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The Trajectory of Incarnation

Monday, December 21, 2020


The Trajectory of Incarnation
Monday, December 21, 2020

Christianity’s true and unique story line has always been incarnation. That means that the spirit nature of reality (the spiritual, the immaterial, the formless) and the material nature of reality (the physical, that which we can see and touch) are one. They have always been one, ever since the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago. The incarnation did not just happen when Jesus was born, although that is when we became aware of the human incarnation of God in Jesus. It seemingly took until 2,000 years ago for humanity to be ready for what Martin Buber (1878‒1965) called an I/Thou relationship with God. But matter and spirit have been one since “the beginning,” ever since God decided to manifest himself/herself as creation.

Our outer world and its inner significance must come together for there to be any wholeness and holiness. The result is both deep joy and a resounding sense of coherent beauty. What was personified in the body of Jesus was a manifestation of this one universal truth: matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for Spirit, forever offering itself to be discovered anew. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says, “I am the gate” (John 10:7). Francis of Assisi and his female companion, Clare, somehow knew that the beyond was not really beyond, but in the depths of here.

John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) took the intuition of Francis and made it into a philosophy. He said that Christ was not Plan B; God did not plan to remain absent until Adam and Eve ate that darn apple and Jesus had to come save us. Rather, Duns Scotus said that Christ was Plan A from the very beginning, the very first idea in the mind of God, as it were (John 1: 1–4). [1] God, the formless, eternal, and timeless One essentially said I am going to manifest who I am in what we now call physicality, materiality, or the universe.

This means that everything you have ever seen with your physical eyes is the mystery of incarnation. The Christian word we give to that is the Christ, which comes from the word Messiah, or the Anointed One, used by Jewish people. The Anointed One is the one who would come to reveal what God is doing, everywhere and all the time. For Christians, that became manifested in Jesus of Nazareth. Walter Brueggemann, my favorite scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, would call this “the scandal of particularity.” [2] God is in a vulnerable newborn baby in a feeding trough. We need to see the mystery of incarnation in one ordinary concrete moment, and struggle with, fight, resist, and fall in love with it there. What is true in one particular place finally universalizes and ends up being true everywhere.

[1] This idea is often called the thesis on the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ. Duns Scotus used Paul’s texts in Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15–20, and Ephesians 1:3–10 and 2:20 to support his theology.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg Publishing House: 1984), 162.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, MP3 download; and

Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), xiv.

Image credit: The Virgin and Child with Archangels, Scenes from the Life of Christ, and Saints (detail), early 17th century (Early Gondarine), Tigray Kifle Håger, Ethiopia, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as one,
received not in essence but by participation.
Just as if you lit a flame from a flame,
it is the whole flame you receive.
—Symeon the New Theologian
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