In his Confessions, St. Augustine famously wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” We all have in ourselves a restless longing for something; in my experience, this longing most often takes the form of wanting to be fully known by another, and in being known, being loved. One can have all the success, power, and fame in the world and yet still feel emptied by the loneliness of lacking genuine connections with others. No amount of material goods can replace the richness of knowing and being known by another.
Within the Church, it’s a truism that only God can provide the kind of perfect, knowing love that ultimately satisfies these longings. What does it really mean to be filled and satisfied by God’s love? God’s love is not some kind of ambiguous, disembodied force that we mysteriously draw upon for satisfaction; it has been expressed tangibly through the person of Jesus. In Christ, God took on flesh and dwelt among us, incarnating the fullness of his loving kindness. We receive God’s love by being in an active relationship with Christ, divinity incarnate.
And yet, what are we to make of the fact that Jesus isn’t presently walking around on earth? His ascent in the end of the Gospels means that he is physical in existence but not physically present with us right now. Somewhere there is a very-much-embodied Jewish man preparing a place for us in his Father’s house, but in this time of “already but not-yet,” between Christ’s finished work on the cross and his still-ongoing work of restoration, that somewhere is not here.
In that absence, incarnation takes on even more meaning — it is somehow conferred to us, substantiating the imago Dei, making it more than mere likeness. 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it best: “… Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” 1 Christ is presently here on earth. He is here and embodied in the Church — appearing in the faces of Christ’s followers as they move about the world and serve as embodied vessels of divine love, dispersed throughout the world in “ten thousand places” and beyond.
Therefore, being loved by others can be a significant part of being filled with the love of God. Likewise, extending love to others is an essential part of helping them experience love of God. The members of the Body of Christ are to be constantly pouring out and receiving love — amongst one another in unity (Ephesians 4). From that position of unity, the Body can then incarnate God’s love to a broken world.
What might this look like on an individual level, as members of the Body go about their daily lives?
As Jesus showed, incarnation involved submitting himself to vulnerability and to suffering. In Hebrews 4:15, we are told, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Indeed, Jesus experienced and understands the pains of being human — the feeling of hunger, the pain of a scraped knee, the pull of temptation — and he endured it all without sin. This is why we can have confidence that he knows us completely, even if we can never fully know him.
Thus, incarnating God’s love to the world will necessarily require that the Body of Christ allows itself to be vulnerable and possibly, to suffer. On an individual level, this could look like intentionally placing oneself in spaces that are unfamiliar, humbly accepting a position of learner or newcomer in order to know those who are different.
For two of my college summers, I lived in rural Ethiopia as an intern with a small hospital and some community health organizations. While these experiences were always filled with rich learning, they also forced me to recognize how difficult it can be to understand and be understood by those from communities very different from my own. I remember one weekend when a worker at the hospital invited me to her graduation party. On the day of the event, I traveled with a mutual friend by taxi across town, and then into more hilly, rural outskirts. The length of the ride began to make me nervous, as we made our way to areas I wasn’t familiar with. Eventually we arrived at a traditionally-built mud home with a banner reading “CONGRATULATIONS!” strung across the doorway. Shortly after entering I found myself crammed into the tiny living room with forty neighbors, an entire church choir, and some pastors. I was the only non-Ethiopian. There proceeded to be much worship and long, emphatic prayers. At one point, when I thought a church leader was simply praying again, my friend turned to me and whispered, “it’s your turn.” Confused, I sat for several minutes as the woman spoke to me in Amharic — of which I could only understand bits and pieces. I later learned from my friend that the woman hadn’t been praying; she had been prophesying, and her message was laced with fear and not at all like my experiences of the prophetic at home. I left feeling disoriented and ill-equipped to make sense of it all.
I had gone with the expectation of a “graduation party” in American terms; little did I know that “graduation party” actually meant misgana, or a traditional worship service held in celebration of an event. I thought the concept of misgana was beautiful, but it took a while for me to process the prophecy in light of cultural and linguistic barriers. I was hesitant to ask my Ethiopian friends about it out of fear of offending them with the implication that the prophetic practices in their church could be questionable — nor did I want to impose my western view of prophecy in any kind of judgement — and that uncertainty felt isolating. Throughout all of it, I struggled with my inability to fully understand what was happening around me; at every turn, I was dependent on others to help explain, guide, and translate, like a toddler needing help in a group of adults. I felt vulnerable.
In spite of the difficulties of forming relationships in such cross-cultural settings, I have always left Ethiopia astounded by the connections God formed. The friend that traveled with me to that misgana became one of my best friends at the hospital. The co-worker that invited me was honored that I was present at her celebration, and I was blessed to learn how Ethiopian Christians celebrate with such a spirit of praise. Though it felt uncomfortable at times, that experience allowed me to know my Ethiopian friends better, making it an example not just of cross-cultural challenge but also of how God brings fruit from our efforts to cross chasms and build bridges — no matter how vulnerable we might feel while doing so. That is the beauty of incarnating God’s love; we are called to it, but ultimately it’s not because of us that our efforts produce relationships.
We don’t have to go far to find communities that are starkly different from our own. In America and on Harvard’s campus, we live immensely divided by affinity groups — whether political, cultural, racial, religious, or socioeconomic. The chasm of understanding that seems to separate these groups can feel insurmountable, and I would argue that a great deal of the divisive rhetoric, cancel culture, and echo chambers that are endemic to our present moment spring from groups internalizing the pain of being unknown and unaccepted by others.
In such a context, there is great need for the Body to bring God’s love into this pain and go out of its way to understand others — even if this entails vulnerability and suffering. Christ did so for us, and in doing so He made a way for the deepest longings of our hearts to be satisfied. Today, may the incarnation remind us first that Christ crossed chasms and built bridges in a great display of love; and may it remind us secondly of our charge to do the same.
Ana Yee is a senior in Kirkland studying History of Science.
|↑1||From “As kingfishers catch fire”|