Divine Vulnerability: A Reflection on John 1.1-18

On the Second Sunday of Christmas, the lectionary directs us to the wonderful prologue of the Gospel according to John, a beautiful and profound hymn to the Mystery of God and the incarnation. Last year, I wrote about how the full and perfect theophany that is Jesus reveals to us not only who God is, but also what it means to be human. This week, as I was reading through the text, I was struck yet again by the line, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and specifically the word ‘flesh’. It’s such an earthy word. It’s the meat of life, and therefore a wonderful image for the incredible act of divine vulnerability the incarnation is.

We don’t like to think about God or ‘the gods’ as vulnerable. We like our gods to be strong, far beyond our petty concerns of injury, illness, and heartbreak. This instinct was expanded and expounded upon in Greek philosophy, particularly in Aristotle and the various schools descending from Plato, and was therefore culturally and intellectually ‘baked into’ Western thought by the time Christianity entered the scene. Because of this, Christian theology too has historically emphasized the idea that God is invulnerable, as traditional “divine attributes” such as impassibility (God’s lack of feeling), aseity (God’s independence), eternity (God’s imperviousness to time), immutability (God’s changelessness), and impeccability (God’s inability to sin) demonstrate.

Whatever value (or not) we may think such traditional ideas have about God’s nature, they are all undone by the incarnation. This is to say, even if God is inherently invulnerable, God chose to experience vulnerability by becoming human. The one who could not feel became hungry and thirsty, and knew love and loss. The one who was wholly independent became dependent on a human mother and father. The one who existed outside of time experienced growth and aging. The one who did not change passed from infancy through childhood to adulthood. The one who had no capacity for sin was tempted, like us, in every way. Even the theologian most committed to those invulnerable attributes has to admit cautiously that “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.”

But, we might well ask, Why? Why would God do such a thing? And what does it matter?

I can think of three related ways to answer these questions.

First, the answer suggested by St. Athanasius of Alexandria in On the Incarnation is that “God became man that man might become god.” Later theologians would go so far as to say that “that which is not assumed [i.e., ‘taken on by God’] is not healed.” In this view, God took on human life in order to bless it — every part of it — and fill it — every part of it — with God’s very own life and energy, thereby allowing us to be wholly united to that divine life and energy. This is a big and beautiful doctrine, but it depends on some metaphysics rather foreign to our sensibilities. It’s enough to say that these ancient formulations insist that God took on all of our human attributes and experiences in order to fill them all with divine possibility and potential. Far from being a symbol of how separate we are from God, our vulnerability of bodily, soul, and spirit becomes a place of unity with God.

This connects well to the second answer: that God became vulnerable in the incarnation to express solidarity with us. This is best expressed in Hebrews 4.15, which says:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

The point of the passage is that Christ, whom Hebrews envisions here as a perfect High Priest, has personally experienced all the ups and downs of human life and so is able to sympathize wholly and perfectly with our plight. For all we may talk about God’s omniscience — that God is all-knowing (another one of those traditional attributes of God derived from Aristotle) — there is a difference between first-hand experience and second-hand knowledge. This is the ‘Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes’ proverb in action. The incarnation means that God can fully understand and sympathize with us because God has honestly and truly been there.

Finally, I’d like to suggest that God became vulnerable because it expresses in human terms and experience something inherent to God’s character. We do whatever we can to make ourselves less vulnerable in the world. We put on armour to shield our hearts (and bodies) from pain and hurt. But this has the consequence of walling ourselves off from one another, making the true healed and whole relationships we long for and need impossible. The whole motion of the incarnation runs against this tendency. Instead of resting in divine impassibility, unable to be touched by what the world throws God’s way, God strips off the armour, so to speak, and intentionally becomes vulnerable. In the wonderful words of Philippians 2.5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.

The incarnation is an expression of the humble, self-sacrificial — and therefore vulnerable — love that is God’s very nature. God refuses to stay walled-up, isolated from creation, but humbly enters into it, knowing full-well the risks — but also the benefits — it involves.

And this means that it is our calling too. In the wonderful words of Andrew Marr, OSB:

If the Word without whom nothing was made that was made is willing to be so defenseless, [then] perhaps it isn’t really our deepest instinct to defend ourselves so aggressively after all.

In other words, it’s no accident that Paul introduces the hymn in Philippians 2 with the words “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” His way is to be our way; his example is to be our instruction manual.

And so, as the Christmas season winds down, may we all marvel at the wonderful love of God, which impelled God to take on the vulnerability of embodied and enfleshed human life in the man Jesus. And may that love inspire our own love, that we too may be willing to be vulnerable enough to show up in the world and be seen.

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