The Incarnation or incarnation? Christmas, liturgy, and particularity

Christianity is always a religion of specifics, of time and place and people.

Quodcumque makes this comment in an excellent post regarding the tendency in contemporary Anglican versions of the Benedicite to omit the closing verse referencing the three youths, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael.

A similar tendency can be seen at work in how many contemporary Anglican liturgies approach aspects of Christmastide.  Cranmer's collect for Christmas Day and the octave refers to the Son being incarnate "of a pure Virgin".  In Christian discourse 'Virgin' is specific - the upper-case indicates that we are referring to a particular woman, Mary of Nazareth.  Contrast this with how the collect is presented in, for example, the TEC BCP 1979, the Church of England's Common Worship: Daily Prayer, and the Church of Ireland BCP 2004 - "of a pure virgin".  The use of the lower-case detracts from the recognition of a particular woman.  It has more of the feel of a category than a specific person.

A similar approach can be seen in the provision of a proper preface for Christmas.  Cranmer's Christmas preface referenced time: "born as at this time for us".  While this is retained in Canada 1962, it is omitted from TEC 1979 (including the traditional language Rite 1), the Canadian BAS, England's Common Worship, and Ireland 2004.  This contributes to an undermining of the logic of the Incarnation.  To again quote Quodcumque, "The Incarnation makes us people of the particular not the generic".

It is the generic, however, which is implied - if not exalted - by such conventions in contemporary Anglican liturgy.  We might suspect that this flows from a theological tendency highlighted by John Milbank:

The ‘incarnationalist’ rhetoric of Anglicanism can sometimes be used in such a fashion as to suggest that God’s will can be derived from a mere immersion in present realities - 'The Body by Love Possessed' in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology.

In other words, such conventions in contemporary liturgy, contrasting with traditional liturgical expression, seem to orient us towards the concept of 'incarnation' rather than the specifics of the Incarnation.

Related to this is another aspect of Christmastide provision in contemporary Anglican liturgies.  A common feature of contemporary Anglican calendars is describing the feast celebrated on the octave day of Christmas, 1st January, as 'The Naming of Jesus'.  Where the Circumcision is mentioned, it follows after this - as in Common Worship's 'The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus'.  TEC 1979 gives the title 'The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ', while Canada's BAS uses 'The Naming of Jesus'.  Neither collect in these two liturgies refers to the Lord's Circumcision on this day.  The English and Irish collects do reference the Circumcision, but the title of the feast clearly moves the emphasis to the naming.

Again this undermines the specific.  To use an incredibly powerful and significant phrase from Quodcumque, "It has been ‘de-Judaised’".  It indicates, at least, an embarrassment with the truth that the Word was Incarnate as Jewish flesh, in Jewish culture, as a Jew.  To some extent this embarrassment may also be seen in the use of 'virgin' rather than the person of the 'Virgin'.  In the words of Robert Jenson:

As the created space for God, Mary is Israel concentrated ... Mary is Israel in one person - 'A Space for God' in Mary, Mother of God (eds. Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson).

Similarly with "as at this time" because of how this echoes Scripture's emphasis on "this time" being rooted in Israel's story:

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations - Matthew 1:17;

... in the days of Herod the king - Matthew 2:1;

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea - Luke 1:5;

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth - Luke 1:26.

To omit "at this time" can lead us to overlook that "the fulness of the time was come", that the Incarnation was the culmination of Israel's story.

What can appear to be minor changes of liturgical expression can actually suggest a flight from the scandal of particularity - from the particularity of Mother, time, and culture.  This can then hinder the Church's praise for the Incarnation, turning our gaze away from the specific to the generic, to the concept of 'incarnation'.

As Karl Barth stated:

The Word did not simply become any 'flesh,' any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. The Church's whole doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that this comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental - Church Dogmatics IV.1, 166-7.

(The illustration is Edward Colely Burne-Jones, 'The Nativity, design for stained glass', 1872.)


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