We Need Something Greater Than Greatness

Looking at Apotheosis vs. the Incarnation

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

As a senate intern in Washington, D.C., I gave a tour of the US Capitol building almost every day. The best part was always walking into the big hollow center of the Capitol—the symbolic heart of our democracy. If you stand in the middle of that great rotunda and look straight up 180 feet into the arched dome, you’ll see the renowned fresco by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington.

Greatness is a Timeless Quest

Apotheosis is Greek and means to “ascend to divinity.” Brumidi’s mural, therefore, depicts President George Washington in near-divine status, crowned in glory, and flanked by the goddess Victory on his left and Liberty on his right. Having led America through the darkest years in its infant history, Brumidi considers Washington to have achieved apotheosis in the eyes of his countrymen: oneness with a type of transcendent, divine virtue.

As a case study, The Apotheosis of Washington has a somewhat ironic flavor given Washington’s famous humility. It was George Washington, after all, who refused to be buried in state in the crypt that lies just beneath the rotunda, instead requesting a modest burial at his home at Mount Vernon. Another aspect of Washington’s understated nature is the way Americans have referred to all 45 of our Chief Executives as simply “Mr. President,” as opposed to any other lofty title (“Your Excellency,” “Your Exalted Highness,” and “His Majesty, the President” were all at one time or other considered but rejected).

Washington’s humility aside, apotheosis is the norm of what we aspire to as humans. We want greatness. We want to look within and access our own personal, secret power to do great deeds, and then to sit in triumph with the gods.

We are heirs to a rich history of Greco-Roman thought obsessed with aspiring to greatness at all costs, and even though we’ve since changed parts of the script, the fact remains that we strive for apotheosis every bit as much as our forebears in the ancient world.

“Greatness will fulfill us,” we believe.

You can see it in our contemporary mythology. In Star Wars, Luke, Leia, and Rey use the force to discover their inner destiny of greatness. In The Greatest Showman, Hugh Jackman’s circus performers band together and become something more than a group of professional entertainers; they become “The Greatest Show.” Frozen’s Anna and Elsa “let it go” via catchy musical numbers, unleashing their inner power and becoming epic-super-powered-snow-sisters (granted, I haven’t seen the second Frozen but I’m 99 percent sure that’s what happens.)

Apotheosis is about unlocking inner greatness. “This is what you’re looking for,” it whispers. “Now go get it and don’t let the haters stop you!”

The Incarnation: A Humbling Doctrine

As December 25 approaches, I can’t help but think that we’re about to celebrate a different concept entirely. On that day, millions around the world will pause and soak in a story that stands in complete opposition to humanity’s obsession with greatness. It is the story of the incarnation of Christ.

Incarnation is from Latin and it means to “make flesh,” or “to embody.” In Christian terms, the Incarnation is about God coming down to us 2,000 years ago as a human being.

For that reason, the Incarnation is about the greatness of somebody other than ourselves.

Whereas apotheosis is about lowly physical humanity ascending to spiritual perfection, the Incarnation is about disembodied spiritual perfection condescending to embody lowly physical humanity.

The Incarnation is a truly humble doctrine. God becoming a child is the definition of might embracing fragility.

But the Incarnation is also a humbling doctrine, meaning it’s sometimes hard to accept because it says that humanity is so fragile that Christ had to come down to us. We can’t reach him any other way. We are spiritually derelict.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Your dreams—no matter how powerful they seem — cannot save you.

The Lie of Apotheosis

As Tom Brady (who, as our beloved friends from New England are always quick to remind us, is clearly the greatest quarterback in the history of professional football) once remarked in a 60 Minutes interview1, “This can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.”

If being the proverbial Greatest of All Time isn't fulfilling, what is?

Likewise, George Washington was a great man, but still a product of his era: a revolutionary force for liberty who also maintained hundreds of his fellow human beings in a state of involuntary servitude right up until the moment of his death (he freed some 190 of them in his will.) He was indecisive at crucial moments. He felt the weight of greatness on him, and to some extent that weight sucked the happiness completely out of his later years. To add insult to injury, he had infamously bad teeth as any first-grader will gleefully tell you.

Anyone who thinks Washington actually achieved apotheosis (let alone whether or not it did him any good,) is deluding themselves.

But, it’s not only Washington. The truth is that nobody ever has—or is ever going to—achieve apotheosis. We’re all going to die. The things we think are significant barely matter in the long run. The entire history of the human race is mankind striving for greatness, and coming up empty.

We’re left with one hope: Incarnation.

The Need for A Savior

We need something we can’t achieve; for the same source of spiritual greatness we can almost taste, but can never quite reach, to come down to us and embrace us that we might live.

That somebody is Jesus, the infant-servant-warrior-carpenter-king, who made the world with the sound of his voice, who set aside his transcendent spiritual glory to come down and live life as one of us, who suffered with us and for us, and who through his suffering demolished the hold of death over us.

The Incarnation–unlike apotheosis–is a realistic hope for human beings, because it doesn’t involve us transcending mortality and achieving divine status all by ourselves.

The Incarnation–unlike apotheosis–dignifies our physical selves. The Greeks were alternately fascinated and repelled by our physical nature, and were in a constant war to portray the physical body in terms of absolute perfection. They were a culture that believed in–and obsessively portrayed–an idealized human form completely unattainable by actual, physical human beings. Sound familiar?

But when the God of the Bible looks at you, He sees your physical self. He made you. He made you human, and He made you physically human. He loves humanity so much He chose to become one of us, warts and all. He sees our flaws. He sees our suffering, our diseases, the inescapable fragility of old age. He loves us anyway.

The Incarnation–unlike apotheosis–is the solution to our weakness, for the radical yearning we all feel, for the sleepless nights and deep dissatisfaction that so often accompanies life, even at its best. We can’t actually change ourselves. We can only humble ourselves and ask to be rescued.

God sees you this Christmas. He is Immanuel: “God with us.” If you let Him, He’s going to redeem you and heal your wounds. The Incarnation is his great proof, his great love letter.

It’s our only hope.

“You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Colossians 1:21–22).

[1] Super Bowl 2019: Looking Back at Tom Brady in 2005, 60 Minutes https://www.cbsnews.com/news/super-bowl-2019-looking-back-at-tom-brady-in-2005-60-minutes/

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