catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 23 :: 2010.12.17 — 2010.12.30


How do you solve a problem like Jesus?

Jesus as a living, present person was simply part of the air I breathed as I grew up.   In church, we sang about walking with Jesus and people talked about an intimacy with Jesus. We all talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  I am told that not long after I could talk, I would pray to Jesus as though he were any other person, talking to him about my day.  The spirituality that formed me saw Jesus as present and active — Jesus was both God and, like us, a human being.  Eventually a small gap emerged between my experience of Jesus and those who were forming me in the faith.  At certain moments in my life, I thought this meant I had a less personal relationship with God and Jesus than others.  However, what I believe now is that from an early age, I was aware that Jesus was a problem.

As I became more aware of my faith, the incarnation grew in my mind as a problem.  Jesus had been an infant like I had once been, but unlike any other person I knew, I was to feel and experience his presence at all times. I was to have a running conversation with him as if he were always physically present next to me.  This was intimate and encouraging because Jesus was human like me and understood my struggles.  Yet Jesus’ ability to be there for me and everyone else was because Jesus was also God and thus not like me at all.  Jesus’ immanence was dependent upon his transcendence (admittedly, as a child, I was not putting it in those words).   This realization broke the spell of Jesus’ pure, constant, unmediated presence.  Jesus was both like and unlike any other person because he was God.  This was a sort of otherness that created distance between me and Jesus.  Yet few, if any, around me articulated this distance.  Without anyone else talking about distance and feeling the absence of Christ, my experience of distance and absence due to transcendence felt like a lack of faith.

At age five, it was no longer enough to pray to Jesus each day, go to church and celebrate Jesus’ birthday at Christmas.  Being able to touch and see Jesus — to experience and touch the mystery of his presence in our midst — became an intense desire and so I asked to receive communion.  Yet the experience of the mediated presence of Jesus in bread and wine only heightened the mystery of Jesus’ presence and the reality of Jesus’ transcendence.  In communion, Jesus came to me in a way that wasn’t like any other human being’s presence.  Communion emphasized Jesus’ transcendent presence to us. 

As I grew up I became increasingly discomforted by the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus.”  From about six, I thought it was silly to talk about Christmas as celebrating Jesus’ birthday, as if all we were celebrating was a birth like any other birth.  Even as an infant, Jesus wasn’t just born.  We didn’t celebrate the day of Jesus’ birth; we celebrated God becoming human.  Even as an infant, Jesus was God.  The familiarity some had with the infant Jesus troubled me.  This familiarity denied the otherness of what we celebrated.

For a time as a young adult, I avoided as much as possible the language of human relationship when speaking of Jesus.  My early conversations with Jesus each night about my family and my toddler activities during the day had been relegated to the category of a childish activity.  God was too immense and other for me to genuinely share the details of my life with God and Jesus.  One day I woke up and discovered that God had disappeared.  I had attempted to experience God in transcendence and Jesus’ divinity as present everywhere, and had lost Jesus and God.  I was tempted to reinterpret the whole thing as a story we told to get at our mere and true humanity. I was ready to chuck the whole transcendence and immanence of God.  God’s immanence was in our humanity: the Christian story simply told us about what it meant to be human, and there was no need for something beyond human beings to undergird the truth of our humanity.

In attempting to emphasize and insist on Jesus’ and God’s transcendence, I ended up with another immanence, which threatened to lock me within my own humanity.  I very nearly removed myself from the trouble of the incarnation, and the problem of having a relationship with Jesus.  In rejecting the attempted experiences of pure immanence, I had attempted an experience of pure transcendence and ended up back in an immanence that was merely self-referential.  Yet in bread and wine named “body” and “blood” and the crucified one as a child in a manger, there was the play of presence and absence. In Jesus was the dance of death and life, of immanence and transcendence, of humanity and divinity, of otherness and likeness.  In communion and the story of Christmas, I knew an otherness that brought me beyond mere humanity. In Jesus, God the Word comes to us as any other human being, but with a difference that simultaneously separates us from and unites us to Jesus. In communion I encounter and receive Jesus, and he is with me and yet in so receiving I also have his absence: Jesus is not present to me as he was to those who wandered with him about Galilee.

According to Augustine, God is that which is closer to me than I am to myself. Yet, God is other. God’s total otherness is what makes possible God’s and Jesus’ immanent presence in the incarnation.  Through the incarnation the human and all being is taken up into God who is without being, the source of all that is.  Therefore immanence returns to me as transcendence. That which is without being, the source of all life and existence, becomes and is bound to humanity through Jesus Christ.  Through Jesus, the God-Human, I become other than and transcend myself and my humanity.  In God become human as Jesus, my humanity has a share in divinity.  In the joining and mingling of God and human in Jesus, we all have a share in divinity. This is our personal relationship to Jesus.  This is the problem of Jesus: I may share everything with him as I did as a child because in his being human, he is other than I.  In sharing all with this one who is and is not like me, I become other than myself and Christ is born in me. Here at this moment, we worship with shepherd and Magi at the mystery of the child in the manger, God with us.

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