One of the advantages of living in my Queens neighborhood is that on weekday mornings I get to watch little children heading toward their elementary school with their parents or grandparents. The school is a block from our apartment, and seeing all these children—most of them Asian in our neighborhood—lifts my heart. They seem happier than I ever was when I went to school, a place I hated, and in a departure from my usual mood I find myself beginning to understand why God loves us, and I get a sense of what it means to be made in God’s image.
Sometimes what is obvious can strike us as new, and this is one of those times: everything comes to us through our humanity, through our participation in the human community—language, love, understanding (which is always communally shared). This blazes up when you see a child walking happily with his mother. If I were an atheist I would love this, but it is especially wonderful when you are part of a tradition that believes in a God who not only created humanity, but became one of us, to let us share his own being. This joins our being to all of creation, to glory everywhere, in the music of Bach and the rings of Saturn.
This sense of glory and the joy of creation can arise anywhere you look with the right kind of attention, whether close in—at fossils and shells—or far out—at nebulae, the Milky Way—and it speaks to what is deepest in us.
There are shells rimmed with what look like ur-alphabets, letter-like things that seem to move toward a meaning, almost as if they wanted to speak to us. They seem to mimic spelling, and that similarity can be seen as the start of a dialogue between the beauty of the naturally inarticulate, and the beauty and need for meaning and articulation that our minds generate and participate in.
We often reduce those moments-when our appreciation of beauty in nature or art moves us to joy—to the level of subjectivity, perhaps because such moments are so often fleeting. What is more likely true is that in such moments we are given a glimpse of reality without the usual veil of distraction and pettiness that obscures our perception most of the time. We are, I think, closer then to seeing the world as God sees it. There is something divine, for example, in Bach’s music, and our delight in hearing it joins us to something real in the universe.
Richard Wilbur’s poem “A Wedding Toast” has some lines that are not only lovely but theologically sound:
Which is to say that what love sees is true; That the world’s fullness is not made but found. Life hungers to abound And pour its plenty out for such as you.
This is what the Incarnation means, in one sense. We find it hard to believe that beauty is there for us, for our sakes, but it is. And we find it hard to respond as we should, because of our fallenness. In our response to God’s generosity we too often project our own smallness onto God, instead of accepting the fact of God’s generous love for us. We are surrounded by examples of that love, in beauty and even in our own hearts.
For example, when you see someone you love in physical pain or in some other form of distress, you wish you could take on the suffering yourself. Every parent, every husband and wife, every good friend knows that it is harder to watch someone you love suffer than it is to suffer yourself. And this should teach us something about the Incarnation. God has done this, the thing we wish we could do because of that in us which is like God, but can’t do because we are not God. God became one of us to take on our suffering. It is hard for us to accept that kind of love, so some interpretations of the Cross have Jesus taking on the penalty richly deserved by all of us; but this posits a God who is willing to torment his son for justice’s sake—a God made, I’m afraid, in our image.
The mystery of the Incarnation is not exhausted even by this, the mystery of the Cross. Perhaps those moments of joy we are graced with should be seen eschatologically—they are signs of what, finally, we are called to become, intimations of what the Resurrection will mean for us.