Friday, 22 April 2011
God of flesh and blood
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
(T.S.Eliot : Journey of the Magi)
Good poems and writings about the incarnation usually anticipate the crucifixion and in the same way our understanding of the crucifixion should be linked to a God who took on human flesh and all its concomitant woes of suffering fear, vulnerability, hope and despair. T. S. Eliot depicts Christ’s birth as “bitter agony, like death, our death”, a total contrast to the saccharine depictions of the Nativity as a sweet smelling scene of fragrant hay and cute lambs and donkeys when it would have been a place of blood, sweat, shit, pain, disease, exhaustion, all in a setting of extreme poverty and followed by the threat of persecution and death.
The problem of coming to terms with the idea of a flesh and blood God is shown in some of the early “heresies” of the Church; the heresy that “Christ flowed through Mary as water through a pipe”, may show a sense that a completely flesh and blood deity is somewhat sacrilegious, an idea certainly held by Muslims who, I believe, find the idea of the Son of God profane. Eliot’s linking of birth and death works on several levels, not only that Christ was born to die, but perhaps that this is the fate of all humanity and that it is in its appeal to our humanity that Christianity can speak most profoundly. Edward Young wrote that “Our birth is nothing but our death begun / as tapers wane the moment they take fire” – to be born is to die, God being born brings the inevitability of death, as it does for all. Birth and death frame our existence, we often talk of the miracle of birth, we speak much less of the miracle of death, yet both events are shrouded in mystery. None of us remembers anything of our birth and none of us knows what it is to die. These common, everyday events are shrouded in unknowing.
The narrative of Christ coming to earth to die is mythic as much as anything. The birth and death of Christ, as Eliot conveys, takes us into areas we do not fully understand, into the borderland of our experience as human beings and challenges us to confront ourselves as creatures that are constrained by flesh and struggle with the knowledge of our mortality. In crib and cross the universal is found in the particular, metaphor is embodied in flesh in a way that allows us to make meaning. That meaning is complex and so Christian mythology works predominantly through paradox. God’s fleshly intervention in human life leads not to the polarity of birth and death that governs our lives, but offers us resurrection, in all its forms. Death dies, hope comes from despair, God becomes man so that man may know God, we lose life to gain it, we die in order to be reborn eternally. The shock of a God of flesh rends apart the rules that govern us as flesh.
There is another strand to the concept of a God of flesh- the message that our humanity, the element of us which is flesh and blood, is to be embraced rather than denied. If God participated in our ordinary life of flesh, then meaning is to be found in the things of this world, in talk and meals and friendship, in laughter and in despair, suffering and disease, in short in our humanity, for which God is an advocate as much as, if not more than, he is a judge.
We have seen a year already marked by suffering, flesh that is at the mercy of natural disasters or oppressed by tyrannous regimes. This Good Friday I know that I still struggle to understand this world and all its joy and sorrow as much as I struggle to understand – or want to understand - the world beyond. This Good Friday I am all for a God of flesh.