Living the Incarnation

It really is sad that Christmas comes only once a year. This holiday reminds us of many things we need to remember every day. First and foremost, Christmas reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation, an event that theologians and poets have struggled to describe.

The Incarnation is God becoming man, the Son of God taking on flesh to dwell among us. It is the Eternal Word becoming a wordless infant; the Infinite, Limitless, Unbounded Creator became an baby in a feed trough. It is the All-Powerful Creator who set the stars spinning through space, became powerless to control the movement of his own arms.

hands

Incarnation is a mystery in the ancient sense of the word: it is something we cannot fully understand, yet it shines bright light on the world. It teaches us how to look not just at Jesus, but also at each other and at all material things in this world. And this lesson is important because it can also keep us from making two grave mistakes–two Incarnational errors.

The phrase its fruit in its season emphasizes both the distinctiveness and the quiet growth of the product; for the tree is no mere channel, piping the water unchanged from one place to another, but a living organism which absorbs it, to produce in due course something new and delightful, proper to its kind and to its time” (Derek Kidner on Psalm 1:3).

The Beauty of Buttered Toast

Note: This article was originally written for dear magazine, “an up and coming printed young women’s magazine focusing on everything from faith to fashion.” This article will appear in the magazine’s next issue, entitled ‘brown paper bags”. You can check it out here.

Our culture is obsessed with beauty yet knows very little about it. We spend countless hours and dollars to acquire and maintain physical beauty.  And while beauty of face and body is a true form of beauty, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate and certainly the least fulfilling.

There are far more beneficial forms of beauty worth pursuing:  one of the most rewarding is the beauty of the ordinary.

Photo Credit: penguincakes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: penguincakes

Seeing Ordinary Beauty

Ordinary beauty refers to the glory to be found in everyday things. We can see this glory in three particular aspects of ordinary things.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
by Circe Institute

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This weekend, I listened to David Kern, Angelina Stanford, and Tim McIntosh discuss Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. O’Connor is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read this story many, many times.  But I was delighted to learn from the many insights David, Angelina, and Tim shared in this podcast.

If you haven’t read Flannery O’Connor, you really need to.  And this podcast episode is not only an excellent introduction to this gifted author, but also a good example of how to read a story closely.

Click on the arrow above to start listening.

Fall is a time for reflection, and Fall Break (if you’re fortunate enough to have one) is for reflective reading. Here are my literary companions for the next few days.

Leave Nothing Out

Note: This article was originally posted on the Scholars’ Forum at PetraAcademy.com.

One evening this summer, I sat on my front porch and began a short volume of poetry by Wendell Berry.  The first poem was only three lines long, but its powerful image forced me to stop reading and to think about its implications.

Though this poem consists of a single image, it contains many wise lessons that all of us—teachers, students, and parents—can seek to apply as the new school year approaches.

Like Snow

Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.

The poem’s single metaphor is an exhortation for us to work as the snow works.  By contemplating what it means for snow to “work”, we can draw four lessons from Berry’s exhortation.

wrench

This was the single great informing conflict of the American psyche.  The management of insignificance.  It was the great syncretic bond of US monoculture.  It was everywhere, at the root of everything–of impatience in long lines, of cheating on taxes, of movements in fashion and music and art, of marketing…

And it was also the world altering pain of accepting one’s individual flaws and limitations and the tautological unattainability of our dreams and the dim indifference in the eyes of [others]” (emphasis added).

David Foster Wallace
Oblivion (New York: Back Bay Books, 2004), 284-285

Slouching Toward Selfishness

Augustine on American Culture

Reading through Augustine’s powerful case against Roman paganism in City of God, I came across a passage that seemed eerily prescient of our culture:

Let nothing be commanded and nothing shameful be prohibited…Let provinces be subject to kings not as directors of conduct but as lords over their fate and providers of their pleasures…Let the din of dancing resound on all sides, and let the theaters boil over with cries of indecent delight and with every kind of cruel and shameful pleasure carried to the highest pitch. If anyone disapproves of this kind of happiness, let him be branded a public enemy. If anyone tries to change or do away with it, let the uninhibited mob stop his mouth, toss him out, kill him off. Let those be considered the true gods who see to it that the people get this sort of happiness and who preserve it for them once they have it…Just let them make sure that such happiness has nothing to fear from any enemy, any plague, or any kind of calamity at all” (II.20, emphasis added).

Two Cities, Two Loves

Augustine’s ability to describe two cultures separated by two millennia proves his larger thesis: that all of history resolves into two cities. Driven by love of the self (cupiditas), the City of Man enshrines whatever gods will justify its lust for domination and pursuit of pleasure. Because the City of God is motivated by a love of God and neighbor (caritas), it worships the One True God and seeks to align its desires with God’s will.

Augustine assumes that the role of kings and governors is to deal with the people’s actions—to punish bad conduct and approve good conduct (Rom 13:3-4). Civil authorities rule in a way that makes it possible for their citizens to attain virtue and live good lives.

But eventually this role degenerates in a predictable way: governors begin acting as “lords over [the people’s] fate”, and the people start looking to their governors as “providers of their pleasures.” Instead of serving others by pursuing virtue through discipline, the people serve themselves through a disciplined pursuit of pleasure. Personal pleasure becomes the highest good, and the self becomes the highest god.

As in Rome, so in America. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Slouching Toward Selfishness

In such a hedonistic culture (whether Rome or modern America), every “indecent delight and…every kind of cruel and shameful pleasure” is acceptable. The only heresy is to question whether such pursuits actually improve humanity. And the penalty for this heresy is censorship (“stop his mouth”), exile from the public forum (“toss him out”), and ultimately death (“kill him off”).

All cultures punish blasphemy of their gods—by exclusion, by exile, or by execution. In a culture that worships the self, the blasphemers are those who argue that human happiness comes only through the death of the self. In every hedonistic culture, faithful Christians are going to blaspheme the gods of their culture–so they must be prepared to face the consequences of such blasphemy.

Since Augustine’s two cities are moving in radically different directions, the citizens of the City of God will at times have to endure “the worst and most depraved republic” (II.19). But such endurance and suffering is what Christ has called them to. And by their endurance, they will “win for themselves a place of glory in the most holy and majestic senate of the angels, so to speak, in the heavenly republic whose law is the will of God” (II.19).

dylanI wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words.  What I like to do is treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly realized truth I must try to reach and realize.

Dylan Thomas
Early Prose Writings (Dent, 1971)