A New Birth of Freedom
The "Infancy Narratives" are obviously rather scant, but from another perspective, it's rather remarkable that they exist at all. Why?
Because they place God in a rather unflattering, or at least undignified, light, especially considering a historical context in which casual infanticide was still widespread. "Historical documents of the time," writes Pursell, "say next to nothing about the women, children, and men living in destitution," which was the majority.
Even so, the existence of Rome brought about a kind of useable Cosmos, or functioning world order. To jump ahead a bit, if one wants to propagate -- much less incarnate -- a universal message, it won't do to download it into, say, an isolated group of hunter-gatherers, for the message will have no way to get out. Not only is there no writing or common language, there are no roads, no institutions, no way to get the Word out to others.
But the existence of Rome permitted a kind of convergence of Roman know-how, Greek know-what, and Hebrew be-who: technology, philosophy, and religion. So, there is a kind of nested context for the appearance of Jesus: a single family, within the womb of Judaism, situated in the wider context of Rome. As Benedict writes,
"For the first time, 'all the world,' the ecumene in its entirety, is to be enrolled [referring to the census that was taking place at the time of Jesus' birth]. For the first time there is a government and an empire that spans the globe....
"Only now, when there is a commonality of law and property on a wide scale, and when a universal language has made it possible for a cultural community to trade in ideas and goods, only now" can the universal message "enter the world." This goes to what is meant by "the fullness of time." The time must be ripe.
The first thing that will strike the shriveled sensibility of the politically correct will be something like "Universal? Spans the globe? What about China, or Persia, or the Aztec empire?" Well, maybe they weren't universal enough. Just sayin'. Even today, China may eventually conquer us, but they will never evangelize us. Nor will it be the first time that Christianity evangelized its own barbarian conquerers. Funny how God works that way.
Funny? Funny how?
"It is a colossal joke, actually, a characteristic of God's sense of humor.... The idea that God could have let himself be born as a defenseless baby occurred to virtually nobody" (Pursell). For that matter -- again, very much against the grain of the times -- Jesus "reserved his most dire warnings for those who harmed children and led them astray. He told everyone to live and love simply, as do children."
But although Jesus appears within the context of universal power -- or the most powerful civilization that had ever existed -- he is nevertheless born completely outside that worldly power. This is a true inversion (or "transvaluation") of values, another topic to which we will no doubt return.
But why would God incarnate completely outside what the world recognizes as power? I can think of several reasons; for example, to avoid confusing divine power with what the world recognizes as power. At the time, there was literally nothing as powerful as Rome; and to this day, there is literally nothing more powerless than an infant. That's what you call an infinite contrast. (Then again, think of the peculiar power of the infant to draw us into an intimate circle of love; truly, the infant is the hinge of psychohistorical evolution.)
Where does the Word dwell? Or, where does the word choose as a dwelling place? It seems that he has a marked preference for low and humble places -- that he resists the proud and mighty (or vice versa, rather). I would add that evolution always occurs at the edge of things, not the center.
In the animal kingdom, for example, it is said that speciation occurs as a result of a genetically similar population being isolated in a new niche. Benedict writes that Luke "wants to show that humanity starts afresh in Jesus." Thus, he represents a kind of speciation at the margin of empire, isolated in his niche by virtue of culture, religion, and class.
This implies that the cosmic speciation could not have occurred at the center of things -- which sheds new light on the difficulty faced by the rich man endeavoring to enter the kingdom of heaven, and conversely, the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth (among other passages).
So, Jesus is off in the bewilderness, not unlike the Jews wandering in the desert -- "desert" evoking the literal margin of civilization.
Of note, Jesus' purpose, one might say, is to participate in man, so that man might participate in God. But what does it mean to "participate in man?" I would suggest that there are many ways to participate in man, and yet, miss the point entirely.
For example, if one incarnates in, say, a Chinese emperor with 2,000 concubines, is that really going to give one a feel for what it means to be human? Will that provide a well-rounded, typical human experience? And will others be able to relate to the experience?
I would say that unless one directly participates in pain, helplessness, loss, powerlessness, betrayal, death, etc., one has not experienced the full human monty, but rather, eluded it.
Now, despite what we have said about human powerlessness, the whole point of the Incarnation involves, to paraphrase Schuon, absoluteness entering into relativity, and there can be no power that surpasses the Absolute. How is this power recognized, if it has nothing to do with what the world recognizes as power?
For Schuon, it manifests Truth and Presence, or one might say the presence of divine truth and truth of divine presence (Emmanuel, "God-with-us"). How else to explain the peculiar power of the martyrs? Or even the inexplicable persistence of this powerless divine power, 2000 years on?
This powerless power is on such a different plane from worldly power, that the latter can often appear almost demonic by comparison, especially lately. And yet, the divine power has a way of resurrecting, and more generally, reasserting itself in unexpected times and places. Like maybe next Tuesday, for example.
Out of time... to be continued...