“Caro cardo salutis”
(The body is the hinge of salvation)
The tragically divided trinitarian churches find it difficult to definitively name this Sunday. The Orthodox, as well as some Anglican and Lutheran churches, celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision. So did Catholics until the 1960s, when the day transformed into the Octave of the Nativity and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Those using the Revised Common Lectionary celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus or the First Sunday after Christmas Day.
Perhaps the kindest way to understand this confusion is that the mystery of the Incarnation is far too vast for human comprehension. After celebrating, as best we can, its totality on Christmas Day, we who stand on this side of the grave enter the abyssal mystery further only through glimpses and reflections, hoping not to absolutize any partial vision, lest we fall into heresy, from the Greek, hairesis, “a choice.”
All these glimpses lead into a paradox that borders on the monstrous: that the Creator of the Universe enters into Creation as a one of us, decisively bridging the gap between spirit and matter we so desperately struggle to maintain. The fulcrum upon which this mystery pivots is the body, and the visions celebrated on this day all emphasize that saving carnality.
Even commemorating Mary as the Mother of God, which may seem problematic to many Protestants, is profoundly incarnational. “Mother of God” is, after all, an imprecise rendering of the Greek theotokos, “God-bearer,” a title dating at least to the mid-third century and very likely earlier. Against Nestorian claims that God and man could not have united in Jesus (a dispute that could have been resolved with more grace and less division), the Third Ecumenical Council, held in Ephesus in 431, declared that Mary truly bore in her womb the union of Christ’s human and divine natures in one person, Jesus.
All of this might seem little more than a quaint historical and linguistic exercise were twenty-first century Christians so hell-bent on ignoring its implications. Most of us partially apprehend, if not yet fully embrace, the idea that the Lord’s face truly shines upon us. We even dare to now call God “Abba,” by virtue of Christ’s self-emptying into human form. But our Sunday gatherings and daily lives too often suggest we find the ideas and words sufficient, that the Word made flesh is neatly reduced to a personal message to which the mind and, we hope, the spirit, assents.
Yes, the Incarnate Lord is calling us an intimate relationship with his person, but “Jesus and me” theologies all too readily collapse into an obsession with keeping all the right ideas in one’s head. In appropriately fleeing from the error of works righteousness, even an astonishing number of Catholics and Orthodox, who typically claim otherwise, stray into the error of “thoughts righteousness,” as if Jesus were a Gnostic savior who redeems the mind and tosses the body into the pit.
But here is where Mary, a first century Palestinian peasant woman, leads us back into the mystery of the Incarnation. (Perhaps an increased interest in Mary among some Protestants – see, for example, this – signals a recognition that, in her, lies a way back from this modern dead end.) Mary’s response to Gabriel’s preposterous announcement goes far beyond intellectual assent; her “let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) welcomes the Creator of the Universe into her body, into the flesh of her womb.
In today’s gospel, we hear that after the wonders of Jesus’ birth, “Mary treasured all these words (rhemata = acts of utterance) and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19). The location is key. Luke could have said “in her mind” (rendered in Greek by that slippery term nous), her soul (psyche), or spirit (pneuma), but he insists she pondered everything “in her heart” (kardia), echoing the wording in Luke 2:51 in case we weren’t paying attention. Mary’s response, after concluding her body’s role as the first home of the Incarnate Lord, is to resist turning her experiences into disembodied memories. Rather, she holds them in the flesh of her heart, remaining actively faithful to the son she bore even after his death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 1:14).
However else our varying traditions and theologies understand the person of Mary, her embodiment of Christ’s mystery shows us the clearest, most embodied response to Incarnation in the gospels. (Luke 8:19-21 and 11:27-28, while seeming to dismiss Mary, invite us into the saving mystery as doers of the Word, and those tempted to quote Philippians 2:5 should remember that what the NRSV renders as “Let this mind be in you…” contains the Greek word phroneite, from the root phren, “diaphragm,” which the Greeks understood as the bodily seat of understanding.) If we are to ever discern the body Christ gathers – something Paul says we must do or else eat and drink condemnation upon ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:29) – we will surely have to discern and welcome the Incarnate Christ in our own bodies.
Through Mary’s witness, we learn that Christ is visible not only in our well-ordered theologies and good reputations, but also in our flesh, even in those unwelcome extra pounds we gained in the past week. Even more surprisingly, Christ is visible in our wounds and bodily weakness, examples of which Christ himself displayed in his glorified, resurrected body to an uncertain Thomas (John 20:27).
But all these are mysteries even a lifetime of pondering can’t begin to fathom. All we may hope to do is enter what our minds can’t begin to grasp, pondering such enormities in our hearts, just like the Jewish peasant woman. Perhaps that’s why traditional icons of the theotokos often show her with one hand supporting the Christ child, while the other simultaneously draws Him closer to her heart and beckons the observer deeper into the mystery.
All these passages and images plead with us to free Christ from the prison of our minds, to welcome Him into our redeemed and beloved flesh as an inexhaustible mystery that, as grace would have it, transforms us into communities of witnesses before a watching world.
For those few who have followed me this far through a whirlwind tour of New Testament Greek, I have one last linguistic card to play. Many early Gnostics who, among other things, found the Incarnation a ghastly notion, made much of the Greek word nous, usually rendered in the New Testament as “mind.” Such Gnostics saw nous, unsullied by gross matter, as beckoning those privileged with sufficient knowledge to certainties beyond the fickle body.
Through great effort and centuries of prayer, the Christian East reclaimed the word from Gnostic captivity, rendering nous into the faculty by which humans perceive God and intuit God’s will. Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware calls nous, “the intellective aptitude of the heart.” However nous apprehends God’s presence, it does so in the flesh of the human person who apprehends, somewhere between head and heart.
So, to conclude this overlong reflection on Mary’s response to the mystery to the Incarnation, here’s an appropriately titled poem by Scott Cairns:
Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous
You could almost think the word synonymous
with mind, given our so far narrow
history, and the excessive esteem
in which we have been led to hold what is,
in this case, our rightly designated
nervous systems. Little wonder then
that some presume the mind itself both part
and parcel of the person, the very seat
of soul and, lately, crucible for a host
of chemical incentives—combinations
of which can pretty much answer for most
of our habits and for our affections.
When even the handy lexicon cannot
quite place the nous as anything beyond
one rustic ancestor of reason, you might
be satisfied to trouble the odd term
no further—and so would fail to find
your way to it, most fruitful faculty
untried. Dormant in its roaring cave,
the heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim,
unless you find a way to wake it. So,
let’s try something, even now. Even as
you tend these lines, attend for a moment
to your breath as you draw it in: regard
the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth
to throat to the furnace of the heart.
Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath
and blood, and do your thinking there.