Prolonging the Incarnation of Christ…

Posted by on Aug 13, 2023 in Blog | 4 comments

grayscale photo of crucifix

It was a comment in a Nomad podcast on the thought of Ivan Illich that I’ve been thinking about ever since: “The Christian vocation is to prolong the incarnation of Christ.” Ponder the sentiment. Those speaking readily acknowledged that a cheap and easy pushback is possible. “How audacious to think we can somehow prolong the incarnation of Jesus – as though our paltry efforts will come even close to resembling his. Rather we should point to the incarnation of Christ as the source of inspiration for our lesser virtues and endeavours. And the incarnation of Jesus is unique and therefore cannot be continued by our working harder or more enthusiastically at it.” Fair enough. Point made and understood.

But I also wonder if it isn’t point missed. “Pure” theology runs the risk of doing that. In being so right we might strain out gnats while swallowing camels – to cite Jesus in Matthew 23:24. What would it mean if instead of pushing back against Illich, we took the sentiment at face value and said: “Indeed, the Christian vocation is to prolong the incarnation of Christ”?

Vocation is a lovely word. It come from the Latin “vocare” or to call. Our calling then is, says Illich, to prolong (or to extend, or to make last longer) – the incarnation (the embodiment) of Christ (the Messiah). Our embodiment in the world is therefore to reflect Christ’s embodiment, and because this is the calling of Christians (not just me) – our communal embodiment should somehow extend the embodiment of Jesus.

When we speak about “our collective” embodiment, who is the “our” we are talking about. Presumably the Church – except that if you know much about Illich you would know how deeply sceptical he was that institutions would ever represent the ideal for which they were formed, be that institution the church, education or healthcare. The titles of some of his books reflect his doubts: Deschooling Society, The Limits to Medicine, and Disabling Professions, to name just 3.

So collective prolonging of the incarnation of Christ through the institutional church is unlikely to have been high on Illich’s agenda. More appealing would be the thought that Jesus followers should take seriously the life of Jesus and model their own living from it.

You may say, “What’s so startling about this? Isn’t it the old question posed by Charles Sheldon, ‘What would Jesus do?'” Perhaps, but Illich reads Jesus a little more radically that Sheldon. He sees Jesus the challenger of the status quo. Jesus as the one who champions “the least of these”. Jesus who insists that first will be last and last first, and that enemies can be friends, and true neighbours are found on the margins, perhaps even amongst Samaritans. Jesus who says his mission was to seek and save those who are lost, and consequently chatted to tax collectors, prostitutes and the occasional pharisee. Jesus who believed that in doing this we would discover life in all its fullness, even though it takes us the way of the Cross. He sees a complicated Jesus who walks the path of suffering and loss.

Somehow I think this is not the Jesus who is offended by a suggestion that our call is to prolong the incarnation (Do you really imagine him huffily saying, “I’m so much better than you – as if you can do what I did”), but it is the Jesus who said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…” And if you recall, when he said that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” – which makes rather a difference (John 20:21-23).

So why not step into the week saying “my vocation is to prolong the incarnation of Christ”? You’re probably the only version of Jesus many people will see.

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Alem Sánchez on

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  1. Thanks, Brian. I’m aware that what may make it difficult to embrace this vocation is the notion that we are so bad. We are sinners. We are fallen. We are so wretched. May we discover more and more of God’s redeeming love which sets us free to be Christ in the world.

  2. Thank you Brian, I like the sound of how Illich thinks

    • He is a most interesting thinker. Very creative and challenging- perhaps a bit radical for more conservative me, but I enjoy his work.

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