Tag Archives: Catholic

The Incarnal Christ?

1 Dec

It’s Advent! Happy New Year! Even though my parish failed spectacularly on the liturgical-spectacle front this weekend (no incense, no Mass of Creation — and I had to pull up substitute Latin lyrics to “O Come, Emmanuel” on my phone), it’s still that time of year when we think about Christ’s appearance in human form — the Incarnation.

Christ’s Incarnation is a big deal in my research and, increasingly, my creative writing. The sacramental paradox of a spiritual being who took on material flesh greatly appeals to my sense of aesthetics. To wit, on my Christmas list this year is, again, a statuette (or icon; I’m getting desperate) of the Crucifixion with Christ’s women — the BVM, Mary Magdalen, and Veronica — standing beneath the Cross. This is partly Ewa Kuryluk’s fault: in Veronica and Her Cloth, she wrote about how the medievals understood flesh as feminine, especially since Christ took on his mother’s flesh at the Incarnation; the feminine qualities of Christ’s flesh are nowhere more apparent than when it bleeds on the Cross. But, as usual, I’ll also blame the Jesuits. After all, they’re the ones who introduced me to the devotional practice of “seeing God in all things,” including the material creation around us — in the sparkling rivulets of water over damp leaves in the ditch, in the warm breathing snuggles of a rabbit in my arms, and, of course, in the faces of my dear friends.

One Jesuit in particular — everyone’s #2 favorite Jesuit, after the Pope — Fr. James Martin focuses on Christ’s human face in his recent book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The introduction devotes several paragraphs to details about the particularities of Christ’s human life: the everyday activities that didn’t necessarily make the cut in the Gospels, visions of what he ate, how he worked, where he lived, and what he desired. Even sexually.

Excerpt from Jesus: A Pilgrimage

Excerpt from Jesus: A Pilgrimage, by James Martin, SJ

I get the impulse to sexualize Christ — I do. People have been doing it for centuries, Renaissance artists included, as Leo Steinberg has written. And sexuality is, without question, one of many components of what the Jezzies call “the human condition.”

But the impulse to state as fact that, because he is/was human, Christ must have had sexual desires feels entirely too close to dehumanizing people who don’t. And there is no question that these people exist, whether or not they identify on the asexuality spectrum. Gays and lesbians are only starting to recover from years of being described as non-human, and I would hope that this would be a lesson learned against dehumanizing asexuals. Sexual desire might be a part of the human condition, but it’s neither sufficient nor necessary for the state of being human.

In one of my undergrad philosophy classes we talked about the definition of “human” — in the context of the ancient Greeks, it would seem, a human is a rational bipedal creature. But we wouldn’t call a double-amputee lacking two legs on which to walk “not-human”; and babies are hardly rational, but we still ascribe humanity to them. Legs, reason, and — I would add — sexual desire are all options in the catalogue of the human condition, emphasis on the optional. It is something else, maybe even somethings else, that makes us human.

So, then, what makes Christ fully human? I’m not entirely sure — we haven’t figured out how to define humanity yet. To me, it is as much a mystery as what makes Christ fully divine — itself as mysterious as the mystery of how humanity and divinity meet in the Incarnation.

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