O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day
from Collects:Contemporary, The Book of Common Prayer
The collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day is one of my favorite prayers, highlighting the full meaning of the Incarnation and, hence, the wisdom at the heart of the nativity on Christmas Day. We see that the occasion is not merely the birth of a cute little baby—even the birth of a baby into perilous circumstances—but the mystical joining of human and divine in a way that honors, vindicates and transforms our notions of human nature while holding out the promise of our being able to share in the divine life in our flesh.Because of the collect’s certain emphasis on the wonderful creation and restoration of the dignity of human nature through Christ, I was reminded of the oft-quoted phrase, “Gloria Dei vivens homo,” attributed to Irenaeus of Lyons, which can be translated “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” However, when I went looking for this quote online, I found that this is just a paraphrase of Irenaeus’ sentiment. The actual phrase written by Irenaeus: “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei” (from Adversus haereses, Book IV) can be translated “For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” Not only is the dignity of human life the dignity of the glory of God, Irenaeus suggests that the fullness of human life is the very vision, one of the very purposes of God.
What might this mean for us, embedded in the midst of human life with all of its seeming indignities and complexities? Does it mean that anything and everything in the course of human life is dignified and glorifies God? I don’t think either the collect or the quote from Irenaeus (or its paraphrase) means that anything goes, as some have suggested. But I do think these fragments of divine wisdom invite us to take a closer look of human nature in light of the redeeming work of Christ, and spend much more time examining the ways in which Christ lived out his human life. This is not always easy to do. It seems the focus on Christ in our worship and conversation is often triumphalistic. Even the Nicene Creed skips lightly over the human work of Jesus Christ on earth in favor of heady and lofty statement about how the metaphysical Jesus Christ fits in the grand metaphysical scheme of the metaphysical trinity.
But the life of Christ, which we profess to follow, stands in stark contrast to such lofty speculation. Of course, lofty speculation, being one of the crowning glories of the human experience has its time and place. Yet the deeds and teaching of Jesus Christ had two excessively clear foci: love God and express that love by practically loving each other as the wonderful, complex and sometimes messy incarnations of the divine creativity that each of us is.
How might we do this? By following the life of Christ through the stories of faith we have been given in the Gospels and in the prophets. And by allowing ourselves to have the dignity of our human nature wonderfully restored by staying in close communion through prayer and service together with the rest of humanity in the transfiguring, enlivening power of Christ.