Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Humanity's Human Savior

If you take a stroll into my office, or even when my office is closed, just peer at my door, you’ll find a number of icons.  Iconography, that sacred art form which transcends mere painting, has become for me a profound entrance into the mystery of God.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons aren’t simply visual aids in prayer.  They are, in fact, windows into heaven…opportunities for us to gaze upon an image of Jesus, or a saint, and have our soul touched by the very reality the icons represent.  Icons are ways for us to have our imaginations captivated by the beauty of God’s grace, and thereby begin to see all that surrounds us as enlivened and infused with the grace of God as well.  All of God’s creation is an icon of God’s beauty, if only our eyes could see the world, or the human being next to us, as such.

And perhaps this may be obvious, since I am a priest dedicated to the way of Jesus, but the icons that have the most profound influence on me are those of Jesus himself.  None of us know what Jesus truly looked like, though we can have a fairly accurate guess by imaging him as a Middle Eastern man with dark skin and a thick beard.  But it’s the way icons of Jesus invite us into his glory, into his beauty, into his transcendence, into his divinity that impress me and cause me to gaze upon them with reverence and awe.  But Jesus wasn’t simply a demigod masquerading as a human being.  He wasn’t just God with a bit of skin thrown on for the fun of it.  The Church has confessed since the beginning that Jesus was fully God and fully human…a paradox, for sure, but an inextricable article of our faith.  God entered the world as a human child, suffering alongside of us, sharing in our joys and victories, experiencing everything that human beings experience, both physically and emotionally.

Speaking of the celebration of the Nativity, St. Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed, “I shall cry out the meaning of this day: the fleshless one is made flesh, the Word becomes material, the invisible is seen, the intangible is touched, the timeless has a beginning, the Son of God becomes Son of Man.”  So while I find myself reverent and awe-filled before icons of Jesus that illustrate his divine glory, there is a part of me that longs for another type of icon.  I would love an icon that I could call “Jesus the Tantrum Thrower”, wreaking some havoc in Joseph’s woodshop.  Or an icon called “Jesus the Pre-teen Adolescent”, rolling his eyes as Mary asks him a third time to clean up the cooking utensils. Teenagers, you know what I’m talking about.  And parents, the struggle is real, am I right?  Maybe an icon called “Jesus the Frustrated Teacher”, grimacing as his disciples repeatedly fail to grasp the meaning of his words.  Perhaps we have a level of discomfort dwelling on the normal, human aspects of Jesus of Nazareth because we usually surround ourselves with images such as these, a resurrected Jesus crowned in glory, triumphantly conquering the cross.  Or we fear that dwelling on his humanity will somehow take away from his divinity.  But we ultimately do a great disservice to ourselves when we forget that long held truth of the church, that Jesus Christ was fully human, not just fully divine.

And for reasons such as those, I’m profoundly grateful that the author of the Gospel of Luke included this story in his account of the life of Jesus.  Not ignoring the profound idea that Jesus felt a calling to the temple because it was his father’s house, but, for a moment, paying closer attention to the deeply human drama unfolding, we get a sense of what it must have been like for this family as they struggled to understand and make sense of the message of Gabriel and the reality of Jesus as God’s son.  This deeply human drama hits its high point with what I imagine was a very exasperated admonition from Mary: “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  The paradox of the Incarnation is revealed once again as God-incarnate receives a fierce and justifiable correction from his mother.  Like any teenager unaware of the chaos their decisions might cause, and totally convinced of his actions, Jesus answers with a statement that his parents were simply unable to comprehend: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And while that seems to put a period on the end of this story, the Gospel continues with a few phrases that always leave me astounded and curious: “Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them…And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  If what the Church confesses is true, that the Eternal and Ancient One, the God who called all creation into being, dwelt fully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, then the idea that God intimately knows the struggle of being a child and willingly learned obedience and respect is astonishing.  And the Gospel is clear that Jesus did not possess all knowledge and foresight from birth.  He learned, and grew, and matured just like all of us in this room have.

What stunning humility, that the God of all creation has himself come to know the necessity of learning, and growth, and the struggles of our human condition, and has experienced personally those moments when we are required to be obedient to someone other than ourselves.  “The timeless has a beginning,” said St. Gregory of Nazianzus.  And we could go on ourselves: The unbound one has become bound; true power has come to know powerlessness; infinite wisdom has experienced the interplay between ignorance and knowledge.  But within this paradox lies a truth of absolute hope and beauty.  The fact that the Son of God impressed himself fully into all aspects of human life reveals that human nature, the human nature that we all share, is much more capable of interacting and being intimate with the Divine than we may realize.  To quote again St. Gregory: “O new mixture! O unexpected blessing! He who is has come to be, the uncreated one is created…he who is rich is a beggar—for he goes begging in my flesh, that I might become rich with his godhead! He who is full has emptied himself—for he emptied himself of his own glory for a while that I might have a share of his fullness. How rich is his goodness...He took on a share in my flesh, so that he might both save the image and make the flesh immortal.”

Impressed fully into human life, God has elevated our human nature, redeemed it, washed it, made it more pure than it ever was before the birth of Jesus.  Stories like this one from the Gospel, stories that reveal the very humanity of Jesus, reveal also the inexhaustible goodness of the Incarnation.  All that we are as human beings, both our joys and struggles, have been redeemed by the appearing of God in the flesh.  The humility of God reveals the new beauty of humanity.  This is the season in which we celebrate not only the coming down of the Son of God, but the lifting up of humanity.  And we are charged to be like Mary, to treasure all these things in our hearts, that we might not forget this wonderful mystery.  We are redeemed, made beautiful, mingled with the saving grace of divinity.  We are more than meets the eye.  May we all remember this beauty, even in our darkest moments.  Then, perhaps, the world will remember its beauty too.

*A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas Day at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, and Luke 2:41-52.

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