It is easy to see why the Israelites of old did not spot the Messiah when He came. As we read through the lectionary for Advent, it is hard not to be struck by the image which predominates. It is not the only image, Isaiah’s “suffering servant” is also there. But there is a longing for the Messiah to come, and he will be strong, mighty, he will smite the foes of Israel, he will restore the Temple, he will purify the Levites, he will set all things right. The long-suffering Chosen People will get their reward, and the unrighteous will be smitten hip and thigh and consigned to the “pit”. It’s a very human concept we see here. A desire that one’s enemies should be confounded and that you, because of course you are among the righteous, should prosper.
God had other ideas. To our expectations He posed paradoxical opposites.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Without losing His divinity, or mixing it with our humanity, the Word became human – fully human. The Word came not with a loud crash of thunder, shaking the heavens, but silently. He who created the heavens and the earth was a babe in arms, totally dependent upon others – and silent except for cries of hunger and need. He was one of us in every way. It is understandable that one of the earliest heresies was docetism. The idea that God could be fully human was not one easily digested. There is in us, a longing that says flesh is weak and spirit is the thing that matters. But that is not what God says. St Anthanasius helped us understand what St Peter meant when he wrote:
3 as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, 4 by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the [a]corruption that is in the world through lust.1 Peter 2:3-4
As St Athanasius put it: “‘The Word was made man so that we might be made God”. This concept of “theosis”, common in Eastern theology, is less familiar to many in the Western tradition (though less unfamiliar than it once was). That is why the Church rejected docetism, the idea that Jesus merely “assumed” a human form. Even after the Resurrection, many found, and still find, it hard to believe that the Messiah lived a fully human life and died a fully human death. The Creed tells us that “he died and descended into hell”. So He did. All that He did for us. Our sinful bodies are washed clean with His blood; He restores our spirit.
This is all a far cry from avenging troops of angels. It also sits uneasily with our most common Western method of doing theology.
Jessica, in her marvellous series of posts on the Advent Book, Frequencies of God, has called R.S. Thomas an “Apophatic Poet“. That is an apt phrase and one appropriate to my theme here.
In the Weast we have inherited a theological tradition based on Greek philosophy, which seeks to locate and identify the central point in an argument, setting boundaries and pathways on the way to better definitions. But there is another, and perhaps better way of doing theology, which is why poets and musicians can make the best theologians. Definitions, whilst we think them necessary, can be dangerous. Thomas writes about the problems we face when writing and talking about God because the very tools we use are finite and limited. In using such tools, in devising such definitions, we run the risk of unconscious blasphemy. Setting limits to the subject of enquiry, when that subject is the human experience of the Infinite, can have a deadening and even fossilising effect. In trying to “define” God, we are attempting to contain the Uncontainable and Limit the limitless. It is here that poetry can be far more useful to us than prose, as it is better as sustaining a dynamic and fluid sense of God.
The poems chosen by Mother Carys upon which Jessica is commenting, provide examples of what I am talking about here. Let me illustrate in with an apt poem by that great theologian/poet in the Syriac tradition, St Ephrem, where he uses paradoxical pairings of opposites to give us a dynamic sense of God.
Your mother is a cause for wonder: the Lord entered her
and became a servant; He who is the Word entered
—and became silent within her; thunder entered her
—and made no sound; there entered the Shepherd of all,
and in her he became the Lamb, bleating as he came forth.
Your mother’s womb has reversed the roles:
the Establisher of all entered in His richness,
but came forth poor; the Exalted One entered her,
but came forth meek; the Splendrous One entered her,
but came forth having put on a lowly hue.
The Mighty One entered, and put on insecurity
from her womb; the Provisioner of all entered
—and experienced hunger; He who gives drink to all entered
—and experienced thirst: naked and stripped
there came forth from her He who clothes all
(Hymn on the Nativity 11:6-8).
For Ephrem, God’s identity is both revealed and concealed. He is the Hidden One who becomes Revealed; the Almighty One, who becomes weak; He is the Immortal One who suffers death; He is the Great One who became small. This method of doing theology avoids the danger of our sounding as though we have worked out God. Poetry, and music, can be better ways of descrbing the indescribable.
I would like to wish Jessica, Neo, Nicholas, Scoop, Catholic-Anon and all who have written here, a peaceful and holy Christmas, and to extend that wish to all our readers. With His birth, all things were made new, and as we approach the Christ-child this Christmas, perhaps above all others, may we find there the peace and love He alone can bring us.