When God Became Man
In 1923 the American poet Wallace Stevens published the full text of a poem he had written about what he perceived as a growing ambivalence regarding religion in general and Christianity in particular and modern culture.
The poem is entitled “Sunday Morning” and it expresses the inner thoughts of a modern woman, who sits in languid, middle class comfort one Sunday morning, though not in church, but content to sip her tea alone with her newspaper and her private musings. Her Christian faith is gone, dead, replaced by a spirituality of self-reference and personal experiences. This new faith demands only doubts in any transcendent possibility that would move her beyond the safe comforts afforded by economic success. There is no divine revelation beyond what her mind or emotions can create. She is content that grace simply be a dispensation that she offers to herself, permission to enjoy the finer things in life and an appreciation of art and culture.
In the absence of a living Christian faith, she searches her mind and emotions, for a sense of meaning and imagines herself to be content with the comfort of her memories and her immersion in the great cycles of nature. In place of the Scriptures, there is only a scrapbook of photos and news clippings. The beauty and intelligibility of the world directs her attention only to herself, and not to a Creator God. In other words, there is nothing for her beyond this world. All that she has, all that she is, exists only the moment, in worldliness and in this space she inhabits, she will live and she will die.
The poem culminates with a startling refusal to believe in anything beyond the categories limited to her experience, in particular the mysterious revelation of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. I quote:
“She hears upon the water without a sound, a voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine is not the porch of spirits lingering- it is the grave of Jesus where he lay.”
In other words, she considers the person of Jesus Christ merely as a historical footnote. There are no miracles and, indeed, no resurrection. All that remains of him is a memorial built in a far off land. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, rather than the place of Christ’s resurrection, is only a grave; a curiosity for travelers, not a place where heaven met earth, where God in our flesh revealed himself in the real world, and for our sake overcame the power of death.
Wallace Stevens struggled with Christianity most of his adult life, experiencing a controversial conversion to the Catholic Faith a few days before his death. He composed the poem “Sunday Morning” as a lament and a eulogy for a faith he did not so much find difficult to understand, but hard to believe.
He understood that Christian Faith would find it nearly impossible to resist modern culture’s tendency to reduce its beliefs first, to mere history, then to legend, then to myth and finally to nothing at all. And this troubled him. He ached with a sense of loss that he grappled with intensely. If, after the fire of Christian Faith is extinguished, the poet wonders, what light and warmth is left for us? Memories and experiences? These linger for an instant and then are gone. The cycles of nature? As beautiful and impressive as these are, they care nothing for us or our existence. The personal gratification that comes from affluence and success? A culture that offers the material as the crowning of human possibility will ultimately consume itself.
Memories, personal experiences, the wonders of the natural world, affluence and success, these will likely comfort us in the immediacy of life’s circumstances, but does the mystery of our existence beg something deeper and more important of us than the fulfillment of immediate needs?
Wallace Stevens thought that the modern world insisted the answer to this question was no and Christian Faith had no choice but to resist the modern world’s no, or accept it, but either way, fade into the shadows of history.
In the light of Easter day, Christians gather together and peer beyond the shadowy veil that modern culture casts. We gather to hear extraordinary testimony that there is no grave of Jesus, for in rising from the dead, what was once a grave has become the place of the resurrection.
It is our faith, Christians, that God, the one, true God, revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and did so in a way that confounds and confuses- God, the one, true God, accepted a human nature, entered history, and in doing so, lived, like us, a real, human life. God in Jesus Christ experienced for himself in a real, human body all that it means to be human, accepting the joy and submitting himself to our afflictions. God in Christ suffered the pain of betrayal, even feeling abandoned by all who he loved most. God in Christ died, and he died, not just any death, but death on a cross- humiliated, stripped, beaten, nailed down, bleeding, struggling for breath- he died!
But that was not the end.
The great revelation of God in Christ is that the human nature in which he revealed himself to us was not all that he is. Jesus Christ is God and his divine life proved itself to be more powerful than death, proved that his love is stronger than the grave. It is our faith, faith in a revelation that we profess to be a fact of history, an event that happened in the real world, in the real flesh and blood, muscle and bone of the body of the Lord Jesus that God in Christ returned to us from the dead.
And God in Christ returned from the dead- not as a ghost, or as a spirit, or as a feeling, or as an idea, or as a memory, or as a symbol- but HE returned to us. In doing so, God in Christ showed us not just something of his power, but that there is something greater than our bodies, our feelings, our ideas, our memories and our symbols. This world is NOT all that there is for us. God’s plan for us in Christ includes this world and is greater than this world.
In other words, there is an empty tomb in Palestine, but it is no longer the grave of Jesus, it is the porch of spirits lingering, the privileged place where God in Christ revealed that neither death or this world are all that there is.
The poet Wallace Stevens insists in his poem Sunday Morning that his reader make a decision- will we accept that all that Jesus of Nazareth is for us is merely a historical memory. Will the recollection of his existence be akin to what one does at the tomb of Lincoln or Washington. Modern culture insists that if we are to have Jesus Christ that this is enough. Is it?
Or is Jesus Christ more to us than a historical memory?
Christians are not just witnesses to the historical memory of the Lord Jesus, that he was just one of many people who was born, who lived and who died. Christians are witnesses to the Resurrection, to Christ, who is alive because he is God and though God in Christ was born, he lived and he died, what is most important is that he is even now alive. Jesus Christ is a living person and our lives witness to a relationship with the living, divine person, Jesus Christ.
There is no equivocating. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead- and he rises from the dead in his body in his blood- he rises in the flesh. This is what we witness to today, what we celebrate, what we Christians believe. There is not for us Christians a retreat into comfortable symbols or banalities about ethics. Our faith is uncomfortable, for God in Christ does what he should not be able to do and asks us to believe and do what the world deems impossible.
This uncomfortable faith in God in Christ, who becomes man, who dies and rises from the dead, becomes an oath we take in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. In the Eucharist, the divine life of the living Lord Jesus is given to us and before we receive that life, we testify that we believe in him, in his resurrection, and that he lives, not just in memory or symbol, but also in reality. Jesus Christ is alive now and forever.
Easter, the day when all humanity received from God the news that this world is not all that there is for us, we turn away from the graves of modern doubts and give ourselves over to faith in the Lord Jesus, in whom we place all our hope, in whom we profess our faith.