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  • Death by Incarnation
  • Matthew D. Walz (bio)

My favorite painting is Velázquez's Christ Crucified (see cover). It is sadly peaceful. The lifeless flesh hangs there, sleeping upon the bed of the cross, calm after the tempest of crucifixion. Christ is dead; his side has been pierced. I imagine it is the moment just before he is taken down and placed in his mother's arms. The flesh appears to glow; a faint halo surrounds the sacred head. Within the wounded, unensouled flesh hides uncreated Divinity, visible only to eyes of faith. It is the moment of Incarnation—the Enfleshment of the Word—in the strictest sense. For when Christ breathed his last, "the Word was made flesh"—indeed, mere flesh, dead flesh—"and dwelt among us."

The following reflections revolve around this scene, when we look upon him whom we have pierced. My aim is to contemplate more profoundly and fruitfully this moment in that wondrous order with which the Word closed out his earthly life.1 The paradoxical title, "Death by Incarnation," captures some of what I've glimpsed thus far. Christ died by Incarnation—and, analogously, so do we. Hinted at in our death, as made manifest by Christ's, is the "subversively intraversive," that is, the "underturningly inside-out," logic of Incarnation, according to which what is higher determines and [End Page 19] reveals itself through what is lower by an acquiescing condescension. This condescension in nowise infringes upon the transcendent independence of what is higher, but instead discloses its deepmost hiddenness, its inmost immanence. I attempt to unfold this logic slowly and in right order, which means beginning with the lesser, but more familiar version of death by incarnation (with a lowercase "i"), namely, our own death, regular human death. During his earthly life, of course, Christ never opposed nature, but presupposed and completed it. Hence, to contemplate his higher death by Incarnation (with a capital "I") more profoundly and fruitfully, I first consider human death as a natural phenomenon. And upon that foundation I build toward greater insight into how Christ transformed human death and, in fact, put death to death by the Resurrection.

Human Death as a Natural Phenomenon—Or: Death by "incarnation"

Thanatos, the Greek god Death, was born of Darkness, his father, and Night, his mother. So says Hesiod in the Theogony, in which he narrates the origins of the gods and the world.2 Death is nighttime in utter darkness, when the sun's natural light hides and man-made light is extinguished. This genealogy bodes ill for any attempt to understand death. Death's parents—Night and Darkness—are deprivations, forms of nothingness, which we know only by negation. Night opposes day; darkness, light. Death comes from a sort of nothingness and through it we enter into a sort of nothingness, and all along we seem to grope toward it blindly.

To recollect death remains, however, a revered practice in the spiritual life of a Christian. Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, and in pulverem reverteris. Thus Lent begins, accompanied with ashes imposed on the forehead, and throughout the Forty Days the Church encourages us to remember death frequently. Mindfulness of death belongs to a regimen of preventive medicine that can help us avoid sin. Wise it is, then, to remember death. [End Page 20]

Still, however, I find myself asking: what, exactly, am I to remember? When placing death before my mind's eye, what should come into focus? For me, at least, usually only the resemblance of death's parents, night and darkness, appear.

Perhaps this is why Christian authors encouraging us to ponder death often end up describing dying rather than death itself. When I first began writing these reflections, I was reading Thomas More's Four Last Things. More invites his readers to visualize death, which amounts to imagining the manifold pains and distress, physical and psychological, that often accompany the final hours. It's no pretty sight, and More's keen descriptions properly affect the soul. Yes, when reminding us to remember death, such authors commonly turn our attention to the process of dying. Nor can we blame More or any other author...


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