In the first post trying to close the loop on a six-year-old thread I started, I got a bit carried away. So I decided to break it down further. The first post tackled the idea of the Trinity as a contribution from the Christian tradition that can be a unique benefit to cross-cultural work and contribution to the world. This post will explore the idea of incarnation and its implications. The final post will tackle Jesus’ subversive ideas of liberation and solidarity.
In looking for an image for this post I stumbled across this incredible icon called The Milk-Giver icon of Mary breastfeeding Jesus. There is a very interesting post breaking down the story behind this icon at A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons. Here’s an excerpt that quickly gets to the heart of the Incarnation and why it is so important for the Christian tradition.
Like the dogmas of the Church, icons often arise as a response to heresy. In this light, it is not difficult to see why and how an icon of Mary breast-feeding the Christ-child would appear in the 6th century, and be associated with St Sabbas in particular. Sabbas was a strenuous opponent of the Monophysites, a group who believed Christ’s divine nature absorbed His human nature. The icon is a rebuttal of this position, as it shows Jesus Christ, truly God, suckling at His mother’s breast. Monophysitism is just one flower of an all-pervasive weed that has its root in one overriding feeling: scandal at the Incarnation.
Breastfeeding has been in the news this year when the Trump administration tried to prevent passage of a UN resolution in support of breastfeeding. Controversies over breastfeeding in public continue to surface. A video went viral comparing people’s reactions to a model wearing sexy clothes and a breastfeeding mother. Those who passed by the breastfeeding mother said, “Don’t do that here” and “That’s disgusting.” It seems that we are still very uncomfortable with our creatureliness.
As the explanation of the icon above explains, the church often had (and continues to have!) controversies about Jesus’ nature. There are traditions such as Gnosticism that see the flesh as bad and the spirit as good. Some believed that Jesus must have only appeared to be flesh, but was really a kind of apparition. This kind of spirituality leads to some detachment from the world we live in and comes in many forms. The popular theology among some evangelicals that we shouldn’t worry at all about this world because we’re going to be taken away and the world destroyed is an outgrowth of this kind of thinking.
There are also a lot of subtle ways that this creeps into our spiritual practice and theology. We can place a higher value on “spiritual” practices such as prayer, attending services, or certain gifts of the Spirit for example. We idealize (and idolize?) the spiritual in a way that makes it distant and unattainable instead of grounded and connected to our life here on earth. We create all kinds of spiritual heroes such as the missionary that goes to distant lands, the monk that gives up pleasures and money, or the ascetic that imposes pain and suffering to deny the flesh and draw near to the divine. It’s hard to hold things in tension and live with paradox and mystery.
The heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation is this: In the creation story God affirms the creation as good. Of course, as the story continues in the Bible and in our time there is a lot that is not good. Pain and suffering are all around us. People hurt other people and God’s good creation. And yet… God becoming flesh, entering into our humanity is an affirmation of the goodness of the creation! For the Orthodox church, the Incarnation is a more important festival in the church year than Easter. For Western Christians, this might seem strange, but according to Orthodox theology, this moment when God crossed over to become incarnate in a tiny helpless bundle of flesh is the greatest move that God could make towards humanity. The Resurrection at Easter is only possible because of the Incarnation.
So what does Jesus breastfeeding have to do with our work as Christians in the world, especially cross-cultural work?
The humanity of Jesus matters because it affirms our own humanity, and provides an example of how we are to respond to the needs of the world. If God affirms our humanity by becoming one of us (in particular a middle-eastern peasant Jew who was likely considered a bastard by those in his community), then we should also affirm the humanity of those we encounter.
If we follow Jesus’ example as we move cross-culturally and work in service to others then our first move must be to cross over to the Other just as God does in Jesus. Crossing over to the Other, attempting to understand and live in a culture other than our own is an act of supreme and continuous humility. Just learning a new language is like becoming a child again (Matthew 18:1-5).
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats connects Jesus himself to the gritty humanity of those in prison, sick, hungry, thirsty, and poor. To deny the humanity of Jesus, to deny that he fed at Mary’s breast, that he was hungry, sick, tired, or used the bathroom, is to deny the humanity of our fellow human beings. Likewise, to deny the dignity and worth of our fellow human beings then is to deny the full humanity of the one we call Lord and Savior.
This, therefore, must be the foundation and beginning of our work as Christians in the world for the liberation of all God’s people and creatures. I will unpack this final contribution that Jesus makes in the next and last post in this series.