Posts tagged with: incarnation

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Washington's Crossing This short list of books is meant to avoid the obvious works one might find in a Christmas list. So I’ve omitted great works like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Charlie Brown Christmas (which I’ve included) is probably the only that would make the popular lists we often see because it’s so well known in our culture because of the television series that preceded the book.

The works below all have a strong Christmas connection, even the military history books and the two children’s book I included. This is of course by no means a complete list, but they are all accounts I have read and value. Any of them would make excellent gifts this year. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section.

1) On the Incarnation of the Word: Simply one of the most profound and beautiful books ever written about Christ. On the Incarnation by Athanasius was written in the 4th Century. Very few works can penetrate the soul and explain the purpose and glory of God putting on human flesh like this one. Athanasius reminds of such ancient truths as, “For the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.”
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In today’s culture, there is always an abundance of news stories about the “War on Christmas.” In my commentary this week, I address that concern and the lack of understanding of the deeper meaning of Christmas. Here’s a highlight:

Every December cultural warriors mourn the incessant attacks on Christmas and secularism’s rise in society. News headlines carry stories of modern day Herods banning nativity scenes, religious performances, and even the word “Christmas.” Just as a majority of young people profess they will have less prosperity and opportunity than their parents, many people now expect less out of Christmas. Continual bickering over holiday messaging in corporate advertising itself points to a shrinking and limited Christmas.

Yet these problems are signs on the way to important truths, if we have the eyes to see. Record spending and debt, whether in Washington or the home, allude to a society trying to fill an emptiness of the heart. Even our disappointment in poor leadership in America reminds us that we crave a true King and are expectant of a greater day.

In 2010, I penned a related essay “Why the Nativity?” That post delves even deeper into the theology of the incarnation and the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Christmas is a hard time for many people because expectations for joy and changes in their life are so high. In my own life, I count myself among those that have had a difficult time at Christmas because I’m so reflective and I realize life isn’t always how I want it.

There is a sign in front of the church that I attend that reads, “Jesus is all you want, if Jesus is all you have.” I find that the more I deeply ponder the incarnation of Christ, the more I am amazed and my heart is transformed.

I quoted Charles Wesley in my commentary in where he called Christ the “desire of every nation,” and “joy of every longing heart.” The hymn is of course, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” The words are beautiful and I’ve always loved Wesley’s hymns because they deal with the deepest hopes of the heart and he personalizes the person of Christ for all.

In his annual Christmas commentary, Rev. Robert A. Sirico examines the meaning of a season “prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.” A shorter version of this article was published on Dec. 21 in the Detroit News. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.

The ‘Small’ God Who Brought Heaven Down to Earth

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

Some years ago I found myself at a fashionable dinner party in Los Angeles where the lamb was roasted to perfection, and the deep, rich red Australian wine complimented it to a tee. The conversation around the dinner table was likewise high-minded and it did not take this largely secular gathering very long to turn their attention to the Christian sitting in their midst. With all the graciousness and condescension she could muster, my dining companion turned to me and said, “I am not a believer, of course, but I have long admired your Church’s care for the poor and suffering and the generosity and effectiveness of your social agencies who tend to human needs without regard to the belief or non-belief of the recipient.”

Had she stopped there I would have humbly received her acknowledgement and we might have moved on to the dessert in the same spirit of conviviality we had begun. It was when she smiled, drew a breath and said, “Yet — ” that I knew all had not been said that needed saying from her perspective.

“Yet,” she continued, “how is it that Christianity, whose priests invented the scientific method, and who built the institutions of the hospital and university, can hold to the idea of such a small God?”

The pugnacious New Yorker in me wanted to reply to the effect that, “Well even a small God is bigger than no god.” But I knew that would not go down well, and that the issue was not about “size” after all, but about meaning and, ultimately, Truth.

Feeling something like I imagined Flannery O’Connor did when confronted with collapsed-Catholic Mary McCarthy’s observation about the Eucharist as a impressive symbol, O’Connor retorted, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”

Instead I swirled my shiraz and asked, “Whatever do you mean?”

She responded: “Well, all this stuff about God being born as a baby. This business about the ineffable inhabiting time and space. It just seems so small, so concrete, so … improbable.”

The lady had it right, or more precisely, she had it half right. The doctrine of the Incarnation is indeed a scandal, not to say improbable, to the modern mind that does not yet grasp the immensity of the concept or the enormity of its impact on all that would follow from it throughout history from that first Christmas to this one.

That the eternal God should deign to co-mingle in time and space with humanity does tell us something, not about the ‘smallness’ of God, but about the inestimable dignity of the human person who is created in the image of the Lord of History. Thus it tells us about the importance of human history to eternity; of the relation of the visible world to the invisible one; and of the way the mortal life we each live here and now determines our immortal destiny.

This season, which pulsates with nostalgia, memory, sadness as well as with a deep and abiding sense of profound joy and human meaning – and does it all at once – is a season prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.

It is for this very reason that the Christian faith which emerges from this proclamation about God’s entrance into the human condition, could build institutions and cultures aimed at concretely reverencing each and every human person from the very first moment of their existence in the womb, in all their vulnerability and potential, without regard to their ethnicity or some other accidental factor. It is the belief stipulated in that memorable passage from Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He has … set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

This idea can easily be dismissed by armchair sociologists and village atheists as the ranting of a Christian who presumes his message of the enfleshment of God to be true and therefore universally appealing.

But more than appealing it is compelling. As it was to my non-believing dinner companion who, in admiring the social consequences of institutional Christianity (from the university education she received that enabled her to articulate her critique in the first place, to the transforming of personal almsgiving into the massive worldwide network of social care and education, and even to the moral and justifiable denunciations against Christians for their failures to live up to the demands of the Gospel) she was in some inchoate way acknowledging the core idea of Christmas: that in the fullness of time, Heaven came down to earth to reveal man to himself and invite him to the simple, discrete yet world-changing concept of love.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.

Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.

There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.

As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.

Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”

Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.

On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:

The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:

The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, July 19, 2010

In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.

Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.

He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.

Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:

Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.

The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”

This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.

The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:

I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.

I love the song, “Mary, did you know?”

Reflect on the words

The Incarnation is at the heart of the Gospel– not just that Jesus came
as the GodMan in bodily form,
as the ultimate sin-bearer,
as the Perfect High Priest offering Himself
as the Perfect Sacrifice for our sins.

Beyond that, consider the manner of the Incarnation– He didn’t just
roll down here for a week,
hop on a cross,
and rise from the dead.

He lived our kind of life
from cradle
to cross…

For the full post, click here

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, November 11, 2009

373613_cover.indd Washington Post reporter and author Christian Davenport has told a deeply raw and emotional story in his new book As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard. This book does not focus on battlefield heroics but rather it captures the essence and value of the citizen- soldier. Most importantly this account unveils through narrative, the pride, the pain, and the harrowing trials of the life of America’s guardsmen and reservists. Davenport tells the stories of Mark Baush, Kate Dahlstrand, Craig Lewis, Miranda Summers, and Ray and Diane Johnson. He tells of their deployment and return home. For some it means the end of a marriage, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnoses, career and schooling problems, getting gamed by a grueling bureaucracy, and perhaps most common, a disconnect from the society at home after deployment.

Davenport focuses on some very important themes related to the disconnect some soldiers feel. It may be that guardsmen and reservists experience it to an even greater extent than soldiers in the regular Army. They in fact live and work in the civilian world. One example from the book is Craig Lewis, a former teacher who tries to find a job after his return from Iraq. He performs above and beyond the call of duty as a Blackhawk pilot, is promoted and given command of a company in the guard. But in the civilian world he had immense difficulty finding any sort of quality employment. Davenport notes:

Federal law required that employers, and even small companies, hold jobs for deploying reservists. Swept up in the wave of patriotism after 9/11, many sent their citizen-soldiers off to war with pats on their backs, flags waving. Many employers even made up the difference in pay. But as the wars slogged on, and soldiers were called to active duty again and again, the word reservist suddenly had a stigma attached to it.

Miranda Summers’ story in some ways mirrors the experience of many guardsmen and reservist in college at the time of deployment. Summers balances academics, social and sorority life, and her National Guard commitment. She is a student at The College of William & Mary, and later a graduate student at Brown University after her return from Iraq. At William & Mary she is asked when somebody finds out she is going to Iraq, “I thought only poor people go to war?” At Brown the experience is a little different when a student proclaims, “I have never met anybody in the military.” The opening of this book is deeply moving, when Davenport tells how Summers is embraced by a World War II veteran at the memorial commemorating that conflict in Washington D.C.

There is a saying that was put on a dry erase board at a Marine Corps operation center in Iraq which read, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.” It conjures up all the frustration some in the military feel about the lack of sacrifice on the American home front and the general disconnect. It’s an alien concept to the total war of World War II or even the draft obligations of Vietnam. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently represent an all volunteer force. The Founders understood the dangers of the disconnect and Davenport makes note of this in his account:

The framers, having thrown off a king who could wage war without the hindrance of popular sentiment, knew this, and they had designed the system so that burdens of war were spread through out the population. Citizen-soldiers, then, weren’t a mere check against executive power, but rather the conscience of a nation. The cause had better be worthy of their sacrifice.

Davenport cites the famous Robert E. Lee quote, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” He sharply then notes a concern shared by some military and civilian leaders alike, “What happened instead is that America had grown ignorant of war, which was just as dangerous, if not more so.”

But it is the masterful ability to tell a story that makes this author shine. Davenport hauntingly captures the pride, emotions, and frustrations of the citizen-soldier. Some of the stories can be quite heartbreaking and the reader feels sympathy for those profiled. At the same time, Davenport is able to articulate the pride and importance the characters feel towards the nation and their service in it. My own brother Chris was a reservist in the Marine Corps who served in Iraq in an intense combat environment. He said the disconnect and alienation is real. “It’s not like you can just go back to whatever it is you were doing and things would be the same,” he told me. Kate Dahlstrand not only had her husband leave her when she was in Iraq, she suffered nightmares and flashbacks after her return. When she tried to contact Veterans Affairs for help, she was brushed aside. Kate was able to remarry and eventually receive some quality help after meeting James Peake, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This is an amazing book and the theme that examines the isolation and brokenness that some soldiers feel is very penetrating. For the Christian, and being somebody who has worked in ministry and studied for the ministry myself, I had one overarching thought through this entire account. And it’s an appropriate thought especially during the coming Christmas season, and that is Christ felt all of the emotions of pain, hurt, loss, abandonment, abuse, and betrayal. Augustine said of the incarnation, “nothing was lacking that belongs to human nature.” The account by Davenport is also a reminder of the complexity and the enormous task so many military chaplains face in the Armed Forces. On this Veterans Day it is important to remember all our service men and women, and Davenport has achieved that by telling the unique stories of just a few who represent so many.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, passes along a Christmas message over at Phi Beta Cons on National Review Online. Reflecting on the Incarnation, Sirico says, “This belief teaches us to take seriously human history, its institutions, economies and social relationships, for all of this, and more, is the stuff from which human destiny is discovered and directed.”

At the Christmas staff meeting Rev. Sirico passed on similar thoughts to us, and concludes with this, which I pass along to all of you: “It is my prayer, at this sobering and holy time of the year, that you, in the midst of your families and your work, will discover the eternal significance of the contingency of time so as to experience the bliss that eternity affords.”

Well said.