Glory to God in the Lowest

Because of the things I’ve read, I take for granted now that there are two levels of reality.

There’s the world we’re used to, and there’s a deeper reality that is comprised of a different kind of being described universally as divine.

The mystics in every religion claim to have formed a relationship with this divine reality that somehow puts right the deficiencies and apparent failings of the world.

In other words, though this divine reality is hidden from view, in truth it overshadows the world.

Christmas celebrates the time when this divine reality entered into the world, and theologians have grappled for an appropriate depiction of how this transcendent, perfect, being can possibly have participated in a mundane, imperfect reality.

The incarnation itself tells us something about the nature of God. In case we struggled to work it out, that message was reiterated in the story of his birth – the lowliness of his condition, the humility of his circumstances.

In case we missed it, this message was repeated again in the works he performed, the people he travelled with and taught, or treated as friends.

If the message still didn’t get through, he said it himself as clearly as possible: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

In his betrayal and death, both the fact that he did die and the humiliating manner of his execution, the message was repeated, corresponding to the words of the prophet before him.

The whole journey from beginning to end expands like a fractal, repeating itself on every scale to reveal the nature of the divine being.

It’s a theme, a motif picked up and presaged by prophets, sages, wise men and holy men and women of all nations: that the truth is not found in the empty greatness and glory that the world offers, that the path to God is opposed to our own self-aggrandisement, whether it be in the outright arrogance of wanting to look down on others, or the more subtle craving for autonomy, self-control, the illusion of our own dominion.

Gloria in Profundis
by G.K. CHESTERTON

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

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6 thoughts on “Glory to God in the Lowest

  1. “In case we missed it, this message was repeated again in the works he performed, the people he travelled with and taught, or treated as friends.
    If the message still didn’t get through, he said it himself as clearly as possible: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

    Divine incarnation still makes no sense to me. Maybe it’s an Ang Moh thing.

    I tried. Sat through hella sermons and sung all the carols, and it still doesn’t strike me as something to celebrate. (Of course I pretended to be into it. I do have a self-preservation instinct. Also, there’s usually cake.)

    To any readers of this fine blog who are like me, don’t despair. You’re not deficient. The concepts in this post can not be assumed to be universally evident.

    • Actually I think it’s a Jewish thing. Judaism is pretty much assumed knowledge for the New Testament, and it seems possible (likely even) for Christians to go through life without appreciating how Judaism informs their faith.
      The impossibility of God becoming incarnated in his creation is one aspect of Jewish ‘assumed knowledge’. Likewise in Islam. The idea of a transcendent, eternal, unitary divine being becoming a human is ridiculous and nonsense. So when Christ seems to be declaring that he is in fact God (with the implication that God is trinitarian) then, understandably, it makes some waves.
      Also, the cake is a lie ; )

      • “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.”
        I don’t think there is a Nativity-equivalent tale in Judaism. Also, Hanukkah is quite a recent celebration.
        Does the value of the idea of 3-in-1 divine incarnation lie in its controversy among the other Abrahamic religions? Is that why Christians unschooled in Judaism will not fully appreciate it?
        But there’s no shortage of equally out-there ideas. I can’t see why that one would find purchase, especially in the West. I can’t see what problems that idea fixes. I suspect I’m not alone.
        So there must be something about virgins birthing god children just before winter that resonates with Western Europeans.

        The cake wasn’t even a tasty lie. Fruit and pastry do not mix!

        • “I don’t think there is a Nativity-equivalent tale in Judaism.”
          It’s Christmas. Seriously – up until the Council of Jerusalem in 50AD (it’s in Acts) the disciples still thought that gentiles who converted should be circumcised and follow Mosaic Law.
          From that point of view, Christianity *is* Judaism.

          Christians won’t appreciate it because they take it for granted. It’s like the all-time greatest spoiler. Everyone knows Vader is Luke’s father.

          But the value doesn’t lie in it being unexpected or “out there”. It’s unexpected because they spent centuries/millennia coming to an understanding of the holiness and transcendence of God, and from that point of view the first covenant was already pretty unexpected – that God would choose a single people as his own.

          I don’t know about your church, but in Catholicism it is strongly emphasised that the Jews as the Chosen People were awaiting the coming of the Messiah who would establish God’s Kingdom on earth.

          The big twist was that the Messiah turned out to be something much more than just King David 2.0. And the Kingdom he established was “not of this world”. And the Chosen People turned out to be “of all nations”. etc.

          Everything was fulfilled according to the prophecies, but not in the way people were expecting.

          I think we’re in the position (modern, disenchanted westerners) of having heard the tropes so many times before that we take them for granted. We’re in a post-Christian civilisation, and our familiarity with the themes insulates us from their real significance.

          I’ve spent some time trying, in a sense, to re-imagine a pre-Christian worldview. It can be done, and then the full significance can be grasped, but it’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if that’s the right answer for everyone.

          But lots of things are like this: Shakespeare, Medicare, modern plumbing. At some point they were ground-breaking, but then everyone gets used to them. It takes effort to really appreciate why and how they are significant.

          What do you think?

  2. An entire race not ‘getting’ divine incarnation and resurrection makes me feel better about not understanding it either.

    I maintain that Judaism – which I define as the modern Jewish faith – has no nativity equivalent because they reject it. A shared history allows Christians to define themselves with reference to Judaism – Judaism Plus. However, Jews don’t define themselves with reference to Christianity – Christianity Minus – because from the point of view of people who don’t accept a concept, that concept may as well not exist. Its ‘value’ then lies solely in its disruption.

    You’re not the only one to sell nativity to me as:
    –          God fulfilling prophecies;
    –          Jesus’ incarnation being revolutionary;

    The prophecies were vague. You can take Isaiah to refer to the founding of modern Israel. Incidentally, we were taught about Christ’s rejection by the Chosen People, in the context of ‘don’t be like them’. To be fair, God could have done anything and still be considered to have made good. The Jews, given God’s track record with Jonah and Job, could have lowered their expectations. Nevertheless, fulfilling a prophecy is not in itself a plus if what is delivered is – for whatever reason – inappropriate. Like being promised a ‘sweet ride’ then getting a candy horse instead of a Ducati.

    So how was a commoner that walked on water but died after 30 years better than King David 2.0? My experience of the sermon playbook also included getting told how wonderful Christ’s birth was, but not why. Maybe Christianity was revolutionary then and normalized now, but how was it even revolutionary then? I’ve also tried to imagine B.C. living. Legends of hierogamy were nothing new. Rabbi Hillel had already formulated the Golden Rule. Have I missed something?

    Now, I don’t have a track record of ignoring game-changers. Shakespeare, plumbing, and medicare are normalized, I don’t fully get them, BUT I still recognize their significance. I understand all these things, but not Christ. I’m left to conclude that the message is, “Baby Jesus is great because you’re surrounded by a congregation that says so.”

    That leads me to things that have become normalized that AREN’T ground-breaking. Yoga pants. Homeopathy. That’s where I fit the Christmas story in. And I think I have decent company in Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.

    I admit that I may underestimate the significance of some things I don’t understand – blockchain, derivatives – they tend to be more recent, and I can ‘wait-and-see’ with them.

    So why do I have the urge to respond to Christmas religious enthusiasm?

    Welll, when I was younger, there were very real incentives to act against my religious doubt. With what conservative politicians are saying lately, I think those incentives persist. The middle ground between reflecting that enthusiasm and being excluded (and told to ‘go home’) is narrowing. It’s scary when zealotry turns fairy tales into the mythos behind a regime. But I understand that it’s bullying that I should target rather than the flimsy excuses behind it.

    So my cautioning against declarations of Christmas’ universality is less an attempt to debunk the Christmas story, as it is me demonstrating that I now feel safe enough to disagree with its value.

    On the other hand, you may be motivated to justify and proclaim the wonder of a cultural phenomenon you may not fully understand, but were born into, raised in, and have positive, inclusive experiences with.

    So ultimately, the original post and this discussion may be about our experiences with the idea of divine incarnation, not about its truth. It’s not about Christmas. It’s about us.

    • I think it still stands that the incarnation was viewed as “revolutionary” from the perspective of Jews who either rejected it and remained Jews, or accepted it and became Christian. “Preposterous” might be a better word, for those who remained Jews.

      The significance wasn’t lost at that point, but continued in the Judeo-Christian tradition and subsequently the Judeo-Christian-Hellenic tradition.

      It’s not just Jews who would find it problematic. Muslims reject it also, for the same reasons.

      So you have three religions that agree God is a) transcendent, b) perfect, c) unitary. But Christianity also insists that this God became human, while Judaism and Islam reject this proposition entirely.

      I don’t think your issue with this is unusual. It took me some time to recognise why it would be considered a big deal for God to become human. I had to read a lot of metaphysics and try to understand the Jewish (and hence early Christian) view of God.

      For instance, hierogamy is a completely inapt concept in the context of Judaism. Yahweh isn’t Zeus. The Greek/Roman gods are creatures, of a lower metaphysical order than the Judeo-Christian or Muslim God.

      But I don’t know that people understand the difference. Understanding the difference requires study.

      I think your response to this kind of issue is understandable, but it is shaped by your experience, as you’ve concluded. The threat of conservatives using Christianity for political purposes is real but hard to measure. I’m not part of that, and it’s far from my mind when I’m thinking and writing about comparative mysticism and metaphysics.

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