Ever Ancient AND Ever New | Believing Backwards and Reclaiming Modernity
by Maria Grizzetti
Melodramatics aside, the drama of human existence takes as many forms as there are persons. Each of these lives has the incredible potential to personally participate in the salvific narrative that began with an angel and a Virgin, in Nazareth of Galilee. The sequence is all too familiar, but becomes most unfamiliar when we see how that story modernly unfolds.
The account of the Incarnation reads as a lyrical melody, fraught with real human emotion, weighted by the power of one ‘yes.’ That Announcement we honor, only still resonates because it was the portal through which this ‘yes,’ perfectly offered, gave God permission. A human ‘fiat’, asked of a woman, was necessary to allow God’s encounter with humanity in the flesh. So glorious is the divine gift of human freedom that through our choice it can imprison God, making Him dependent on our will.
That freely offered fiat began the renewal of the human existential drama. It made possible the divinification of man. The spiritual marriage of humanity with divinity happened once in time, and happens over and over in our time. There is no story since, which purports to tell of so dramatic a tipping point in the historical narrative we belong to. The ‘historical Jesus’ we consider here is not the revisionist Jesus of modern exegetical interpretation, but the real man who is the ‘Word become Flesh’ and has come among us in time, so that through His descent, we might continuously ascend.
It can be considered a great loss that often we speak of the Incarnation in the past tense, as if, like the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection it happened once and exists in a historical past no longer relevant today. Surely, as purely historical events, these are events are in the past. There was one Jesus who lived, was crucified, died, and rose from the dead. The redemptive reality, however, is quite different. God became man, so that man could, throughout time, become like God. In grace we are given a gateway through which our human nature is modernly reborn into divinity, and so participates, actively, presently, in the life of Christ, who is alive. The Incarnation, as the hidden beginning of the life of Christ on earth, only begins to spiritually mirror the full drama of human existence.
The crisis of faith we live in modernity, is a crisis of ‘historical belief.’ We confuse tradition for faith thinking that what we do in ritual, what hold on to in belief, we do so as a remembrance and no longer a living reality. We are taught our faith in the past tense; we read of it in the past tense; we hear it preached in past tense reflection rerely applied to modern questions; we profess it as if it were a thing of the past; the Creed seems a litany of past events; all too often we speak of Christ as having ‘lived’ as if he no longer does. We speak of the places where He taught, where He died and rose. We know how the Church began, where it grew, where it was martyred and bled, where it divided, then again faded into seeming sociological irrelevance, into our very day. We long for the liturgies of the past, the devotions of the past, the ‘orthodoxy,’ of the past. The culture refers us to the scandals of the past, the divisions, the demise, the ‘dark ages.’ Our friends speak to us assuming a former, now irrelevant or long faded belief. It is all reduced to ‘the past.’
And so it is only natural that we also believe backwards. A limited human understanding is imposed onto a divine reality. No longer is divinity given that ‘yes’ to encounter and illumine the full measure of human existence and so shatter it out of complacency and indifference, into rebirth and life. Faith, that chosen, convinced belief evaporates into a penumbral mist of confusion, emotionally driven into the darkness of doubt. This is the price we pay for this perhaps unintentional habit of ‘past profession.’ The confrontation of reality as it is in modernity, no longer bears the imprint of the living and redemptive action of grace. We are no longer convinced of the possibility of a real, living, modern encounter between humanity and divinity– that radical, physical, union that occurred in that virginal womb in Nazareth and can, if given permission, change the course of real, individual human lives, today.
The result of this entrenched backwards belief is that faith is judged by its personal relevance rather than its universal and current application. And should that personal relevance be guided by anger, disbelief, apathy, indifference, skepticism, or any other of the myriad forms of modern spiritual malaise, faith becomes at best clouded, and at worst, irrelevant. The battle is waged once more at the level of the human person: heart and mind risk being trapped in a modern spiritual prison.
In this modern dungeon of backwards belief, real human lives are presently locked up in chains of disbelief with no promise of freedom. Here we are programmed to think skeptically of our lives, as having no direction or order, as being random experiences of random events, each of which elicits random emotions. And, in modern style, we are fine with this as long as things go well. Add suffering, illness, heartbreak, or death to the equation, and what follows is a downward spiral towards a bottomless precipice which only compounds skepticism and despair. No mediocre, saccharine, superficial friendship will save in that valley of tears. It is like one of those operatic dramas that ends pathetically; love unsubstantial, unrequited, un-ordered, unredeemed ends miserably. Between faith and the valley of tears there is no random middle ground. It may take us a lifetime to learn to choose either faith, or the valley of tears.
Imagine the resurgence of a faith that is both ever ancient AND ever new: where man presently and personally actually encounters God, where the ‘orthodoxy of the past,’ meets the challenges of the present and informs them, shakes the dust from them, and offers a ‘radically modern’ and yet ‘perpetually ancient’ injection of energy, enthusiasm, life. The term ‘modernity’ is a ‘bad word’ in orthodox circles, and surely for some good reasons. But nothing is more cutting-edge and modern these days than what is vintage, whether it is wine, fashion, art or culture. Why is it not so with faith?
We must reclaim ‘modernity,’ because God never stopped acting in the human drama. The age-old longings of the prophets fulfilled in the Announcement at Nazareth are the same as ours today, and the answer we look for is already given us: ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age.’ (cf. MT 28.20) What is missing is the present correlation between the ancient and the new; a present profession of both the beginning and the end of the story: that each event of the life of Christ still manifests itself in our time and in us, personally. This is an incarnational view of existence. The Incarnate Infant lives then to enact that Calvarian drama that is undone on Easter Sunday, and so brings now, still today, the promise of hope and redemption.
This ‘present-tense faith’ is modernly unfamiliar to us, even if we believe.
There is a stanza in a Christmas melody that seems to distantly toll the bells of Easter:
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that men no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Delight O glorious soul, in Lenten expectation; modern is this Incarnation