A Reflection on Incarnation and Creation
Author: Frank P. Toia
Date: Wednesday, March 28, 2018
In the Western Christian Calendar we are in the middle of Holy Week which is the culminating week of Lent and the holiest week of the whole year for those Christians who follow a liturgical calendar. So I thought I’d share with you a little bit about Jesus. I’m not interested in converting anybody, just in sharing some thoughts.
Jesus was a Jewish healer and a wisdom teacher whose public ministry lasted about three years before he was captured and executed by the Roman imperial forces. Three years! He was probably about 33 years old when he died. There were other healers and wisdom teachers before and after Jesus about whom we know very little. But there was something about this man, Jesus, that men and women would drop everything and follow him. After his crucifixion they became convinced that he had risen from the dead and he had been God in human flesh.
At first Christian followers drew from the Jewish temple worship and thought of Jesus as being a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people. God had to be appeased by blood sacrifice. We’ll come back to that.
Flash forward to the early part of the fourth century and the embryonic Christian Church, although illegal, became a force to be reckoned with. Constantine, a Roman Centurion, had a vision of a cross and heard the words “In this sign conquer.” He won the battle and became a Christian.
And when he became Roman Emperor, Christianity became a legal religion and soon thereafter it became the legal religion. And that was, in many ways, a tragedy but we’ll save that for another day.
Flash forward again to the 11th Century, deep into the medieval period. Anselm of Canterbury, a Christian theologian and Prelate puzzled over how to explain the incarnation. He wrote a book calledCur Deus Homo? Why did God become human? He listed five explanations, but the one that stuck used the analogy of the medieval manor and peasants. Inevitably the peasants ended up in debt to the Lord of the manor. But, since the peasants had no money to pay their debt, they would be enslaved. So, Anselm said “the human race has sinned. But humans have no moral currency with which to settle their debt. So, God became human, and suffered a painful death to pay for the sins of all humanity. And this notion very quickly became the prevailing way of thinking for all of Christendom.
But there is an alternative orthodox explanation which, frankly, is a great deal more attractive to me. It comes out of the Franciscan and Celtic traditions. In this way of looking at things, Jesus was God’s second incarnation. God’s first incarnation was in creation. God became rocks and rivers, Oceans and mountains, turtles and trees and everything in this world and all the worlds. The universe was not only created by God it was created of God. God used God’s self as the raw material of creation. Creation was (and is) God’s first Incarnation. And creation is continuing; it is not “once and done."
That means that we are all sacred and all of creation is sacred. And there’s no sharp distinction between human beings, animals, plants, oceans and mountains. This year’s Peace Walk theme:“Recognizing the One in All of Us.”
God’s second incarnation was in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus didn’t come, according to this understanding, to suffer for our sins or to make restitution for the sins of humanity. God does not need any payment to forgive us! Jesus' goal was to show God’s love in what he did and in his teaching and the stories he told.
Whether one believes that Jesus was a unique incarnation of God or that each of us is an incarnation of God, It’s hard to read the Christian scriptures without concluding that this was a remarkable man whom his followers believed to be God in human flesh.
I will close with a story from one of my wisdom teachers, John Philip Newell. There was a Christian who wanted to goad a rabbi. So he said to the Rabbi the bible tells us that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” The Rabbi responded, “Yes I agree with that.” “But how could you, as a Jewish Rabbi believe that?” Well, said the Rabbi, Jesus walked the way of love; Jesus told the truth about love, and Jesus life was a life of love.” You can never get to God without love.
-Frank P. Toia, Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation