and history is not merely a simple act of one person. For many, it is the quintessential revelation of the Divine. I think the limited viewpoint of physicality tends to make any other interpretation of Christ's Return seem heretical. Yet, Christians will not say that Jesus will be "re-incarnated" either. The Incarnation is an event outside of time. It does not have any timetable. Jesus also said that no one knows the time of his return, not even him, and not to go looking for signs. God's timing alone is the only clue given for this event. So, the return is also outside of time. Coming back soon becomes a metaphorical expression for someday. But if anyone has seen any time travel movie, the flow of time is not linear in the traveler or observers' experience. Neither is it the same for them as well.
The word soon expresses the thought of immediacy. How can the return be soon and not yet? What is the explanation? Maybe we are expecting the wrong thing. Jesus may not have meant a bodily return. It may be more than just the experience of the Holy Spirit and the effect of that Spirit. Could it be that Jesus was talking about the awakening of the Divine through the presence of the Holy Spirit? A pouring of Miracle-Gro on humanity's spiritual essence in a way that brings forth the Divine in each person. With the human and Divine working together, the Divine's intent can be lived out and manifested so that the same presence of the Divine/God returns through each person who becomes aware of this.
We want the Divine's in-breaking story into human history to become a myth of a magical person who changed the world. But Jesus isn't Harry Potter. The Incarnation of God through Jesus isn't just a fable, and more than just a metaphor. It is the actualization of the Divine's manifestation in humanity that was so profound, so transformative that nothing was the same ever again. We, too, can be an incarnated presence of the Divine. Possibly not to the same extent as Jesus. However, Jesus told the disciples that they would do all that he did and more through the Spirit. So, is it blasphemy to suggest that Christ returns through us in the same way? Can the Incarnation of the Divine/God be manifested in and through us to be the Divine's presence and voice to carry out God's intent in a way that changes our world? Can the Incarnate speak out against oppression, injustice, and hatred? A real and physical presence of all that is sacred and holy. A reality that reaches out and heals and liberates.
Quite possibly this Advent, instead of looking up and waiting for Jesus to descend from the sky, we can live out the directions of the angels to the disciples. We can become the Incarnation of all that Jesus was by being the manifestation of the Divine that we can be. This understanding will make the Incarnation of God more than just a story told at Christmas and believed only by children. The Incarnation in and through us makes the purpose of Jesus more than just a "get out of Hell free" card. If we can live with our full nature revealed and lived out, maybe we can be the Divine's incarnated presence for our world and times. And then, perhaps we'll know that Christ has returned.