Arthur Middleton on the way of our salvation

In his Confessions, Augustine explains why only the Incarnation satisfies. During his spiritual journey, he was greatly attracted by the philosophy of the Platonists. There he found much that was close in substance to the Christian Gospel. They seemed to know, without saying it as such, that ‘in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ They understood that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ They believed in the immaterial soul. But that God, the Word, ‘was made flesh and dwelt among us’ he did not find in their books.

He wrote that the Platonists accepted that the Word ‘was born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ But they did not say ‘he came unto his own, and his own received him not’ or that ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, to them he gave power to become children of God.’ That would have been too earthy for these philosophical idealists. They were like people who ‘from some wooden mountain top see the land of peace, without being able to find the way there.’ They are like many people around us today.

Divinity and humanity

To find the way, we need the revelation. We cannot do it by ourselves. We can reach only the point where we ‘We see the land of peace without being able to find a way there.’ In a post-Christian age the values of a godless culture will not take us there. Nothing but the Incarnation, the coming of God as man, will do. Folk religion, New Age philosophy, will not take us either. Christmas celebrates this coming of God as man, the uniting of divinity with the human when we sing The Holly Bears a Berry, which is the symbol of blood, of suffering divinity in earth’s mess.

In St Luke we read about Simeon telling us ‘Now mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ and prophesying to Mary of the future life and death of Jesus. Simeon adds, ‘And a sword shall pierce your soul also.’ This is Mary’s real glory, what sets her forever apart from every human being – that a sword pierced her soul as she surrendered her Son, so that he might die for the salvation of the world.

The terrible uniqueness of that event has been captured in the Requiem of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova:

Mary Magdalene beat
her breasts and sobbed,
His disciples stone-faced stared,
His mother stood apart.
No other looked
Into her secret eyes.
No-one dared.

This Russian woman’s poem comes out of the terrible experience of seeing her son jailed in one of Stalin’s prisons. Akhmatova’s passion reminds us of Mary’s particular grandeur. At her moment of joy, her mind was seared with the warning of future pain, as she was told that she would be expected to sacrifice her firstborn son so that the sins of the world might be forgiven.

The message of the Incarnation, is one of joy and is a far cry from the artificial cheeriness of high street and supermarket shopping. Those for whom material things have become the Body and Blood of life, cannot look into the eyes of Mary any more than Akhmatova’s onlookers could. The materialism of our times is conditioned so as not to remind us of anything like this, but to give a false sense of well-being where material things are the way of salvation.

Church and Sacraments

The Incarnation and Cross of Christ enable us to pray: ‘Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with thy perpetual mercy; and … lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

We pray for the Church and for our salvation. We cannot think adequately of salvation without calling to mind the Church. We cannot be saved alone and the Church is the instrument of salvation, the extension of the Incarnation. Richard Hooker prefaces his discussion of the Church and Sacraments, with an exposition of the Chalcedonian definition of the Incarnation. For him the Sacraments are the means by which the purpose of the Incarnation is effected in us, namely the union of the soul with God. They are the medicine that cures the world.

God’s family

Most Christians accept this; but some still think of religion as a matter between a person and his Maker and would brook no suggestion of any intermediary. Today we realize that God made us to live in families, that he redeemed us in families, and that the Church is his family par excellence, not some ecclesiastical organization inimical to the spirit of true religion, but the beloved society, the ark of salvation.

It is the channel of God’s mercy, the realm of grace, where in Christ we are taken to participate in the life Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit. We pray that he will keep the Church with his perpetual mercy.

Incarnation and Cross saved the world, because these tools of God were expressive of values rooted in life, God’s own life manifested in a Son and given that we might have such life – the values of self-giving, self-offering, love, righteousness, justice and peace. This is salvation. ND