There is an ancient formula that goes like this: Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est; which is, being interpreted, “and was incarnated by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; and was made man.”

These words, at least the English of them, are familiar to any Christian whose church still recites the Nicene Creed. But even a Christian who has not come across this exact wording will be familiar with the doctrine it expresses. It is plain orthodoxy. All Christians believe it. The formula passes the test brought to bear by another ancient formula, the Vincentian Canon: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est:—“what has everywhere, always, and by everyone, been believed.” Here Mennonite and Byzantine, Salvationist and Latin, agree.

The difficulty with familiar formulas like this is, often, just that: they are familiar. We need to be jogged now and again so that what we are saying does not slip off into mere slogan. This is especially true of the affirmation in question here, for in this doctrine of the Incarnation we speak of the point at which the mightiest mysteries touch our ordinariness. The whole thing was brought down to a point at our feet, as it were. “Eternity shut in a span,” one seventeeth-century poet called it.

In these two short clauses we find an enormous amount of biblical teaching crisply summed up for us. And the point in the whole drama of redemption which is bespoken here is one which, despite our fierce orthodoxy, we may miss: “… and was incarnated … and was made man.”

In the early Church, people kept coming up with ideas as to how this teaching could be made more plausible. The notion of God becoming man—real man—was unmanageable. Of course, everyone was familiar enough with how gods had often masqueraded as men. And again, there were plenty of stories as to how mortals had been caught up and given a place in the heavens because the gods loved them very much, or because they needed to be punished, or rescued from some danger. But for Zeus or somebody to become a man was not one of the options. So one attempt after another was made to adjust the doctrine. One idea was that the Incarnation was one of those masquerades. Another was that the Holy Ghost had come on the man Jesus in a unique way and made him the “son of God” in some way not quite true of the rest of us sons of God. There were all kinds of variations on the theme, and most of them are still familar to us. I myself grew up in an era when, as far as we could tell, our own fundamentalist church and the local Roman church were the only churches, out of thirteen churches in town, that taught anything like this stark Nicene (and biblical) doctrine of the Incarnation. Everyone else seemed to be still trying, two thousand years later, to say something plausible. We called it modernism, but it was, surely, a tired rerun of some very old notions.

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It is not customary in Protestantism to speak of the Virgin as the Mother of God. The hesitation here is that this will make it sound as though she existed before God the Father somehow, and bore him. But that ancient title for her, Theotokos, the God-bearer, arose long before there were any universal schisms in the Church, to protect this idea that that which had become one with our flesh by being conceived and nurtured in the body of the Virgin was nothing other than God himself. The title was upheld by the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. The Incarnate was not a masquerade of God, nor a creature of God, nor an apparition, nor a merely godlike hero. It was God.

There is a good difficulty about a doctrine like this that is true of all Christian doctrines. This good difficulty is that while what we say is clear enough for any ears to hear (God became a man; Christ died for us; he ascended into heaven), it is at the same time an impenetrable mystery. No one, not even the Angelic Doctor himself, can get to the bottom of it. We will be forever coming at it afresh. We will be forever working away at it, both here and in Paradise, although presumably the form that this latter “working away” will take will be adoration and not theology.

One aspect of this teaching is that, by virtue of this Incarnation, it may be said that we wear the flesh that has been hallowed and raised to glory by that event. The flesh that we bear was, and is, in a mystery, the flesh worn by the Deity. There is no other creature in the whole cosmos, so far as we know, that can claim this: no lion, be he ever so regal: no elf, be he ever so fair; no archangel, be he ever so mighty. It is our flesh alone that has been taken up. The Athanasian Creed, which goes back perhaps to the late fourth century, speaks of the Incarnation as “not … the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but [the] taking [of] the manhood into God.”

This is what the Church celebrates in December every year. This is the mystery we try to come at with our feasting and caroling and giving. We come to the shrine where the great mystery lies, there in our flesh, and like the whispering shepherds and the adoring Magi we know that in this small and unlikely drama being played out here in this inauspicious place, this stable, the shutters of the universe have been blown open for us, and we are being invited to peer through onto vistas of splendor only dimly guessed at in the songs and tales and prophecies of ancient seers, sages, and sibyls.

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One of the questions that comes to us, though, is this: how do we wear that flesh day by day? The celebration comes and goes. We, like the shepherds and the Magi, must “return” from the shrine to our daily ordinariness. What does it mean, to us who have been to that shrine?

The mystery that we beheld there is the mystery of our flesh raised to glory. We walk out now, clothed as it were, in the image that has been raised to the pinnacle. Our flesh is the jewel in the crown of Creation. This again is why you often see, in the painting of the Middle Ages, the figure of Mary exalted to the heavens and crowned with splendor. The idea there is a theological one: human flesh, represented by Mary, since she is the one who uttered for us all the authentic response to the approach of the Divine Will, her great “Be it unto me according to thy word” (the response that we all, in our first parents, refused to make), is seen as redeemed and crowned with glory. And, to raise the awesome stakes even higher, the doctrine of the Ascension, which is the end in one sense of the part of the gospel drama played out on earth by the Incarnate himself, implies that somehow, in a mystery beyond all our powers to imagine, our flesh is now represented in the Triune Godhead. But at this point theological language falters.

So the question comes to us: how do we wear this flesh? Has it ever struck us that we are garbed in the most splendid raiment of all? That no archangelic wings or seraphic flames exhibit quite this particular glory, this glory of redeemed flesh—what has been called (by Dante, I think) la carne gloriosa e sancta, the holy and glorious flesh?

How does this affect our outlook? One note that it ought to introduce is the note of awe. That is, creatures who find out that it is their flesh that God has taken, and taken not just arbitrarily in order to get some random job done but specifically to redeem and glorify it—these creatures can never thereafter take a cheap view of that flesh. The image that they bear is doubly noble. It is noble first because at the Creation it was said of them alone among all creatures that they would be formed in the imago Dei. But then at the Incarnation, in a glorious mystery of exchange beyond all attempts to compass it, they “gave” as it were their flesh to him. That is an odd, and perhaps non-theological, way of phrasing it; but it is a mystery that anyone who has ever loved knows something about, namely, the mystery of exchange, in which no one can ever figure out who is doing the giving and who the receiving. Lovers know something that calculators do not. They know that giving and receiving are a splendid and hilarious paradox in which, lo, the giving becomes receiving, the receiving giving, until any efforts to sort it out collapse in merriment or adoration. (This, by the way, is why the political and 50-50 talk that “liberationists” bring to the sacrament of marriage fails so dismally; that tallying has nothing to do with what real lovers experience. And the love that is experienced and enacted in the fleshly sacrament of marriage is perhaps the most vivid metaphor we human beings have of the Divine Love that also deigns to enter into blissful exchanges of love with us creatures.)

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Awe is hard to keep alive in one’s imagination, since we live now under a mythology that rejects mystery. But it is not as though the Christian ought to float about in a state of perennial rapture, contemplating how splendid everything is. There are practical and specific points where, with his notion of the Incarnation, he will run headlong into conflict with ideas widely held by his contemporaries. If he does not reflect on his own creed (“et incarnatus est”), he will find himself vaguely espousing these ideas because they sound nice.

For example, over against his own view of human flesh which he derives from the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation (and indeed from half the other Christian doctrines: Passion, Resurrection, Ascension—they all entail the flesh), he will discover that the general view of human flesh held by his contemporaries is, in effect, gnostic. That is, on at least two fronts now, the Western imagination is zealously attempting to disavow the notion that the flesh is good (which is what Christianity insists, and gnosticism hates). The one front is that of Eastern mysticism, under which heading we find all sorts of Zen, TM, and other efforts to transcend the limits of bodily (read “hampered”) existence. This is, of course, an ancient and widespread religious effort, and it seems to make particular sense in our own time when we find ourselves, ironically, bored and destitute in the wake of doctrines that have told us the flesh is the only reality. The apparent glorification of the flesh that you find in Playboy, and in the more recent glossies that celebrate the idea that my body is my own to do what I like with, is a fraud, as Sodom and Babylon always find out. You can’t stay alive on new moralities that tell you to do whatever you want (eat, drink, cohabit, etc.) whenever you want since there are no considerations bigger than appetite. “If you itch, scratch,” is the catchy and convincing slogan. From this cloaca of mere carnality, mysticism offers an attractive escape, and it is not surprising that our era finds it appealing. A person, however, who believes that the way out of the mess has been pointed for us by the Incarnate One will have a quarrel with any disavowal of flesh-and-blood ordinariness.

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But the other form of gnosticism abroad now is infinitely more oblique, it is the especially contemporary notion that the imagery does not matter. Put another way, the idea is that what things look like is not significant. Human anatomy, for instance, is held to be purely functional. It is arbitrary, except insofar as it represents a useful stage in our evolutionary adjustment to our surroundings. We have lungs that are adjusted to the kind of atmosphere we live in: a happy development. And we have prehensile thumbs that permit us to make things, and reproductive machinery distributed so as to get the job done. But none of it means anything. To try to see it all as an image of anything is pre-scientific (goes the argument).

This starkly secularist line of thought is easily enough recognized by Christians. The trouble comes when Christians, having breathed in this mere secularism with every breath (who can escape it? schools, universities, books, journals, and television, know no other view, and they pour it to us in season and out of season, line upon line, here a lot, there a lot), acquiesce unwittingly in this secularism.

Oh, we’re not secularists, we protest. We believe in the doctrine of Creation. We believe in the Incarnation.

Do we? Does our profession reach any further than the formula on our lips? What about our attitude, for example, toward the notion that all this physical differentiation that makes men and women look different from each other has nothing to do with anything? All this imagery (these appearances, say) of masculinity and femininity, under which we mortals bear the imago Dei, is insignificant. What about that? The idea is that there is an entity “person” that somehow is truer and closer to our real identity than this random cloak of sexuality that we happen to be dressed in. Don’t think of me as a man, for heaven’s sake: I’m a person. Pray don’t speak of me as a woman: I’m a person. Or, worse yet, don’t ask whether I happen to be involved in the sacrament of marriage: it’s not a sacrament in any case. It has nothing to do with anyone’s personhood. It’s a contract, and my spouse and I have worked things out in a very modern way that does not call either her individuality or mine into question.

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The Incarnationist would understand the foregoing line of thought to be gnostic in that it introduces a disjuncture: it sets the thing itself (the personhood) over against the image of the thing (the body) and denies any real connection. The reality not only transcends the appearance (so far, a grain of truth), but, more than that, nothing at all is suggested about the reality by the appearance. The pattern of Creation, in other words, is more or less random. God had nothing significant in mind when he distributed his image among the two modalities man and woman. Nothing is to be inferred about what we are from what we look like.

Another variation on this gnostic theme would be the denial of the significance of the imagery in language. The pictures, for instance, by means of which God speaks to us of himself are connected with the reality in only a higgledy-piggledy sort of way—“culturally” is the usual word here. The images of Lord, King, or Father under which he spoke of himself have no connection with anything more far-reaching than monarchic and patriarchal Mediterranean antiquity. Heavens! He might just as well have chosen to speak of himself as an antenna if he had decided to wait a bit and come into an age oriented to high-speed communication, or as an androgyne to an age celebrating unisex. It’s a question of culture. And the Incarnation? That imagery (of the Son) has nothing to do with reality either. It is ad hoc, attached to a question of convenient communication. (It is worth noting that the gnosticism that urges the foregoing line of thought makes with equal fervor the point that in the Incarnation, God broke up all the other entrenched, established prejudices of antiquity. He missed his cues on this point alone. The Incarnate was a revolutionary, an icon-smasher, a rebel, a liberator. But he came, O rue the day, as a man. He missed his main chance.)

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The question, really, is how far we are to carry our understanding of the Incarnation. All Christians agree on the doctrine, that’s pat. The point that is being pressed here is that, just as the Church had to examine and deepen its understanding of this doctrine in other ages when plausible alternatives were offered (Arianism, Sabellianism, Patripassianism, Monophysitism, and so forth), so now, when once more efforts are abroad to revise or update the ancient and radical understanding of the doctrine, the Church ought surely to put its mind to getting clear just what it does affirm in this doctrine. If the Incarnation was, in fact, just ad hoc, and Jesus the Son may rightly be thought of by contemporary persons as Jesus the Daughter or Jesus the Hermaphrodite or Jesus the Person, then the doctrine and the tradition need to be scoured. We have been bilked. We need to excise from our thinking any notion that the imagery matters—that is, that there is any connection between physical appearance and actuality. No real clues have ever been given to us after all as to how we ought to think about things. Tastee Freez and Kool Aid will serve as bread and wine at the Eucharist, since everybody knows that Jesus wasn’t made out of wheat. We may speak of God as Chairperson of the Committee of the Whole, since everyone knows that he’s not sitting on any throne up there. We’d be more accurate to speak of him as Our Leader rather than Our Lord, since “lord” reinforces ideas that are out of date, not to say pernicious.

The imagery doesn’t matter in the slightest, in the gnostic view. Or rather, yes it does, on second thought. It’s just that it’s all wrong. We’ll have to get rid of that imagery (King, Father, Son) and bring in this imagery (Chairperson, Parent, Child). Although even there we have a problem, since the latter two words smuggle in an idea of family, and if anything ought to be jettisoned now it’s that old idea of family with all the pestilential hierarchical notions that tag along in its wake. Maybe Senior Citizen and Emerging Personhood would serve better than Father and Son—except that again “Senior” suggests hierarchy and that’s the worst idea of all. And we can’t say “Elder” because that sounds as though God were aging. Oh dear—the imagery is crucial, isn’t it?

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Yes. It is. Perhaps Protestant Christians, whose vision of things has for four hundred years now been a radically propositional and non-visual one, need to plough back in and see whether there might not have been something about the whole drama that wants looking at again. The whole thing was played out altogether in material, flesh-and-blood terms. Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, Eucharist: they all, oddly, entail our flesh. The language of God’s self-disclosure is shot through with unabashed images, inviting our imaginations, nay compelling them, to think of him thus, and thus, and thus.

Has the time come for an updating? Ought we to separate the doctrine from the imagery? Perhaps the imagery was just cultural. Perhaps there is a seed of truth that needs to be separated out from the husk of all that culturally determined language and imagery.

Rudolph Bultmann and others would say yes. The Fathers would have said no. But of course Bultmann is our contemporary. He knows more than the Fathers.

Evangelical imagination has an important question in its lap.

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