Julian Meeting held on the 6th January 2020
I believe God transcends himself by giving himself in an act of love within his creation. He does so in order to identify himself with his creatures and allow us to glimpse what lies at the creation’s heart. We call it the Incarnation. Now this is not some profound exercise of apologetics; this is a personal expression about the nature of wonder, in this case the wonder of God ‘doing some new thing to express what he is’. Whole libraries are filled with attempts to explain this mystery, and much blood has been spilled in its defence. It is a truth that has shaped countless lives, inspired great music and art, changed the civilised world. It has been misrepresented, challenged and derided. All we can say is that we know nothing else that comes near to making sense of our daily experience of living in the world, of both its delight and its pain. Nothing else that begins to answer some of the questions or helps in meeting the darkness that most people experience at some time in their lives.
The story the New Testament tells is, of course, a love story. Its claim is that because God loves and values his creation “the Word is made flesh”. The implications may be mind-blowing, but the principle is no different from my desire to “give you my word” because I love you; no different from what we have seen artists and writers attempting to do; no different in having to be expressed in words and images that will connect with what you understand and experience. It is not enough simply to accept the reality of the transcendent God but go no further. You have to accept that self-closure is no less of the very essence of his being than his hiddenness; and you then have to ask what possibility there is for him to communicate what lies at his centre other than in our language. Just as I can use words like love or beauty or pain with some confidence that you will understand them, so it is possible for God to communicate with us because there is within us something that belongs to the same order of being, what the Bible calls being made in “the image” of God. And like speaks to like.
I cannot prove this in any scientific QED sense. But I know without a shadow of doubt when at those moments I experience that unselfish form of love we call compassion either in myself or in others that I touch something which is as deeply rooted, as primary, in human nature as selfishness and, I believe, is the more authentic and will ultimately prove the more powerful. Whenever compassion shows itself, even for a moment, it is like the sun breaking through to light up an object, and if it is not a sign of our “Godlikeness” it is quite simply inexplicable.
But come back to the thought of the creative artist. The Word – Jesus Christ – is God’s supreme work of art: if you like, his self-portrait. Think of how an artist uses the only available means – canvas, paint, stone, wood – to convey a truth through form and colour. Every work of art is a form of incarnation: the spirit of the artist uniting with matter. It is an attempt to find images that will tell us something true, something of lasting value, about a person, a landscape or an object. It starts with the invisible: an idea, a way of seeing, which is then enfleshed in something you can see and touch. In his mind’s eye Michelangelo sees the completed perfection of a human body in the rough stone and chisels away until it emerges. And, as we have seen, the mark of the greatest artists, novelists, poets and composers, is to reduce us to a silent wonder in face of some aspect of beauty or truth about the human condition which we had not noticed or understood: a kind of truth that seems to impinge on us from that which is outside and beyond us and yet speaks directly to our hearts. Miraculously, many truths are embodied in a square of canvas and some dried paint, or in a block of stone: a word made flesh.
God’s yearning to communicate something of himself to his creatures must be unimaginably greater; especially if the inmost nature, the true and authentic voice of God, is not revealed in the power of the whirlwind but in acts of suffering, self-giving love.
Next Julian Meeting is on Wednesday 5th February 2020