Friday, September 7, 2012
The Lord: Chapter 3, “The Incarnation”
In our old school days, the heart ruled, at least for me. Maybe it was the same for you. “O sweet spontaneous earth” and all that e. e. cummings stuff—remember? An impulsive, childish spontaneity, and a lazy one. If we relied solely on our hearts, we didn’t have to think. And thinking was so hard.
Romano Guardini has something else in mind when he writes: “None of the great things in human life springs from the intellect; every one of them issues from the heart and its love.” What he has in mind here in chapter 3 of The Lord—and a lot of thinking went into it, I’ll bet—is the Incarnation.
The cross over the altar in the Episcopal church of my youth had no mangled body on it, no “corpus.” In that upscale WASP enclave, it would have been so unsettling for Brooks Brothers gentlemen and Bonwits ladies to sit hands-and-legs-folded while contemplating the crucified Christ. It might have spoiled their Sunday roasts.
But what got lost there? What got lost for me was this notion that God really, actually, no-foolingly became flesh—God incarnate, the mystery made palpable—and died a horrible, passionate death in the flesh for us. I remember considering that cross as a symbol uniting the vertical and horizontal dimensions, the heavenly and earthly. (I was precocious.) I had a little mental exercise I went through every time the doxology was sung to the tune of the Old Hundredth:
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow” (look at the top of the cross)
“Praise Him, all creatures here below” (look at the bottom)
“Praise Him, above ye heavenly hosts” (sort of look at the center, um, can’t remember exactly what I did here)
“Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (make the Sign of the Cross with my eyes, up-down, left-right, the way I would actually, with my physical body, after I became a Catholic)
Yet there’s nothing mangled or gory or even particularly earthy about Guardini’s chapter on the Incarnation. It’s poetic and meditative and heart-stopping, containing some memorable sentences like the one about love already cited. Here’s another: “The greatest things are accomplished in silence.”
Like the Incarnation which, he says, “came from the remoteness beyond the noise of any possible intrusion—from God.” He ends the chapter with another silence: the 30-year private life in Nazareth out of which Jesus walked into history.
This entering history, by God, by Christ as God and man, is a central idea in the chapter, central to the meaning of the Incarnation. Frankly, it’s one I’m grappling with. “The everlasting, infinite Creator,” Guardini writes, “not only reigns over or in the world but, at a specific ‘moment,’ crossed an unimaginable borderline and personally entered into history—he, the inaccessibly remote one!”
In doing so, God “[took] destiny upon himself.”
In the next sentence, he adds that “this journey of God from the everlasting into the transitory, this stride across the border into history, is something no human intellect can altogether grasp.” Which comes as a relief to me. As we continue reading The Lord together, let’s keep trying to grasp it. Right now, I’m far from doing so.
Tomorrow, chapter 4, “The Forerunner” (John the Baptist)
This series of letters continues here with chapter 4.
* This post continues a chapter-by-chapter series on The Lord by Romano Guardini, in the form of letters to an Episcopalian friend. Scroll back through older posts to see previous letters about earlier chapters.