Nature Mysticism & the Incarnation
Observing Advent, waiting for God’s coming to be with us in the person of baby Jesus, may feel like a tiresome routine, but it gives us a wonderful and necessary opportunity to make a fresh start at understanding who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are meant to be. No matter how badly we messed up in the past it gives us a fresh start at following Jesus.
It also gives us a chance for unexpected joy at the discovery of God’s solution to the tangled problem of human life.
And it gives us a mystery to ponder: how in the world was Jesus’ birth the solution to the problem of humanity?
Years ago, back when Dayspring Church was struggling with how to manage our excess deer population, I opposed killing deer. So I made myself a deer costume with some shed antlers, face paint and a deerskin-colored tunic. One day I sat above Alices’s pond in my deer outfit in meditation, trying to prepare myself to appear in deer character at a meeting in the Farmhouse. The deer themselves had run away; they were repelled by my costume. I prayed to God for a solution to our conflict, and tried to reach out in my spirit to warn the deer of the coming danger. And an inward voice came to me, saying “One day is a lifetime.” I somehow knew that it was a deer speaking to me.
It had not happened before nor has it since that an animal spoke words to me. I have never spoken of this except to one person. But there it was, “One day is a lifetime.” Neither the concept itself nor such a calm, philosophical message from a deer made any sense to me.
Yet in the circumstances I took it as a real message spoken to me personally .
My first reaction was that this deer was way ahead of me intellectually! I had always assumed that I was smarter than any animal. Because I am not at all a philosopher I did not try to understand the message. I did, however, take it to mean that the deer themselves were in some way fatalistic about hunters.
About the same time Jean Mathews gave me a fascinating book called Talking with Nature by Michael J. Roads. The author, a farmer, raised beef cattle in Australia. Beef cattle are not handled much by humans, but cows and their calves are set out in a large pasture to live by grazing for the summer.
Mr. Roads had a large, secluded pasture which he planted in clover for his cow/calf pairs. It was surrounded on 3 sides by forest, and on the 4th it joined his other land. It should have supported a large number of cattle, but the grass kept being eaten up by wallabies, which emerged from the forest every night and ate their fill. So Mr. Roads shot wallabies. Night after night more wallabies took their places. Next he tried poison, but he couldn’t stand the dying wallabies’ cries as they suffered.
Now Mr. Roads’ wife had an intuitive bond with the cattle so that she knew when they were in trouble or needed something. At first he didn’t believe her, but she had been proved right time after time.
In his desperation he tried to make a deal with the wallabies. Feeling like a fool, he went to the pasture one night and cried out aloud to them, promising that he would no longer kill them if they grazed only within 20 yards of the forest edge and left the middle of the field to the cattle. To his amazement, it worked. Although the wallabies were vague on the meaning of 20 yards, they kept to the edges and the clover was soon knee high, so Mr. Roads could add a lot more cattle to his field.
This experience completely changed Mr. Roads’ life. He turned into a nature mystic. When I read that he heard the following from a kangaroo, I was reminded of my message from the deer. The kangaroo said, “Our pain is the sickness of man. This will end only when man heals himself. He is sick, for he has no knowing of himself or the part he plays in life. Man stands alone - and very afraid.”
It has taken years for me to process my experience with the deer. The result is that I have lost my pride in my humanity. I see that we have not the wisdom either to be the dominant species, nor to know how to correct our over-reach.
Here is how this relates to Advent for me: the change from the meaning of Emmanuel as God-with-US to Emmanuel as GOD-with-us. If we see Emmanuel as meaning God-with-US, it fits with our idea of ourselves as the highest point in creation, God’s apex creation, as it were. It says that God chose us as fitting companions because we’re the closest thing in creation to God’s own self, just a step down from the angels. Of course, this is how the Bible portrays us; it is how humans see ourselves as the most powerful species by divine right. God-with-US implies that God is not with the rest of creation in the same way.
On the other hand, if we change the emphasis to GOD-with-us, we could just as easily see ourselves as God’s most troublesome species. Maybe God is with us because we as a species have been really bad! Maybe we are a species whose power has way outstripped our wisdom and maturity. What if all the other species are sentient too, and we are the planet’s loose cannon? The assumption that humans have been God’s favored species has been the basis of our theology since the Eden story began. If it is a wrong assumption how will we change it? Or maybe God came to be with us in Jesus because of our dilemma of being too clever for the good of creation.
Advent is full of mystery. Why did God come to us in Jesus? Why then? Why there? Why in that way? It has been the fundamental question of theology for ever since Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Some see Jesus primarily as a teacher of religion. Religion is what ties a culture together, a common understanding of what matters. But he didn’t really teach anything beyond the law and the prophets, the common denominator of his culture.
Yet Jesus’ life showed that if we really internalize God’s law and embrace both the mystic union with God which the prophets embodied and the life-or-death consequences of our obedience which the prophets tried to convey – - then the result is a very new and different way of human life which Jesus demonstrated.
Some see Jesus primarily as a teacher of morals. Again, the morality which Jesus taught was not new, but a deeper version of the old Hebrew morality.
What was new was Jesus’ understanding and demonstration that only a deep, healthy relationship with God, self and neighbor can enable the morality of the law and the prophets.
Some see Jesus as author of a great plan to improve the world. Jesus’ plan accepted that the world which God created was, as God declared, very good. Creation was fine; the problem was us. Jesus’ plan accepted that the world could not be changed by tinkering with social and political arrangements, but only by transforming human hearts by union with God one at a time. Maybe we are the ones who want to improve the world according to our own ideas of improvement, while the rest of the creation wants to improve us! God loves us as we are, and maybe Jesus came to give us direction so that we might continue to evolve.
We read in the New Testament that the first few generations of Christians did follow Jesus in their close relationships with God and in their communal lifestyles. They were courageous under severe persecution and continued to attract converts. Eventually church leaders changed their understanding of why Jesus came and began to emphasize Jesus death as an act of sacrifice.
We learn in the book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker that early Christian art and imagery shows Eden-like harmony with images of humans and animals all in one happy family. It is only after hundreds of years that images of the cross appear. And that change of emphasis from Jesus’ nonviolent and inclusive lifestyle and his mutuality with God to his crucifixion and resurrection has continued to this day, intensifying after the bubonic plague in Europe into an obsession with personal sin, punishment, and correct doctrine.
I believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection demonstrate that human life is meant to be lived in full immersion in the rigorous love of God, in communion with all other sentient beings, and on behalf of others, even to the point of death if necessary. The cross may well
illustrate the extent of a proper commitment to God and others, but I do not believe, as some do, that it is the most important thing in Jesus’ life or the sole purpose of God’s incarnation in him as Emmanuel. I believe that Emmanuel is GOD-with-us to redirect us from the earliest days of our imagining that the Creator placed us as dominant species, which led to our rivalry with the Creator, with one another, and everything that has gone wrong to this day. Jesus directed us instead to a proper relationship with the Creator, and a communitarian view of our lives with one another.
If we as humanity are not as wise as other species, but simply more clever and infatuated with our cleverness to the point of upending creation on earth...
If we as Christians have lost track of how Jesus taught and demonstrated a healthy, joyful and respectful human life to the point of turning Jesus teaching inside out and upside down to justify our excess...
Then we should be dizzy with relief that every day is not just a new lifetime, as my deer showed me, but a fresh chance to find a new and better way of life. We should use the mystery of Advent to take stock of what our lives reveal about our assumptions.
Let’s start with the few things we are sure about; write them down and lay them next to our daily lives. Try on the idea that we may not be superior species in the neighborhood. Ask God where to begin fixing your life. Tell God that you are grateful for life, and for a new chance to live in Jesus’ way.
I am an intellectual and learning is my joy. I’ve done a lot of it. My experience of wild things and my efforts to follow Jesus have taught me that a lot of what we think we know is wrong, some of it is right, and there is a great deal in our world of which we are ignorant altogether. This is because our ability to know is quite limited within the vast mystery of all creation. I stand in the belief that we are all tenderly held by God who is good and loving and urges us to fulfill our role in this world, which the prophet Micah expressed as: Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.
Andrea Burgard 12/14/2014