Et incarnatus est
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 8, 2009 - The Christian season of advent provides an occasion for deep reflection on the mystery of Christ’s incarnation – of the word made flesh. Yet, the very patterns of contemporary life – the ways in which we live and move and have our being – set this contemplative undertaking at an increasing imaginative distance.
Consider the search engine, which while possibly mightier than the sword, has clearly defeated the pen. Many of today’s most popular search engines feature a purportedly helpful auto-complete function. Begin to type the letters of the word(s) expressing what you’re looking for and a drop down box of suggestions immediately appears. The list of suggestions typically changes and narrows as each letter is typed into the search field. To put it a bit too anthropomorphically, the search engine is doing its best to hone in on exactly what you’re thinking. The more quickly it “knows” what you want, the more quickly it can go and get it for you and, somewhat importantly, the less effort is required on your part to “let your requests be made known unto” Google.
This simple, now ubiquitous, facet of contemporary life sets Christ’s incarnation at an increasing imaginative distance in at least two ways. First, the very nature of the typing on a keyboard (e.g., electric typewriter or computer) – as opposed to using a pen (or manual typewriter) – eliminates our sensory grasp of the deep causal connection between the action of our hands and the fruit of their movement. The letters appear on the screen with decreasing bodily effort – almost by a mere act of will, as it were. And immersion in this modality invariably reinforces the extent to which embodiment is an impediment to the fulfillment of desire’s demands. (When was the last time you got frustrated waiting a few extra seconds for a web page to load?)
Second, the search engine’s auto-complete function not only increases the magnitude of the distance between body and soul, it also destroys attentiveness by fueling distraction. The attentiveness of a child struggling to write letters to form words on paper with pencil engages body and soul entirely. A Christmas wish list produced this way does not appear by a mere act of will. Rather, the budding writer must attend deeply and bodily not only to the end (i.e., what he desires to write) but the means as well (i.e., how he will write it). The auto-complete function of the search engine decreases our need to attend to the means while simultaneously distracting us from our end(s). It suggests ends from which to choose – presenting them not for our consideration, but merely for our selection.
What such patterns of life reinforce is at odds with our capacity to grasp the significance of the Christ’s incarnation. In taking on human flesh, God the Son embraced the creaturely limits of our humanity. This embrace not only affirmed the primitive goodness of our creaturely status, it also inaugurated the hope of full redemption – a hope that was fulfilled at Easter and will be consummated in the Second Advent. But the cost of this promise – not only the cross, but the incarnation itself – was high. It required the God who spoke the universe into being to become subject to the slow, painstaking, bodily work of carpentry.
By contrast, ours is an age of limitlessness. Unlike carpenters who work by means of tools, our tools work for us. “Where do you want to go today?” asks Microsoft. No longer are we limited by the weightiness of flesh. A universe of desires is a mere mouse-click away.
The danger here is not without practical import. The way of the Christian life is the way of Christ. The way of Christ is expressed in the mystery of his incarnation and his journey to the cross. Our Lord did not circumvent this path by a sheer act of disembodied will or choice, a click of the mouse, as it were. He did not exercise his divine powers so as to create, by fiat, his own personal manner of fulfilling the Father’s will. Rather, he became subject . . .
As creatures now possessed of powers to enact our will in increasingly disembodied ways, we are and will be subject to nothing – not even our own bodily limitations. We do not receive; we create. We do not obey; we choose.
Of course, this danger is not new – “you will be like God.” But the leaves of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are in a different season. Thus, this season of advent should be an occasion for Christians to attend to its colors. For our own eventual glory – just like the glory of Christ – comes not through casting aside the creaturely limitations of our humanity, but through a life of cruciform discipleship that begins with setting aside the self’s desire to become a limitless will. Christ comes again in glory precisely because he came in humiliation.
May God give us the grace to grasp this mystery during this season of advent.