08 January 2015

The cataclysm of the Incarnation

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

On this day (the sixth of January), the Orthodox Christians in Russia, in the Ukraine, in the Caucasus, in the Levant and in East Africa celebrate the Eve of the Nativity, and Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the rest of the world celebrate the Feast of Theophany. Both feasts celebrate the appearance of God Incarnate in the world, and we mark them first with solemn fasting and afterwards with joyous feasting. The disruption of our personal lives in this way, the regular overturning of our normal lives, is symbolic of the cataclysmic nature of the Incarnation. God’s entrance into the world overturns the entire created order.

To give an example of how this is the case, let us consider the Confucian orientation to the created order, which we may take (along with the Greek philosophers) as representative of the heights of innocent pagan piety. In Confucian cosmology, heaven (tian 天) is physically, metaphysically and morally the highest of the moral orders, having given birth to myriad things. After heaven comes earth (di 地), upon both of which human beings and the entire human order (ren 人) depend for sustenance and ritual guidance. In the Old Testament creation narrative, the heavens were created and ordered before the seas and the earth, and human beings last of all. A very similar ordering may be found in Aristotelian cosmology. But this entire construct, which the wisdom of the pagan philosophers all over the civilised world approached, was utterly and completely thrown over, even reversed, in the cataclysm of the Incarnation.

‘He bowed the Heavens and came down,’ so goes David’s song of deliverance in the Psalms, which is repeated in the troparion for the matins of the Nativity Feast. Archimandrite Irenaeus (Steenberg) writes of the event: ‘[i]n the glory of the Incarnation, the divine and the worldly are suddenly, triumphantly, united and transformed… Divine things and human are, in this moment, indistinguishable. Do I behold woman, or throne? Cave, or heaven? Man, or God? The earthly has been brought to the divine and the divine has come to the earthly, and in this most awesome mystery we behold a thing “strange and most glorious”. I come and I gaze, but I am struck with awe, for I behold the things of Paradise resting in a cavern’. Heaven no longer stands above and out of reach of the human world, but humbles itself before a human infant, and at that one surrounded not by wealth or riches or even the basics of a secure hearth and home, but by ‘the muddy squalor of the stable’.

Which goes to remind us that even as the cosmic order is thus cataclysmically overturned, so too is the human order. The Most Holy Theotokos herself sang of this overturning as she saluted her cousin Elizabeth: ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ The magi of the formidable Parthian Empire to the east came to pay tribute and worship not to wealthy and powerful Herod, but to the true King – some homeless infant born in a stable to the wife of a mere carpenter. And Herod himself and all Jerusalem with him were ‘troubled’ even by this report, and reacted the way worldly power tends to react when thus threatened: with extremes of political violence against the weak. Irony and tragedy permeate the story that begins with an angel wishing ‘peace on earth and good will toward all’ – an irony and a tragedy which prefigure the Crucifixion.

The God whose nature surpasses all possible understanding was human. He had a mother. He had neighbours and kin. He had a hometown and a motherland, though these spurned Him, mocked Him, threw Him out and delivered Him up to be killed. He had a trade, and therefore a vocation and – heresy though it is for an American to mention! – a class. He was in every respect fully present in our bounded, grounded, mortal human nature. The universal being beyond being became in some measure sensible to us in our finitude, but He could not have done so without first, not so much subverting, as catastrophically breaking all our expectations.

Nothing I have said so far will likely perturb anyone of the crunchy persuasion, who grasps firstly the need for such a cosmic order, and secondly the world-shattering importance of its having been overturned. But the Incarnation ought to perturb us, as the reality and the personality of Jesus shoot directly at the heart of the questions of locality, universality and belonging on which we place such importance and take it upon ourselves to offer answers, however tentative. Because heaven has bowed before a man, no longer can we seek refuge and security in the order of the cosmos, and we have been given a terrible and unavoidable duty to smash as idols all human pretensions to an ordered cosmos of our own design.

That fascism and communism have presented themselves to us as such false idols, each presenting to us a neatly-orderable cosmos based respectively upon human hierarchies of race and upon the ironclad logic of dialectical materialism, has become blatantly obvious. It is also the well-founded and well-articulated suspicion of many of us who contribute to Solidarity Hall that liberalism and capitalism are also just such false idols. Whilst cloaking themselves behind a Rawlsian masque of neutrality, even as they overtly and covertly undermine the ‘comprehensive doctrines’ by which a great proportion of the world’s population still understand themselves, live their lives and build their communities, liberalism and capitalism both sneak their own ‘comprehensive doctrines’ through the back door.

But this critique – which I share! – does not leave all ‘comprehensive doctrines’ themselves in a position of safety. There are dangers even within the crunchy, traditional worldview of attempting to order the cosmos according to our own design, and of seeking safety away from the cataclysm of the Incarnation. Though the Holy Family remains the basic context of the Incarnation (and is therefore due our honour), hearth-and-home are not to be found amongst them. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.’ The entirety of the life of the Lord takes place ‘on the way’ – Christ does not speak much about family except to say that those who do the will of God are His family. In the Gospel ‘place’ is something transitory, and those of us who find ourselves out-of-place in a society which no longer respects it ought to embrace the irony and the agony of our position, so to speak. Against our will, we discontents of liberalism have been made pilgrims searching for what we once had. In one 2013 piece at Front Porch Republic, Mark Signorelli drew the very apt (and to me, unwilling global nomad and economic exile that I am, discomfiting) comparison to Aeneas, of those who look for home where ‘home’ has vanished. And even we are privileged beyond measure, when compared with those who face modernity’s more brutal sting – to give but one example, the Palestinians and the Christians of Christ’s own homeland, who flee those who level their homes and churches with bombs and bulldozers, and those who would convert them or put them to the sword.

Those of us who call ourselves traditionalists and crunchy conservatives – and I say this with every respect to the traditionalist-conservative viewpoint which has shaped mine to such a great extent – still run the risk of setting up idols of blood and flesh, of home and hearth and ‘place’. We do so with the best of intentions. We rightly militate against disembodied desire, against the destruction of the mediating authorities of family and society, against the modernist betrayal of Incarnation. We rightly eschew the madness of ideological make-the-world-anew schemes. But the return to a Victorian-bourgeois, a feudal-mediaeval or a Roman model of domesticity would not be desirable, either, even if it were possible. The cataclysm of Incarnation demands an ethic of place, yes – but it demands also the much more radical ethic of pilgrimage.

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