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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mystery of Incarnation: the sinless made to be sin

I waken every morning in complete darkness during winter, and unbelievably, this morning I started thinking over this passage from 2nd Corinthians that we hear on Ash Wednesday. I’ve heard it dozens of times; more than most of my colleagues, in fact, because not only do I get to hear it four or five times a year that day, I also got to hear it and practice with readers at Forum institutes on reconciliation many times in the past. And it always makes me stop and wonder, how is it that God made Christ “sin”? It can’t simply be incarnation, not if God created people to be good. Making a person can’t be making sin. In my half-sleep, that creatively annoyed phase between REM and coffee, I mused over this.

It occurs to me that the issue might be our pesky individuality, the illusion that we (western?) humans labor under, that we are disconnected from everyone else. Even in a tribal culture like that of Judea in the first century, where belonging to the “in” group was everything, the difference between life and death, individuation seems to have been a problem, and understandably, as the rivalry among siblings might impinge on one’s survival. In our time, in the United States, individualism has risen to an art form, and amplifies our competitive nature. We pride ourselves in the “pioneer spirit” and “rugged individualism,” forgetting that few pioneers or rugged individuals survived on their own, relying both on the power of numbers and of cavalry outposts to enforce their survival. We are “self-made” men and women, we think that anyone having trouble ought to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because “God helps those that helps themselves,” reinventing the gospel for ├╝bermenschen. We even have a political party whose task, it seems, has been to uproot government as much as possible so that the individual has as much authority to do what s/he wants with her life and wealth no matter what happens to anyone else. The mutuality represented by government is seen as an oppressor, and one that needs to be overcome. As one venerable party member from a conservative think-tank put it, “I want to shrink government to the size where I can drown it in a bathtub.”

God counters this with the revelation that God’s very self is communitarian, that God is both one-and-three. Perhaps Jesus had to weave his way through the minefield of individuality, probably quite a task for a person who was probably very talented and inquisitive, until he reached a point where it was possible for him to internalize the Torah, to see that loving God and neighbor are equally important tasks, that to love one’s neighbor, that is, to live for one’s neighbor, is to love God, and that one ought to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. This is not to say that individuality is bad; we’re not the Borg, after all. But when push comes to shove, we have to be able to say and know that the other person is as important as we are, and so our choices really come down to what is better for the other, not what is better for me. “He made him who did not know sin to be sin,” but by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the triune God, Jesus became aware and began to act for a world where everyone is equal because we’re part of a living organism, a family that is God’s alone.

And so we have a sacrament of baptism to remind us of this, and we even use the word “incorporation” into Christ to describe the grace of baptism—we go from being individuals to being members of a body. “I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me,” says St. Paul. By the gift of that Holy Spirit, especially when we cooperate with it, we “become the very holiness of God,” we share in God’s communitarian life, we live it in this world, loving our enemies, welcoming and helping strangers and all who need us. We live the kenosis life of God that does not deem even godliness something to be held onto at all costs, but pours self out for the life of the other. This is what it means to be God, and thus it is what it means to be fully human, made in the divine image.

Not me, but us. And so the Advent question becomes, “which world am I living in, the world of self-preservation or the world of mutuality and self-gift?” It is this latter world that John the Baptist and Jesus came to announce as the reign of God, that no one is alone. No one is alone because God is come to save us, and is coming through the presence and ministry of the reconciling community. Whose is the exile I’m called to ease this week? Who is the captive that needs release in my neighborhood, or my circle of acquaintances?

The author of the earliest gospel was excited about the possibilities, but possibly cautious after the first fires of apostolic zeal had started to burn down. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is begun. Who has the desire to listen to its vision, and be carried by it into the future?

For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5: 21)