It’s winter in Trondheim, a city in central Norway that looks out over a vast fjord. The temperatures are dipping below zero and Bishop Erik Varden is losing his voice.
He insists he is well overall, despite a scratchy throat, as he describes a typical day in the shivering city not far from the Arctic Circle.
“The sun rises about 9:30 a.m. and it sets at about 1:30 p.m.,” Bishop Varden tells The Pillar in a late afternoon phone call. “But everything is in slow motion. So we can have these sunrises that last for about half an hour, with the whole sky just an explosion of pink and purple.”
“And even now, although the sun has set, there is a weird implicit light on the horizon. There’s a very, very peculiar quality of light in the Norwegian winter.”
The 48-year-old bishop is about to speak about a different kind of light: the one that entered the world two millennia ago in Bethlehem. He brings many different elements to the conversation. He is not only a bishop — of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim — but also a Trappist monk, musician, and spiritual writer.
Through his multilingual website, Coram Fratribus, his ministry extends beyond the 18,000 or so Catholics in the prelature to a global audience.
“You have a vague idea that it reaches people, but more often than not you appear to yourself as someone sitting on a beach, putting messages in bottles and chucking them into the sea,” he reflects.
In the following conversation, he discusses the Incarnation, why even secular Europeans love Christmas, and the one spiritual practice he recommends in the last days of Advent.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with an easy question: What is the Incarnation?
Well, I’m not sure it is such an easy one. First of all, it is an impossible paradox, because it is the account of the union of two incommensurate entities: the uncreated being of God and our being of dust. And the great Christian wonder is before that mysterious union.
You have to see it from two angles. From the divine angle, obviously at the center of the word “Incarnation,” you have “caro,” so the Incarnation is enfleshment. It is the fact that God assumes our flesh, submits to that restriction. He who is everywhere, in whom everything was made, the everlasting Word of the Father, chooses to be specifically present in a single embodied person, and thereby renders that person, Jesus Christ, a walking epiphany, which is the great story of the Gospel that the disciples’ eyes are opened to increasingly.
That is the great motif of the iconography of Christmas. But I think it’s also really important to look at the Incarnation, as it were, from the other side, from the point of view of the flesh, because in Scripture you have that recurring phrase “all flesh.” You have it in the account of Noah and the Ark: “All flesh had corrupted his way” (Genesis 6:12). And then you have it in some of the great prophetic readings that we have now in Advent: “All flesh shall see the glory of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:5).
And what we need to remember there is that in becoming flesh, the Word didn’t simply occupy one human body as a guest for 33 years. But it was human nature as such — that is, flesh — that was invested with a potential for divinity. And so being a human being in the wake of the Incarnation isn’t the same as being a human being before the Incarnation, whether or not one believes in Christ and whether one even knows that Christ ever walked on this Earth.
We like to talk about things being “systemic” these days, and something systemic happened to human flesh through the Incarnation that opened it to transcendence and to eternity.
In the Creed we recite at Sunday Mass, we proclaim our belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ,” who “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” That’s a carefully crafted phrase. What do you think the Creed’s authors wanted to emphasize here?
The Creed which we call the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed came out of those two great Councils in 325 and 381 that tried to articulate who Jesus Christ is and to maintain, in balance, belief in his divinity and the affirmation of his humanity. Because obviously during the fourth century, people quite understandably had a hard time seeing how those two could coexist in balance, and there was always a temptation to accentuate one and downplay the other.
What the Creed does, in a nutshell, is to affirm the divinity of Christ, specifying that he was born of the Holy Spirit, and then his integral humanity, naming his Mother. There’s something very powerful about that when you think about it. Two people are named in the Creed, apart from the Divine Persons: the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. Both those names are there in order to remind us that we’re not dealing with a myth and that we’re not dealing with just a replay of an ancient fantasy, dream, or even yearning to see the divine manifest in time, but that we’re dealing with something that is actually measurable and dateable and locatable in these individuals, who are individuals like you and me.
Is the Incarnation simply a doctrine we must assent to, or is it more than that?
It is much, much, much more than that. It is a way of being in this world. Obviously, the Incarnation as a doctrine is very important because it says something fundamental about the identity of Jesus Christ. But believing in the Incarnation also says a lot about Luke Coppen and Erik Varden, because it tells us who we are and what we have in us to become.
That’s something very, very clearly perceived in the early Church. One of the reasons why there was such controversy, and sometimes violent controversy, about the doctrines of the Incarnation was because people — bishops and ordinary people — were conscious that this concerned them intimately. It’s a tendency in our time to make of the Incarnation an abstraction, which is absurd. We see something that is a recondite statement of a divine mystery. It is that, but it also touches my flesh, and our flesh.
Are there any analogies that can shed light on the Incarnation? For example, in his treatise “On the Incarnation of the Word,” St. Athanasius used the comparison of an artist restoring a painting.
That remains a very powerful image. What I’m going to say now is a bit daft, but I think we have a new kind of analogy at our disposal, which the Fathers didn’t have, from the world of computers.
I stress that any analogy is a bit fatuous and it is only an image. But I daresay we’ve all had that experience of opening our laptop one morning and it just isn’t there, nothing happens. It’s apparently dead. And so we need to go to the Apple shop, or wherever we want to go, and have it rebooted. Sometimes we need to have the hardware reinstalled.
I think we can say that the Incarnation was an event of that magnitude. Human nature wasn’t working as it was supposed to work. The only way in which it could be restored — because it couldn't just be tinkered with — was for it to be rebooted. And that's something that Athanasius insists on, because he says that God became man not just to redeem us — he’s not suggesting that that would be a little thing. But he says that if it had simply been a matter of sorting out sin and guilt, God in his all-powerfulness could have found other ways of doing that.
The reason God needed to become Man was to overcome mortality, which is the wages of sin, and so restore to humanity that opening towards eternity for which it was made, and for which it was intended. The memory of that promise of immortality remains within us, mortals, human beings, as a kind of a wound almost, a painful yearning whose promise needed to be restated and realized afresh.
So because human nature had been wounded and had ceded to mortality, the Word in whose image that nature was made needed to reinvest it, in order to reanimate that possibility of rising to eternal life.
In the same work, Athanasius said that Christ was made man that we might be made divine. How should we understand this bold statement?
I think we should understand it literally — which isn’t, obviously, to say that we are to become some kind of pantheon, but that God assumed our nature in order that we might become partakers of his. That’s something that Athanasius taught as a theological doctrine but that he also demonstrated by way of a human story. There’s a connection there that is very dear to me, between Athanasius, his doctrine of the Incarnation, and his account of human sanctity.
Athanasius was the author of one of the first full biographies of a saint, which was that of Anthony the Great. That story of Anthony is Athanasius’ manner of proving the well-foundedness of his theological doctrine, because he shows there, in the narrative of a man he himself had known very well and with whom he had lived for some time, a life gradually transformed. He shows a person who becomes a Christ-bearer, a Christophoros, in the language of the Fathers.
Anthony remains throughout his life totally recognizable as an affable, sympathetic, friendly human being. But he’s increasingly invested with something which exceeds him and which is beyond him, and in which people recognize the presence of Another, that is, of the divine. And so Anthony, toward the end of his life, is simply known as “the man of God,” ho tou Theoú ánthropos, showing us that it is actually possible for a human life to be transformed, not just in becoming morally more upright and admirable, but by actually becoming essentially luminous.
You once wrote: “The mystery of the incarnation continues in the Church: that is the most astonishing thing about life.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
I was getting at several things. One is a liturgical reference. In many of the early Christian basilicas, constructed in the wake of the great Christological councils of the fourth century, you will find an image of Mary in the apse that can be quite disconcerting, particularly to modern northern European visitors to Greece or southern Europe, who will look at this and say: “What sort of confusion is this? Were they Mary worshipers? Is this an excess of Marian piety?”
But, in fact, what that image indicates and represents is the reality of the divine presence on the altar underneath that apse, that in the same way as God became Man in the womb of Mary, he becomes Man physically present on the altar, before which we are gathered.
Sometimes in Byzantine representations of the Eucharist, you will see the Host on the paten transformed into an infant. So you have a representation of Bethlehem on the paten. The altar, which liturgically represents Christ, and Calvary, and the tomb of Christ, also represents the manger. It’s something I’ve always been struck by and moved by when I incense the altar, which I have the privilege of doing, to know that what the priest is incensing there in that liturgical gesture is the entirety of the Christ Mystery: his Incarnation, his Nativity, his sacrificial death, his burial pointing towards his Resurrection.
So that’s one way in which the mystery of the Incarnation continues in the Church. It obviously also continues in sanctified lives, in men, women, and children who become transformed by what they consume sacramentally by God’s grace, by the grace of community, and thereby become Christs to others.
And the Church itself is a mystery of incarnation. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to remember that the Church isn’t just the People of God, that it is the body of Christ. The Church is a sacramental mystery.
Not just a collection of people chosen by God?
It is that too, but in order that they — that is, we — might become mystically one. And if you think about it, we find that in the Eucharistic Prayers. There is the epiklesis, the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the elements of the sacramental gifts, that the bread and the wine might become the Body and Blood of Christ. And then later, the Holy Spirit is called down upon the assembly, that they might become one body and one spirit in Christ. There is an analogy between those two transformations. One points toward and presupposes the other.
Are there any artistic works that help you to contemplate the Incarnation?
There are many. Visually, one of the marvelous things about even a secularized Western Christmas is that we haven’t stopped sending one another Christmas cards. So our living rooms turn into galleries of sublime depictions of the Incarnation. Each of us will have our own favorites.
My favorite pictorial representation of the Incarnation would be that of Georges de La Tour, who had such an exquisite ability to render light in painting and who shows in the great intimacy of his Incarnation scenes what it means that the Light of the World has taken on not just a human form, but a human form of infinite vulnerability. That’s one expression that’s very dear to me.
Another is a literary expression, and that’s the “Christ Legends” of the great Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. They are legends partly based on ancient apocryphal writings and partly on her own imagination that show with great warmth and wisdom the reality of the divine presence in this Infant, and its almost magical — in the most positive and poetic sense — impact on the world.
Sociologists talk about the “re-enchantment” of the world, and that’s something that Lagerlöf shows, that when God became Man, the world became once again an enchanted place and a mysterious place in which everything suddenly is possible.
My third example would be musical. Last Christmas, perhaps the most powerful sort of prayerful experience I had was in the medieval cathedral here in Trondheim, the Nidarosdomen, where I heard the organist Erling With Aasgård perform Olivier Messiaen’s great work “La Nativité du Seigneur,” which I’d heard before and I knew, but I’d never heard it like that.
It’s just absolutely astounding, because Messiaen manages to show through music what words just can’t express: that objectively impossible paradox that the infinite principle of all life and all being enters time. There is in that work a depth of theological insight that just leaves me flabbergasted and profoundly moved.
Christmas remains a much-loved and much-observed feast even in highly secularized countries. Why does it continue to appeal to people long after they have rejected other elements of Christianity?
I’m a bit skeptical about this business of rejecting. There’s a lot of forgetfulness about, and some of it is willful forgetfulness, but I think that quite often people of our time who declare themselves not believers have sort of lost a handle on what Christianity is. And Christmas somehow manages to convey that possibility of togetherness, of kindness, of reconciliation, of the holiness and the venerableness of life, of the veneration and admiration that is due to a newborn child, of the possibility that there might be angels out there saying, “Peace to people of goodwill.”
There is something in Christmas that reminds us of the best in us, that reminds us of ideals that in ordinary life we think are perhaps too high or too unattainable. And then at Christmas, we sort of think, “Well, perhaps it might be possible anyway.”
Even in worldly, literary, secular adaptations, or reinterpretations, or figurings of that vision, as in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which keeps being retold every year in new forms, they convey the message that perhaps what seems impossible might be possible after all.
What spiritual practice would you recommend in preparation for Christmas that’s accessible to everyone?
I would recommend sitting in a chair for five minutes — 10, if you have time — every day without doing anything. Simply being still, listening to the stillness.
That is one of the great liturgical motifs of Christmas, that in the midnight silence, when everything was still, the Word came. The Word didn’t come with a huge cry. But the Word came as an infant. In Latin, “infans” means “speechless.” Again, that’s one of those great paradoxes that the Fathers loved: that the Word chose to be among us as someone, as any infant is, deprived of speech.
Recovering, and perhaps even discovering, that deep silence within ourselves will help to make us realize that that isn’t an emptily resonant space, but in fact, it is an inhabited space, and a space of openness, and we could almost say of hospitality, because all of us yearn for that receptivity to the Word coming among us, and coming to you and coming to me.
How does a Trappist monk and bishop spend Christmas Day?
Well, he improvises a bit according to need. Obviously, he celebrates the Midnight Mass and the dawn Mass and the day Mass in the cathedral, which is a joy. He’s likely to cook and eat a bit with some young people in the middle of the day. I think he’s quite likely to have a pontifical siesta. Then he is likely to go and pray Vespers and have an Italian supper with the Bridgettine Sisters.