Jesus, the Word Incarnate

The fragment we quoted below was written by the Rev. Dr. Mark McIntosh, Episcopal priest from the Diocese of Chicago and associated professor of systematic theology and spirituality at the Jesuit Loyola University in Chicago. It comes from his book “Mysteries of Faith” which is the eight part of the series “The New Church’s Teaching Series”. We translated this with the Advent retreat in mind. The participants will receive a copy of this text and will be requested to read it before the retreat. It will be the point of departure of our conversation Saturday morning  (you can find the program of the retreat here). It is also worthwhile to read other materials related to this topic which you can find under the tag Incarnation.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Word or Son of God “incarnate”? How can we say that in Jesus we have met not merely a word about God, but God’s own Word, existing humanly? That not only can human life be lived divinely, but that God can be human? I think we can find a fit among several important pieces of this puzzle: the way we come into our full personhood through desire, the way God exists as a desiring communion of divine Persons, and how the church, beginning at the resurrection, was given the Holy Spirit in order to participate in this personal communion of trinitarian love.

Can I prove all this? As far as “proving” things goes, I know some theologians believe we can prove that Christianity is true. I think that trying to “prove” Christianity by making it look like a generic religion [the author makes a reference to the idea that behind myths and rituals all religions have the same content; especially 19th c. liberal Protestant theology was convinced that Christianity, “purified” of all the incomprehensible about it, is such a “generic religion”] actually does more harm than good. In some ways, the truthfulness of Christian faith has to be left in the tender hands of the Holy Spirit, who alone can convince us and lead us into all truth. My hunch is that the Spirit is far more likely to convince by moving us to pray and help at the night shelter and take some kids who have never seen a cow out to the country than by brooding over rational arguments. While I am not willing to try to prove the truth of the Incarnation, I will try to show that it is coherent: that the mystery we are being led to adore has a kind of logic we can grasp. So what follows is merely an attempt to show how thinking about Jesus in terms of the Incarnation makes sense; the truth of it is something I think we can only know in the end if we are willing to let the Holy Spirit work in us the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising.

I have already said that Jesus is able to save us precisely because he embodies the relationship with the Father to which we need to be restored. So to understand who Jesus is, we need to ask how he could be said to “incarnate” this relationship. How is God present in the historical human being, Jesus of Nazareth? For most of Christian history, the answers to these questions have been spread across a wide range of positions.

At one extreme is the view that Jesus was just a very good man who told us something important about God. Whatever meaning Jesus has is not particularly related to who he was but to something he did or said: he showed us what God is like, or he gave us a new model of community that became a metaphor for understanding life. Because this insight is crucial, we can say that God was especially inspired or uniquely present in his life. But, at the end of the day, Jesus was simply human.

For those at the opposite extreme, Jesus is the divine Word pretending to be human. Jesus’ humanity is insignificant, possibly even problematic, in the great divine work of salvation. In coming to redeem us, God the Son did reach out to us where we are and stoop down to our humanity, but basically he is simply divine. Both of these extremes are minimalist and they are easy positions to take: both avoid having to face the astonishing idea that God and humanity are not mutually exclusive after all.

It may be helpful to examine your own basic thoughts about Jesus in terms of this range of incarnational perspectives. Most of us tend to lean in one direction or the other, away from the seeming paradox of the center: Jesus is both fully human and the eternal Word of God. Has your underlying assumption been that Jesus is fundamentally a good man in whose life God was very deeply involved? Or have you tended to see Jesus in divine terms, perhaps as a wonderful but always unattainable ideal, someone unsullied by the tedious details and mean little hurts of our lives? Perhaps it would be interesting to think about the way you hear other people talk about Jesus; how would you “diagnose” their tendencies? In general, it is fair to say that Anglican theologians from Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century to Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Gore in the nineteenth and William Temple and Michael Ramsey in the twentieth have all sought to avoid these two extremes and bring us into communion with the saving mystery of God’s intimate presence in Christ.

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