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He Came Down From Heaven — Bishop Christoph von Schönborn

September 7, 2012

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter in Luke 9:20: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered: “The Christ of God.” Detail from stained glass in the church of St Mary and St Lambert in Stonham Aspal in Suffolk

We shall try to show that the power of symbolism of such images as “came down from heaven”, “born of the Virgin Mary”, “and was made man,” lies precisely in the fact that here symbol and reality, myth and life, coincide.”  Here is the “came down from heaven” segment.

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“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence … to make thy name known to thy adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at thy presence. When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains quaked at thy presence. From of old no one has heard …”
(Isaiah 64:1-4) .

The anonymous sixth-century prophet who produced this cry of hope and longing calls for the coming of God. In doing so he refers to an event that, for Israel, is unforgettable: the exodus from Egypt. In its deliverance from bondage in Egypt, Israel sees the prototype of all redemption. Did not God then come down in order to save his people? In the vision of the Burning Bush God speaks to Moses: “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8).

The “fundamental experience” of deliverance from Egypt gave Israel the certainty and an ever-new hope that God is not afraid to come down into the midst of his people in order to lead it up to the Promised Land. We find in the Prophets images of astounding intimacy: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17). Later Jewish theology never ceases to be amazed at this descent of God. So we read in the commentary on Exodus 13:21 (“And the Lord went before them … by night in a pillar )of fire to give them light”) : “R. Jose the Galilean said: If it were not written in Scripture it would be forbidden to say such things, that a father carries a torch before his children, a master before his slave” (Kuhn, p. 23) .

God, whose transcendence is such a marked feature of the faith of Israel, is also the One who is very near: he comes town, makes himself small, adopts human proportions. In Jewish theology this dwelling of God among his people is called the shekinah: his “indwelling”, his “glorious nearness”. The shekinah is both distinct from God and yet himself. And it is emphasized “that God’s dwelling (in his people) was the ultimate goal of the divine plan of creation, a goal envisaged right at the beginning of creation” (Kuhn, p. 64) . God is seen entirely in the context of his dwelling among men: He “is entirely his dwelling among men” (Kuhn, p. 69) .

The Christian faith in God’s Incarnation is in line with his Old Testament Jewish hope and expectation: “God has come down from heaven to his people out of love; he has chosen the humblest place on earth and limited his affinity to a small space in the world; poor and humble, he renounced the honor due to him, performed the work of a slave for mankind’s sake; and finally, in a concrete way, he shared in the deepest pain of his people. Not only can the Jewish faith affirm this: it is also the basis of the Christian profession of faith” (Kuhn, p. 105).

True, there remains one fundamental difference: in Judaism, necessarily, there is always a reluctance “to associate God, as the One Person that He is in Judaism, fully and finally with a human life, since this would seem to put God’s transcendence in jeopardy. God can adopt particular features of an earthly existence, but he can never really `become flesh’ in a final and irrevocable way and so `dwell among us’ (John 1:14) .

Accordingly he could not experience the ultimate gravity of such a human life, i.e., death” (Kuhn, p. 108) . So we find the rabbis explicitly rejecting the ultimate consequence of God’s “descent”; e.g., Rabbi Jose: “God never really came down upon the earth,” for, however small the distance between them, God and man can never quite come together (Kuhn, p. 72) . According to the same Rabbi Jose, God always stays ten hand’s breadths above the earth, i.e., “God has never come to earth completely, nor have men ascended to him completely” (Kuhn, pp. 45f.).

Thus we could rightly say that the Old Testament picture of God was characterized by an “inclination on God’s part toward Incarnation” (Mauser, p. 16). Yet this inclination “hovers” in a kind of indecision. There continue to be new experiences of God’s nearness, but also of his withdrawal and turning-away from man, and so the hope is always rekindled that, in the end, God will dwell among men permanently. A time will come when “my dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ezekiel 3 7:27; cf. Revelations 21:3). This final and definitive dwelling of God among men remains the great promise of the Old Testament…

It is the faith of Christians that God has finally pitched his tent among men. Christians find this ultimate coming promised in countless passages of the Old Testament, and they see it fulfilled in the apparently insignificant birth of Jesus…

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