19 Nov The Homely, Humble, and Courteous Lord
For truly it is the most joy that may be, as I see it, that he that is highest and mightiest,
noblest and worthiest, is lowest and meekest, the most homely and the most courteous.
Julian of Norwich,
A Revelation of Divine Love
Advent is the season when we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the incredible news that the Lord God, who dwells in exquisite and inaccessible light, now dwells in and among his creatures. “How can this be?” exclaims Mary in astonished wonder (Lk. 1.34). Astonishment and wonder are indeed appropriate responses to such extraordinary news. There is something unimaginably marvellous about “the high and lofty One, who inhabits eternity” (Isa. 57.15, NRSV) dwelling in and among the time-bound creatures that he himself calls into being out of the void. There is much here to marvel at, to admire, to praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord… for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk. 1.46, 49, NRSV). So Mary, like Moses and Miriam before her, like Deborah and David, blesses the Lord who has blessed her.
The Christian life can be described in many different ways, but one way to think of it is as a form of blessing. Christians are people who seek to praise and to bless—to hallow—the holy name of the Lord. Or to put it another way, they are people who are learning not to take the Lord’s name in vain. This requires a disciplining of the imagination. Surrounded by false lords, we find ourselves sometimes misusing the name of the one true Lord, speaking of him in ways that diminish or impugn his splendour and majesty. In order to correct this, we must turn our hearts and minds towards the Lord himself, attending to the ways in which he exercises his lordliness. It is the Lord we encounter in a baby lying in a manger. This is the miracle of Christmas. But just who is this Mighty One that we encounter in this way, whose name we praise in word and in song? What kind of lord is the Lord? This is the question we ponder during Advent.
“For the Lord your God is God of Gods and Lord of lords,” Moses tells the children of Israel in the wilderness, “the great, mighty, and terrible God” (Deut. 10.17). We might begin here, with this description of the Lord, which ripples throughout the Old Testament and the New. Moses does not here envisage God as a god in a group of fellow gods, a lord among fellow lords, but instead proclaims him God and Lord over and against all the other beings we imagine to be gods and lords. We need to be clear here about what Scripture has in view when it considers these supposed gods and lords. They are the powers in whose service human beings sacrifice themselves and their children, believing that such powers, being the greatest they can conceive, will secure their lives against the nothingness that threatens them. The ancients called these gods by personal names: Baal and Molech and Asherah. While we may have other names for them, they are still the same principalities and powers. We also need to clarify what we mean by God standing against them. If he is against them, it is not as a rival, a fellow combatant in the bloody battles the gods wage amongst themselves, mounting up countless human casualties. as they do so. According to Scripture, God is precisely not one of these gods and lords, not even the most powerful of these gods and lords. He is not their counterpart but their mighty and terrible judge, standing not only over and above but also utterly beyond them. It is in this sense that he is against these enemies of humanity. Beside him they are nothing.
“Among the gods not one is like thee, O Lord,” writes the poet-king David (Ps. 86.8). The Lord is so great that his greatness is beyond all measure or comparison. It is “unfathomable” (Ps. 145.3). To use some technical theological jargon, what we are contemplating here is the Lord’s transcendence. “I am God, there is no other,” the Lord says; “I am God, and there is no one like me” (Isa. 46.9). And yet we have not said nearly enough, we have not properly praised the Lord’s greatness, by speaking in this way. It is not that we need to balance or hold in tension such talk of God’s glorious, majestic transcendence, his inconceivable might and power, with talk of something else. Rather, we must enquire into the mode of his transcendence. When we do, we find ourselves contemplating the most wondrous thing: that the Lord exercises his majesty not by lording it over his creatures, enslaving them to his will, conscripting them into his self-serving projects, but by drawing near to them. So the Lord walks with Adam in the evening in the garden, and wrestles with Jacob through the night at the ford of the Jabbok, and meets Moses at Horeb and then at Sinai, where he binds himself to an already unfaithful people as their God, who frees them from their oppressors. So the Holy One, who made heaven and earth, who is the measure of all measures, whom no vessel can contain, dwells in tent and in tabernacle with the children of Israel in their long, hard sojourn through the barren wilderness and into the land of promise. So his glory, which is so great it overfills the earth, dwells in the Temple in Jerusalem. And so too, he comes intimately near his creatures in a baby born in a lowly manger and a broken body on the cross. Just in this way does the Lord exercise his glory, his majesty, his infinite power and might, his sovereign lordliness. Just in this way is he unlike the false gods and lords.
The 14th century anchorite and theologian Julian of Norwich uses the word “homely” to describe the Lord’s intimate nearness to his creatures. The Lord, who is “highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest” is the Lord who is so “homely”—so familiar and friendly and intimate—with us, so near to us. With Karl Barth we might say that the Lord exercises his lordship not by remaining apart from human beings but by being in solidarity with them. He is “near to who all call on him” (Ps. 145.18, NRSV), and to all who do not. This solidarity, this nearness or homeliness, entails a second lordly attribute. The Lord, who is near to us, who dwells in and among his creatures, exercises his lordship in humility or lowliness. In Jesus, the Lord comes, we might say, so near to us that he almost passes us by unnoticed. The “Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2.8) dwells with us as a “man of sorrows” (Isa. 53.3, KJV), as one who bears in himself the pain and suffering and rejection of the world, who suffers the world’s wrath and cruelty and derision, who stays with his creatures even when they scorn him and abandon him and disown him. In Jesus, the Lord God exists in the place where sinful, broken, suffering creatures exist. In Jesus, the Lord who dwells on high, plumbs the depths of the abyss in which we find ourselves. In Jesus, the Lord goes out into the far country to be where we are and as we are. In this he is the lowly Lord.
The lowliness of the Lord is a constant theme of Luke’s Gospel. At the beginning of his ministry he is driven from his hometown by an enraged mob bent on murder, and is made homeless. Unlike the foxes and the birds, he has no place to lay his head. And so he keeps company with all those who live in the far country—the sinners and tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the demon-possessed wandering among the tombs—and is numbered as one of them. He keeps company too with his disciples who cannot stay awake with him in his deepest moment of anguish, and who he knows will betray and abandon him. On the cross, left without his disciples, he keeps company with the two thieves, refusing the last temptation—the great temptation that his enemy waits to present at just the right moment—to save himself and so to abandon those who are suffering and dying around him. And not only those suffering and dying but the very mob that demand his crucifixion and who taunt him and on behalf of whom he acts, even as he is dying, as their advocate before his Father. He will not abandon even his tormentors who seek to destroy him. In this lies his humility. Instead of demanding recognition as the Lord of all heaven and earth, he allows himself to be numbered among the poor and the powerless, the meek and the lowly, the dying and the dead. And he is Lord not in spite of such lowliness but in it.
The Lord is a homely Lord who draws near to his creatures, who dwells in and with them. He is a lowly Lord, who suffers our sorrows and our sin, who joins us in the far country. And he is also a courteous Lord.
The courteousness of the Lord is evident in the very act of creation, in which he makes room for a reality that is not himself, a reality that exists not in competition with him, but alongside him. It is also evident in the way he patiently and lovingly upholds this reality, preserving it from falling back into the nothingness, enabling it at every moment to be what it is. The Lord is courteous too in the life-giving commands he gives to the people he frees from slavery. These commands, or better, “words,” are given to a free people so that they may remain free from the false gods that would enslave them—the tyranny of endless work, the killing and cheating and lying we think we need to do in order to protect our own interests, the endless acquisitiveness that turns everything and everyone into tools to be used. The Lord’s courteous words are an invitation to live lives of courtesy and dignity and freedom in a world in which human beings are enslaved to the cruel lords and gods that dehumanise them.
It is just this gracious invitation that in his work and his life Jesus extends to human beings, calling each by name to come into his kingdom, to dwell in his life. The fact that this is an invitation itself reflects the Lord’s courtesy. He does not force himself upon human beings, but graciously invites them to entrust themselves into his care, to hand over to him the all-too-heavy burdens they have taken on, or which have been imposed upon them, and to receive in exchange his very life. This courteousness of the Lord is nowhere more apparent than in the post-resurrection appearances recorded in John’s Gospel, in which he comes to Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter. Thomas does not believe the reports of Jesus’s resurrection. When the Lord comes to him, he does not overcome Thomas’s doubts with a declaration but with an invitation to reach out and touch the marks on his hands, and his pierced side. And so he enables Thomas to relinquish his disbelief by the gentlest of acts. Peter encounters the Lord early one morning on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, and over breakfast the one whom Peter had denied three times patiently and lovingly leads him through a process that undoes that denial. Peter’s three-fold denial is transformed into a three-fold confession of love, and in turn he receives, three times, a commission to feed the followers of Jesus.
The Lord here acts with profound courtesy and gentleness. But perhaps the most moving example of his courteousness is his encounter with Mary, who, beside herself with grief and confusion at the empty tomb, does not recognise him at first, mistaking him for the lowly gardener. Instead of announcing himself to her, as we might expect him to do, Jesus gently inquiries into the cause of her anguish. When she tells him, thinking he has taken her Lord’s body, he says one word to her. Or rather, he does not simply say a word to her, but calls her by name: “Mary!”, to which she immediately answers “Rabbouni!” or “Teacher” (Jn. 20.16). This encounter is one of the most beautiful recorded in all of Scripture. In it we hear the words of the Lord to Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43.1, NRSV). These words are not said in the possessive way in which the false gods and lords speak to those whom they consider worthless slaves. The Lord does not speak to human beings as a master would speak to a slave, but as a friend would speak to a friend or a lover to a lover. He calls them by their names. “Adam!” “Abraham!” “Moses!” “Mary!” He calls them—lovingly, gently, courteously, for he is the courteous Lord.
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Mary’s misidentification of the Lord is an example of the sort of double irony that John loves to employ in the Fourth Gospel. The one whom Mary encounters at the tomb is of course no lowly gardener, but the eternal Word through whom all things came into being. On the other hand, her mistake is revealing, for the Lord really is this lowly and humble. He is the kind of Lord who could be mistaken for the gardener, and this shows us the quality of his lordship. He is Lord in his very lowliness. He is the lowly Lord who chooses to be not with the righteous but with sinners, not with the powerful but with the poor. He is the Lord who goes out into the far country and becomes forsaken and despised. He does this so that he might be near to us, so that we might live in his eternal life. He is, then, the homely Lord, who dwells in and amongst us, as one of us. And he is the courteous Lord, who tenderly and gracefully calls our name, inviting us to find our lives in his.
In this season of Advent it is appropriate that we consider these three ways in which the Lord exercises his lordship. We live in a world populated by false gods and lords, who enslave human beings, promising them freedom and security while actually making them miserable and afraid. Against these false gods and lords, Christians point to the one true God and Lord, who is for and not against human beings, who dwells in and among them as the homely, lowly, and courteous one that he is. For Julian of Norwich, it is the greatest joy she can envisage that the Lord exercises his lordship in these ways. It is a good and joyful thing to consider the Lord’s lordliness. To bless the Lord in this way is itself to convey a blessing upon his creatures. For the name of the Lord is a comfort to all who are in distress, a balm to all who are anxious, a strong and mighty refuge for all who are weary. It is this name that we speak to a world in need of healing. It is this name that we speak in the darkness. It is this name that we hallow at Christmas.
A Note on Sources
Regular readers of Common Ground will know such a lengthy end note is not usual for our articles. We’ve included it here not only because it is helpful for further reading, but because it conveys such lively conversation with the Christian tradition – Ed.
In the writing of this piece, I have been deeply influenced by the first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), and in particular by her account of what she calls “compatibilism,” and by the way that she reads Scripture. It was Karl Barth who insisted that in Jesus, the Word of God “exists in the place where we exist” (Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, vol. I.2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 155). Although I do not agree with everything Barth says (who does?), I have learnt a great deal from his account of the Lord’s condescension to and solidarity with his creatures in §15 of the Church Dogmatics, and in §59 of Church Dogmatics, trans. G. R. Bromiley, vol. IV.1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956) where he famously applies the parable of the prodigal son to Jesus, describing the mission of the Son as a “journey into the far country.” The French intellectual historian Rémi Brague suggested in his 2018 Erasmus Lecture that we need to ask what kind of lord the Lord is. My own reading of the Lord’s commands is indebted to the published version of this lecture, which appeared in the February 2019 issue of First Things under the title “God as a Gentleman.” The epigraph, taken from the seventh chapter of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love, is a modified version of the text published in The Writings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), at 147, 149. I owe a great debt to my friends in “The Julian Group” for reading her work with me over the past six months or so. It is a wonderful thing to read theology in such amiable and perceptive company, and to do so in an unhurried way, and with such delicious food. In order not to weigh down the text with copious citations, I have only included references to biblical verses that I quote. All of the quotations are taken from The New English Bible, with the Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), unless otherwise noted. Readers who want to trace Moses’s depiction of the Lord in Deut. 10.17 through the rest of Scripture might begin with Josh. 22.22; Ps. 136.2-3; Dan. 2.47, 11.36; 1 Tim. 6.15; Rev. 17.14, and 19.16. A full accounting would include many more verses.
(Image: Workshop of Rembrandt, Public domain)