Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Perpetual State of Incarnation

It’s not unreasonable, I think, to consider the best art a sort of blood sacrifice. I hate to draw attention to all the popular songs with lyrics referencing the loss of blood, because I know people for whom such lyrics trigger awful things, but trust me they are many. Maybe the best example of what I’m getting at is a line from Red Smith about the art of writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

It’s blood because it’s so personal, so passionate. It’s a sacrifice because, regardless of motive (and much motive behind art is egoistic in the most notorious sense), it is spilt on behalf of others—often people you’ve never met or will meet, often people you don’t or wouldn’t particularly enjoy being around. Your blood, shed for them.

In that respect, Jesus may rightly be thought of as an artist. Maybe that’s why so often Jesus’ words are set in red ink: to remind us that while his crucifixion was a blood sacrifice for all of us, his life to that point—the things he did, the words he spoke—were no less born out of passion, no less shed for us. The incarnation itself—God taking on flesh, Jesus being born and growing up and spending three years announcing that the kingdom of God is near—was a passionate act of sacrifice.

We don’t think about the sacrifice of Christ in the incarnation very much during Christmas. We celebrate the baby Jesus and we sing songs about how awesome it is that he would come, but we don’t think about the cost of the coming. Containing an infinite God in flesh cannot be comfortable; forsaking the power and privilege of divinity can’t be pleasant. Speaking truth to the powers that be, all the while knowing that they will respond to your truth with violence, and that while you could stop it at any time, you won't—we speak of Christ’s crucifixion as his passion, but his passion in truth attended to his whole time on earth, occupying every act, flowing through every word.

I just got back from a gathering, sponsored by living legend Tony Campolo, called the Red Letter Fellowship. It was suggested to us that the call to Christian discipleship is a call to speak and act in pursuit of a perpetual state of incarnation—that God’s kingdom would come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. To illustrate what this state might look like, Tony points to Isaiah 65:

Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.

Jesus illustrated this state of incarnation variously, but when he announced his mission, he turned likewise to Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus got in trouble talking like this, and as I looked around the room at the members of the Red Letter Fellowship, I saw a great number of people who have gotten into trouble for taking Jesus seriously when he talked like this. These days, to speak and act in pursuit of a perpetual incarnation is itself often a sort of blood sacrifice. In that respect, following Jesus is a good art, and Jesus himself is always looking for more artists.

So, on this third Sunday of Advent, allow yourself some creative space: what art might Jesus be inviting you to make with him? What good news might Jesus be asking you to proclaim with him?

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