The shock of incarnation

On Christmas Eve, I listened to a fair proportion of “Carols from Kings” (a rather Spartan version compared with the norm). Somehow, it isn’t really Christmas without this precursor, usually listened to while finishing off various cooking tasks in the kitchen, but this year without anything major left to do. It seems that Nel and myself make a very efficient team in the kitchen, swapping chef and sous-chef roles smoothly – and it wasn’t that we were cooking far less food, as our Christmas lunch had all the usual elements.

That gave me the opportunity to really listen to some of the words. Kings always starts with “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, but somewhere in there will be at least one new piece, and some different arrangements. By the time we got to the Herald Angels, I was wondering how it was that I didn’t usually take full notice of what the carols were actually saying – most of the content is so familiar that it sort of slides over the rational faculties and engages the emotional resonance direct, at least when there’s something else to do.

And my mind went to the notorious artwork “Piss Christ”.

In 1987, Andres Serrano made this photograph, of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a countainer of urine. This caused absolute outrage in many conservative Christian circles, combining as it does a venerated religious image with a particularly “unclean” medium. Richard Beck makes much of this image in his splendid book “Unclean”, which explores ideas of the sacred and of the taboo.

Why this?

The carol writers rather generally try to expose the disconnect between (taking “Hark the Herald Angels” as a template) the “triumph of the skies”, a particularly imperial concept of Jesus, with “offspring of a virgin’s womb”, the paradox of “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity”. But it’s all too familiar. The messy business of birth, with various bodily fluids and secretions and, for the mother, a total collapse of any sense of dignity, is lost. “Piss Christ” brings back that idea forcibly. I have no difficulty with the image at all – I’m a panentheist, if called on to give an ontological account of the relationship of God and man (even though I think that is beyond my or anyone’s capacities to define), and God, for me, is radically present in all things. And that, of course, includes the piss as well as the Christ. I regard Christmas as the feast of radical immanence – “God with us”, but also in us, around us, under us, over us, before us, behind us… It isn’t remotely a stretch for me to think of a mewling infant, which in the world of 1st century Judaea was someone who might, possibly, become human in 14 years or so if very lucky, as God, the highest being (or hyper-being, or something beyond that) imaginable.* So high and mighty, indeed, that Judaism prohibited any attempt at representing him (or her). That, in it’s time, was a shocking, an inconceivable idea – but the shock value has vanished for us.

But, as I contemplated this, I recalled the start of the carols. “Love and watch the lowly maiden” from “Once in Royal David’s City”, and I thought “‘lowly maiden’? – this is the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), the Queen of Heaven, according to Orthodox and Catholic theology”.#

“There is is”, I thought, “There’s the paradox, the inconsistency, the contradiction, the rupture, the cognitive dissonance which I was missing”.

It’ll do for this year. For next year, I may need someone to write a carol involving piss, blood and amniotic fluid… and get it performed by Kings.

* Or beyond our ability to imagine, and only guessable at by extension…

# I’ve been spending some time reading a group including a lot of conservative Catholic and Orthodox people, on the basis that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to a like-minded bubble. They would not like “Piss Christ”…

2 Responses to “The shock of incarnation”

  1. Chris Says:

    Steve Kindle asks:-
    Chris, I’m looking for nuance here. I understand your panentheistic outlook regarding Piss Christ. Is there nothing then that is contemptible? How do we distinguish one from the other?

  2. Chris Says:

    Don’t get me wrong here, I have a pretty normal disgust reaction. How much that’s evolutionarily hard wired and how much it’s learned is an interesting question – it might be all learned, as in (for instance) the Jewish or Islamic reaction to eating bacon. To them, it’s quite frequently disgusting, to me it’s a necessary food group.

    Beck does a fascinating exploration of our disgust and sacred responses in “Unclean”, which I strongly recommend. In particular he asks why we think a tiny addition of uncleanness pollutes the whole (as in, for example, spitting in someone’s beer or the “one turd in the swimming pool” example) whereas one might think, from the likening of the Kingdom to leaven, that sacredness would spread through the whole and drive out uncleanness.

    I think it maybe has to be our reaction to things rather than anything intrinsic to the thing itself that we are looking at here. Granted, the evolutionary aspect of the disgust reaction protects us from things which may harm us (for example carrying disease, but much of what disgusts us actually is not harmful to us, particularly not when you look at the contaminating effect of extremely small portions of the disgust-causing thing.

    [I am, of course, a Liberal, so just as Jonathan Haidt would predict, I tend to downplay my disgust reaction in favour of fairness and lack of harm. That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t feel the reaction, though. For example, I find some street people fairly digusting, but work hard not to let that diminish my care for them…]

    I’ll note in passing that my panentheistic “radical immanence” stance makes it very difficult for me to explain “thin places” where God seems markedly more accessible than, say, in a public urinal. I’m still working on that!

    However, the thrust of my piece was more to express the idea that incarnation *should* be somewhat shocking to us. Babies, after all, are not born clean and pristine, but generally in a flow of amniotic fluid, blood and often, yes, piss. And yet we tell ourselves at Christmas that God Almighty was contained there, in one of the categories of “the least of us” (as, contra modern Conservative outlooks, babies were considered as not yet really even human in the first century…)

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