I’ve been rereading On Christian Teaching by Augustine, and the other day I came across a passage I forgot I liked. It appears early in the first chapter of Augustine’s book, just after he has finished describing the Trinity. In it, he worries over the adequacy of his description:
“Have I spoken something, have I uttered something, worthy of God? No, I feel that all I have done is to wish to speak; if I did say something, it is not what I wanted to speak.”
I identify with Augustine in this passage. I understand his “wishing to speak.” I feel it in the long minutes after I submit a paper to a professor. I feel it when I belabor the importance of topic sentences in front of a bunch of undergrads. When my wife heads out the door in the morning, I feel it sometimes in the words “I love you”—a twinging, badgering sensation that prompts me not to silence but to further speech, to keep on speaking, to keep on trying to speak. To clarify what I mean and how I love.
In these moments, “wishing to speak” means neither “wanting to speak” nor “hoping to speak.” It means “having already spoken and spoken badly.”
If speaking badly is the condition of speaking at all, I think I begin to see Augustine’s point. If I cannot even say something worthy of Jessica, a wonderful but finite person, how can I hope to say something worthy of an infinite God?
I can’t. Not by myself, anyway. Rather, as Augustine goes on to suggest, what matters is not my reaching up to God but God’s reaching down to me: “Yet although nothing can be spoken in a way worthy of God, he has sanctioned the homage of the human voice, and chosen that we should derive pleasure from our words in praise of him.”
This is an incarnational thinking of a kind we rarely consider. How can a God so utterly beyond our mortal ken, so far above the feeble grasping of our thoughts, enter into the fragile space of our comprehension? How do we account for the Word that steps down into our words? How do we explain the divine’s revelation in the messy stuff of our emotions, in the thrum of vocal chords or the scratch of pen on paper, except by using words like “grace”?
Two weeks ago Jessica and I closed out a Bible study that we’d been leading. We were discussing the gospel of Luke, and one conversation in particular has stuck with me during the intervening time.
We were comparing the roles of Judas and Peter during Christ’s passion, and someone said something like, “Well, at least Judas is upfront about his treachery.” He went on to explain that although both Peter and Judas forsake Jesus, Judas notarizes his betrayal with a bag of silver and then has the gall to approach Jesus in the company of the old guard, with the agents of the chief priests and the religious elite. Meanwhile, Peter, hapless and emotional Peter, Peter who did not know the man—Peter does not even recognize when he parts ways with his rabbi. Even before his fateful betrayal, Peter shears a man’s ear from his head, thinking that the revolution is at hand, thinking that his Messiah is far other than the Messiah he actually has.
Years following Jesus around and Peter still doesn’t get it.
Yet somehow, in spite of all, God put this clueless, blundering Peter to work. This Peter, so quick to become Christ’s sword, becomes instead the rock upon which God builds the church. This Peter, so eager for bloody revolution, takes a far different revolution to the beams of a Roman cross.
And Judas? Mustache-twirling, silver-coin-jangling Judas? The man I learned early to imagine crisping with Hitler in a special corner of hell? As Karl Barth puts it, “Was it not Judas, the sinner without equal, who offered himself at the decisive moment to carry out the will of God, not in spite of his unparalleled sin, but in it?”
If this is grace, it’s as lovely as it is disconcerting. It takes the very ugliest of us and says, “I can work with this. Child, I can work with you.”
Oh, God. This? This is what you send? What I memorialize year after year? You who set the cosmos whirling, who ignited the nuclear thundering of the stars, who pulled like cotton great whorls of nebula dust—you who created the filigree of veins in my forearm, the thump-thump-thumping of my ventricles, the miracle of my consciousness—you, who did all these things and more: you come down to us like this?
A mewling piece of human flesh. It is the most useless, the most helpless thing. Did you know that? You could have come as something important—descended from the clouds, all radiant and flashing. It would have been an act of humiliation, sure, an act of condescension. But at least it would be a humiliation that pointed to your grandeur. And at least it would make sense.
But instead you profane yourself. You give us this blubbering, thirsting, hungering, wanting, whining, desiring, pissing, shitting, needing little kid, and you call it your Son. Your Son.
God, this is no nativity infant, no heavenly babe ringed by angelic lights and adoring shepherds. This—this is horrifying. This is obscene. Isn’t grace supposed to be lovely? Isn’t grace all warm feelings and quiet generosity?
Oh, God, if this is grace, it is appalling.
But, oh, God. If this is grace, how can I not stand in awe?
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.