Christ Is Plan A

Incarnation: A Franciscan View

Christ Is Plan A
Sunday, May 31, 2015

The mystery of Incarnation is the trump card for any Franciscan spirituality (and the Christian tradition itself, though sometimes hidden). Incarnation literally means enfleshment, yet most of Christian history has, in fact, been excarnational—in flight from matter, embodiment, physicality, and this world. This avoidance of enfleshment is much more Platonic than Christian. Incarnation means that the spiritual nature of reality (the immaterial, the formless, the invisible) and the material (the physical, the forms, that which we can see and touch) are, in fact, one and the same! And they always have been, ever since the Big Bang, which scientists estimate happened around 13.6 billion years ago. “God’s Spirit hovered over” creation from the very first moment of existence as we know it—and this statement is at the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 1:2), setting the trajectory for the rest of the book. Yet we strangely have to remind Bible quoters of what should have been obvious to them. (Keeping matter and spirit separate is the occupational hazard of being a clergy person. It keeps us in business, because our job is then to put them back together. The only trouble is they do not need “putting”—only proclaiming and revealing!)

Most Christians were taught to associate the Incarnation only with Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago. Yes, that was the unique and specific human incarnation of God, which Christians believe is found in the flesh and blood person of Jesus. That was perhaps when humanity was ready for a face-to-face encounter, what Martin Buber would call the “I-Thou” relationship. But matter and spirit have always been one, since God decided to manifest God’s self in the first act of creation. Modern science (especially quantum physics and biology) is demonstrating that this is, in fact, the case. Where does this endless drive toward life, multiplication, fecundity, creativity, self-perpetuation, and generativity come from, except from Something/Someone we call an indwelling “Spirit”?

Unfortunately, many Christians believe that the motive for divine incarnation was merely to fix what we humans had messed up—which seems rather self-preoccupied to me. The “substitutionary atonement theory” of salvation treats Christ as a mere Plan B. In this attempt at an explanation for the Incarnation, God did not really enter the scene until God saw that we had screwed up. Creation was not inherently sacred, lovable, or dignified. And, further, God was revealed to be petty and punitive. At least theologians had the honesty to call substitutionary atonement a “theory.” But it has done much more damage than good, and we are still trying to undo this view of God and reality.

By the modern age, which seemed to read everything in mechanistic and transactional terms, most Christians acted as if the only real rationale for the Divine Incarnation was to produce a human body that could die and rise again. This is no exaggeration! It did not matter much what Jesus exemplified, taught, revealed, or loved. Things like simple living, non-violence, inclusivity—which are now proving necessary for the very survival of the species—were ignored. Christians focused instead on the last three days of Jesus’ life and his freely offered quarts of blood. Our narrow focus on this explanation for Jesus’ divine-human existence allowed us to ignore almost all of what he taught. Jesus became a highly contrived problem-solver for our own guilt and fear (a problem that was inevitable if God was not indwelling) instead of the Archetypal Blueprint for what God has been doing all the time and everywhere. Jesus became a mere tribal god instead of the Cosmic Lord and Savior of history itself (Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:3-14). Christianity ended up just another competing and exclusionary religion instead of “good news for all the people” (Luke 2:10b), which was the very first announcement at Jesus’ birth. We all lost out.  Forgive me for stating this with such passion, and perhaps without subtlety, but the core message is at stake.

Gateway to Silence:
The Christ is everywhere.

Adapted from Franciscan Mysticism: I Am That Which I Am Seeking, disc 1 (CD, MP3 download)

For more on this theme, see my previous meditations “Jesus: Human and Divine” and “Jesus: The Christ.

Image credit: The Legend of St. Francis: 4. Miracle of the Crucifix (fresco detail). 1297-99, Giotto di Bondone, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy.