January 16, 2021

Elissa Bjeletich: Contemplating the Incarnation

On the rocky shore of the Sea of Galilee in Tabgha. Photo by Daniel Weber at Flickr. Creative Commons License

As we think this week about the incarnate Christ, here is a thought-provoking excerpt from an article by :

Contemplating the Incarnation: Pilgrimage and Sunday of Orthodoxy

• • •

This is where it happened.

When I thought of the Incarnation, I have always thought about how God took on flesh. He could not be harmed and He could feel neither cold nor hunger, but He chose to become subject to all those miseries when He humbled Himself and showed up here, on this earth, as a tiny baby in the arms of a young holy virgin. When I thought of the Incarnation, I thought of Christ’s human body.

But in the Holy Land, I began to understand that the Incarnation means more than that. It means that Christ entered into time and space. Yes, He sanctified the waters of the Jordan when He was baptized, but He also sanctified these lands when He walked on them, when He suffered and bled on them.

God didn’t have to take on a body. He didn’t need one. We needed Him to take on a body — to stand with us on this actual earth, to speak with us, to enter into Hades and break open the gates of Paradise for us.

We need a Holy Land too. We need holy places. It’s not that God needs to occupy to specific points on this earth, but it’s that we need to make our offering of pilgrimage. We need to see and to touch. We need to travel to our churches on Sunday mornings, and to go visit monasteries and to venerate myrrh-streaming icons. We need to make an effort, to engage in a struggle, so that we can feel ourselves coming towards God on this human journey. Our journey is not just spiritual — it’s physical too; it happens in time and space. We benefit from the action of making a pilgrimage. We need it.

So many of the holy places preserved in Israel and Palestine are in caves, and it struck me that God wisely chose a land built on rock, so that holy places would be dug down and carved into stone. He chose a place where even after waves of conquerors and invaders, after the buildings and the churches were destroyed and in ruins, the caves would remain so that we would have holy places to visit. He knew.

On my final day in the Holy Land, I venerated the Anointing Stone at the Holy Sepulchre, saying goodbye as it were to God’s holy places. I thanked Him for the fullness of His Incarnation, for leaving us these places and being so present in them, so that we could pursue our spiritual journey in such a tangible way. And as I arrived home, I thanked Him for being here too, ever-present and filling all things.


  1. The Incarnation is one thing, the interpretation of that quite another.the Lord is available to us through the Eucharist and Scripture. I fail to see that “holy places” add anything to that. In fact, the history of them is quite dubious as though they were indued with power in some strange way. This is quite a pagan way of viewing things, and can easily lead to the error of “panentheism”. God is as close as breathing, no need to travel to alleged “holy places”, let alone kiss icons.

    • Father Freeman and others of the orthodox persuasion would argue that the ideas represented in this post are the very opposite of paganism. There is a difference between paganism and a Sacramental view of the world in which there are “thin places.”

    • @ CB – So was God pushing Moses toward “paganism” and “panentheism” when He ordered him to “Put off your shoes, you stand on holy ground” on Mount Sinai?

      • Not good to reference OT in this instance. When Christ came as Emmanuel–God with us–he did away with all the religious “place” stuff, all that “holy ground” stuff.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And left us only with BIBLE?

        • In my opinion, all places are equally holy to God’s people. “Wherever two or three are gathered in My name..”

          OTOH, if someone finds it easier or more compelling to commune with God in a dedicated church building or a historical site, good on them. I won’t get spun up over that.

          • –> “…if someone finds it easier or more compelling to commune with God in a dedicated church building or a historical site, good on them. I won’t get spun up over that.”

            Neither will I. But I will pushback when someone’s writing seems to convey something other than that. This article would’ve worked exponentially better if it had been all from the first person perspective. “*I* needed a holy land, too. *I* need holy places.” Etc. That then let’s the reader decide if they agree or not.

            • Agreed. The needs of some are not the needs of all in every case, and this is one of those cases. I will not argue with those who find a particular place holier than others, unless they try to insist that it must be as holy for me as it is for them.

        • Rick Ro., where does Jesus say that he came to do away with “holy ground” and religious places stuff? I don’t recall any such verses in the Gospels.

    • Lets not be too hard on the pagans with a god in every stream and in every meadow. Not the final word surely but a damn site better than the concept of “natural resources”.

  2. And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon Englands mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On Englands pleasant pastures seen?

    And did the Countenance Divine
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among these dark Satanic mills?

    Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
    Bring me my Arrows of Desire:
    Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
    Bring me my Chariot of fire.

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green & pleasant Land.

    William Blake
    From Milton, Preface

  3. Just a quick note to a few who I communicated with on Saturday. My uncle died quietly Sunday morning which was an answer to our prayers. It was difficult to watch the day before so thank you again for the prayers. The monastery rings the bells one time for each year that the person lived so it was very moving to hear about 10 minutes worth. He was 82.

  4. Now that I have read the post, coincidentally, I spent this weekend at one such place. There is a definite, tangible something that I encounter when I am there that draws on my spirit. The sheer quietness can’t help but cause me to slow down. Something like a desert experience in the sense of minimizing the sensory inputs to just a few. The monks seem to have a stern appearance as you walk past them (sort of like New Yorkers) but when you interact with them, without exception for me anyway, there is a sort of baseline joy and calmness that is different from what I encounter in daily life. It’s the place, it’s the people, I don’t know but there is something distinct there.

    • –> “The monks seem to have a stern appearance as you walk past them (sort of like New Yorkers) but when you interact with them, without exception for me anyway, there is a sort of baseline joy and calmness that is different from what I encounter in daily life.”

      A monk once came to speak at one of the men’s retreats I participated in. He was hilarious. Take away the robe and he would’ve fit right in.

      I wonder if it’s possible to become a part-time monk. Like, maybe three months a year…

      • If you had the time it actually would be possible I think. There are people who spend considerable amounts of time there in a lay capacity working and praying with the monks.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        You could be an oblate. That is a program some monasteries have to allow lay people to be as monastic as possible in ‘the world’. I have even heard of Orthodox oblates, and I know for certain there are Episcopal oblates because I’ve met them.

        • I’ve been missing some of John Barry’s quips lately, so I’ll try to fill in for him…

          Do oblates have to sing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” all day long?

        • Christiane says

          ChrisS, take a look at Kathleen Norris’ “Cloister Walk” which helps to understand about what an ‘oblate’ is and how anyone can become an oblate

          Norris was not Catholic, didn’t matter, she signed on anyways, and the monks welcomed her ‘as she was’, which in itself is something I’ve come to admire very much about my Church 🙂

          “Why would a married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt than faith be drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism, to a community of celibate men whose days are centered on a rigid schedule of prayer, work, and scripture? This is the question that poet Kathleen Norris asks us as, somewhat to her own surprise, she found herself on two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota.

          Part record of her time among the Benedictines, part meditation on various aspects of monastic life, The Cloister Walk demonstrates, from the rare perspective of someone who is both an insider and outsider, how immersion in the cloistered world– its liturgy, its ritual, its sense of community– can impart meaning to everyday events and deepen our secular lives. In this stirring and lyrical work, the monastery, often considered archaic or otherworldly, becomes immediate, accessible, and relevant to us, no matter what our faith may be.”

          quote is from this link:

          • Thanks I’ll take a look. I have seen these folks my whole life in vista to the monastery but have never known their standing by name.

  5. While we all might benefit spiritually from what is being said in this essay, I will pushback on the constant use of the word “need” in it.

    I’m one who believes Christ came to do away with the concept of specific “holy” places. It’s Emmanuel–God with Us–and no longer “God Found Only in the Temple.” The veil torn in two and all that. If Christ is in us, everywhere we step can be holy ground. For instance, there’s no need to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the exact location where the Holy Spirit came like tongues of fire, to receive the Holy Spirit (or for any other spiritual reason). And remember: most other religions (perhaps even all) focus on The Place being important, but Christ came to say “No” to that nonsense.

    I love Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World” for her take on it. As Publisher Weekly says, “Taylor is one of those rare people who truly can see the holy in everything. Since everyone should know such a person, those who don’t can—no, must—read this book, with its friendly reminders of everyday sacred. Taylor’s 12 chapters mine the potentially sacred meaning of simple daily activities and conditions, like walking, paying attention, saying no to work one Sabbath day each week. Hanging laundry is setting up a prayer flag, for God’s sake. Since Taylor, an Episcopal priest, no longer pastors a church, she can ‘do church’ everywhere: in line at the grocery store interacting with the cashier, walking a moonlit path with her husband.”

    –> “We needed Him to take on a body — to stand with us on this actual earth, to speak with us, to enter into Hades and break open the gates of Paradise for us.”

    Yes, but now that he’s here and dwelling with us and in us, let’s not put him in a “place” again.

    –> “We need to travel to our churches on Sunday mornings, and to go visit monasteries and to venerate myrrh-streaming icons. We need to make an effort, to engage in a struggle, so that we can feel ourselves coming towards God on this human journey.”

    Again, no we don’t. We don’t need to go where God is because He is no longer a “place-specific” god; what we NEED to do is bring God with us wherever WE go.

    • Rick and CB,
      Conceptually I am in full agreement with you. Experientially though I have to differ. That is because, as I posted here a moment ago, I just spent the weekend in such a place. It is a place wholly set aside and devoted to God. Again, conceptually and theologically I agree but certain experiences cause me to think that there are vestiges of Moses in our souls and that in our weakness we continue to be boosted by place and time. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. I do know that God is no less with me here as I wait to purchase paint in Sherwin Williams for my next job. Intellectually I know that but being in the paint store and being in the monastery are different because of the place and it’s intent.

      • The idea you speak of is fine, but the writing doesn’t convey it appropriately. By using the word “need” throughout the article it becomes something which it should not: a requirement. When people turn things – especially religious “things” – into a requirement, you begin drifting toward what CB hints at: pantheism, paganism, perhaps even idolatry. Do not turn “things” into “requirements,” especially by claiming there’s something holy about them.

        I whole-heartedly agree with you that those places ARE different. I myself LOVE stepping into an empty church, listening for God’s voice in the quiet at the altar beneath the cross at the front. But man… the idea that God preserved the caves so that we would have holy places to visit… Really?

        • But man… the idea that God preserved the caves so that we would have holy places to visit… Really?

          I agree, that idea is as much magical thinking as those of the fundamentalists who get pilloried regularly here a iMonk.

          For some people, an urban storefront mission is more holy than any cathedral or Saint’s shrine can ever be. It’s different for different people.

          • Magical thinking is the wrong term. I simply meant that it is as superstitious thinking on a level with fundamentalism.

          • I’m with you there, Robert. It was exactly that line that got me thinking, “Coming from a different (aka more evangelical) mouth, that line would’ve been skewered here.” It’s an utterly ridiculous notion.

          • Sure it’s different for different people, Robert, so then why pillory her finding a sense of meaning in the solidity of caves and rocks? It’s not magical thinking, it’s metaphorical thinking. It’s imagination. It’s seeing “through” the stuff of creation to what it represents and communicates to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

            • I agree that magical thinking was the wrong term, but what she said and the way she says it sounds just as superstitious to me as anything any Christian fundamentalist might say. I don’t criticize her for finding the holiness she does where she does, but I resist the implication that my faith is deficient if I don’t find holiness in the same exact things and places she does, and I do think that implication is in her tone and language.

        • As I say to Robert later, I believe the author is expressing metaphorical thinking here when speaking about the caves. See that comment.

          • Call me dense, but I don’t see anything metaphorical in the whole “cave” paragraph. As she is recounting her own physical experience in the actual physical cave and contrasting them with actual holy buildings that haven’t survived over the years, it reads quite literal to me.

      • Dave Greene says

        “I’m one who believes Christ came to do away with the concept of specific “holy” places.”

        John 4:21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

        • David, that is a specific reference to the Temple, which Jesus fulfilled and replaced in his own incarnate body. It does not necessarily imply that all sacred places are abolished.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      Watch this space. Something went into moderation purgatory.

    • I’m inclined to take a more complex and nuanced view of this ala Chris. I’m not sure I could lay out a coherent intellectual case for it, but there are certain places where the line between heaven and earth seems thin, where the peace and solidity of something eternal seems to have soaked in and permeated the very ground and trees and air, where one can breathe deeply and feel as though one is inhaling some air that is purer and more invigorating. Walls and windows are both real, but one lets in light.

      • Haven’t you found some of those, though, in the most unusually of places, with nothing “holy” about them at all? Like beside someone in their hospice bed?

        • Certainly. That’s why I say the matter is complex. God surprises. And certainly I would say that it is in people through whom God most often and most surprisingly reveals himself.

          • anonymous says

            ‘surprisingly’ is right

            “Where are You? Why don’t You answer me? I need You!
            These brothers and sisters of Yours, the ones You want me to love, let me
            tell You something:
            They smell!
            They have lice and tuberculosis!
            Am I to find You in them?—Well, You’re ugly! You stink! You wet
            your pants! You vomit! How could anyone love You?”

            (from a lament by Dorothy Day)

        • Dave Greene says

          I know this is weird but I once found it in a museum when placing my own hand on a meteorite several hundred million or a few billion years older than myself. Both a sense of awe and of peace comforted my heart and mind that all was in the hand of God. Crazy, I know…

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      There’s a major difference in my view between what we actually do need and what theoretically we ought to need, and the distinction seems to be being ignored in the criticisms of the post.
      We *ought* to be able to perceive God everywhere, but we do not.
      We *ought* to be able to change and develop our thoughts and souls and spirits without doing something or experiencing something physical ir going through an actual mporal, physical event as part of it, but we can’t.
      We *ought* to be able to live with all times and places being “thin” at all times, but we can’t.
      We *ought* not to need to travel to special “thin” places set aside for when we are ready to be closer to God, but we do.
      The world is physical, we are physical and we interact with it through physical things, and it’s no good pretending we don’t. It’s not that “tgun” places are more sacred, or closer to God, but rather that God has provided them for us as places for us, who are physical and need such things, to be with him.

      • –> “There’s a major difference in my view between what we actually do need and what theoretically we ought to need, and the distinction seems to be being ignored in the criticisms of the post.”

        I don’t disagree. My main criticism is that the post is poorly written to reflect that distinction. Much better (in my mind, anyway) to portray it as “here’s what I find helpful and you might too” rather than a collective “WE NEED TO do this.”

        And what about the Gentiles in Jesus’ day? Did they “need” holy places? In fact, there’s a lot of caution in scriptures not to return to the religious ways of the past, of which “temple seeking” might fall.

        • Again, I agree with you Rick Ro. You cannot make these kinds of things a requirement of faith, anymore than you can make devotions to canonized Saints a requirement.

        • I disagree, Rick. I think the post is well written. When someone says “we need,” she may not be saying what you in particular need, but she is expressing that this is what those in her tradition, and indeed, in many other traditions have found. Generalizing is always subject to exceptions, even on a large scale, nevertheless one should not deny the author the right to generalize about what she and many others have discovered.

          In addition, I think she does also speak to genuine human need, even in broader terms. If the Gentiles needed holy places in Jesus’ day, it may not be because holy places don’t exist or are done away with, but because they were trying to satisfy a genuine human longing in certain inappropriate ways. The Temple was indeed the place where God’s presence dwelt among Israel, if we are to believe innumerable texts in the Bible. The problem with the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day is that they didn’t see him as the fulfillment and replacement of the Temple. Nevertheless, Acts testifies to the fact that the early church still met in the temple courts to celebrate the risen Christ.

          The fact that all creation is sacramental and that God can be met in all places does not necessarily obliterate all distinctions and make it so that certain places and aspects of creation cannot deliver a more intensified sense of God’s presence. This is true in all human relationships. “Place” means something, and somehow I think God knows that and is ok with that.

          • Dana Ames says

            Thank you for this, Chaplain Mike.


          • Again, I don’t disagree with the overall concept here, and I agree with your last paragraph, but I do disagree that as written this post does a good job of conveying what many of us agree on. And I also think that, as written, if this had come from a more evangelical source, there would have been a lot of hand-wringing and criticism.

            • I have been agreeing with you, Rick, but I think the point CM and Dana would make is that an evangelical would not post an article anything like this one about the special holiness of places, because evangelicals don’t have a theology or spirituality that sees the material world as sanctified or a conduit of sanctity, or charged with holiness.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    You want everybody to be a functional mystic immediately, don’t you?

    Kidding aside, there is a democratization of the work of the Spirit that has been proceeding apace since, oh hell, you can see it even in the Scriptures, in the Old Testament, with the interplay between the Priestly, Prophetic, and Wisdom strands in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    I am not by temperament sympathetic to democratic impulses. I used to be, but no longer. However, this impulse towards democratization is not something I want to condemn out of hand lest I be found to be resisting the Holy Spirit, so I content myself with being a devil’s advocate for the rightness of authority and hierarchies. i can tell you that bringing God into our material reality is exponentially (and I don’t use that word lightly) harder than kissing a relic in a cave. A capital-S Saint can do it. That’s one of the requirements for being a capital-S Saint. The Protestant Blodgetts, by and large, don’t. They cut down sacred oaks to make kitchen cabinets.

  7. rhymeswithplague says

    No less a fundamentalist personage than old Dr. Bob Jones, founder of the university that bears his name, said, “To the Christian there is no difference in the sacred and the secular. All ground is holy ground; every bush is a burning bush.”

  8. the holy places
    reveal themselves each morning
    with the rising sun

    • Christiane says

      beautiful haiku, Robert F

      sometimes, the revelation comes at the setting of the sun also:

      “And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
      A motion and a spirit, that impels
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things. ”

      (from Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth)

  9. God didn’t have to take on a body. He didn’t need one.

    I think that God took on a human body not just to redeem us, but because it suited him and it is what he desired. I think incarnation has always been part of the way God operates in his world, and the Incarnation of Jesus was the culmination of that modus operandi, not a new a divine direction or strategy. It is what he wanted, and has always wanted.

    • Dana Ames says


      Elissa is an educated person; she also writes devotional, popular-level meditations. In one sense – the sense that God is transcendent and Uncreated and is the only One who has life and existence within God’s own being – God not **needing** a body is true, and on one level as humans we understand this. AND it is the Glory of God that the Incarnation is what was planned from the beginning – this is an article of faith for Orthodox, and I’m sure Elissa believes this, too. She was focusing on something else with this piece.

      It is because of the Incarnation – both as a point in history and as something “planned” from the foundation of the world – that the material world has meaning and can convey God experientially to us who consist of both soul and body. Some things – and some places – do that. I agree with what Iain and Chaplain Mike wrote above; it’s not superstition, it is part of reality. If someone personally doesn’t believe we need these places as human beings, that’s ok – just please don’t write off the experience of many other faithful Christians.


      • Burro (Mule) says

        Actually, we are supposed to “thin” the places, rather than make them thicker and more opaque with our sins.


      • It was not my intention to question the authenticity or legitimacy of Elissa’s religious experiences, Dana. Actually, I felt that she was using her own experience as a standard for the legitimacy and authenticity of the faith of others. If I was wrong in drawing that conclusion, I apologize. I also apologize for any harshness that came across in typifying as superstitious her idea of the way God preserved the sacred sites of the Holy Land. It really does seem to me that if a fundamentalist Protestant Christian had presented the same or a similar idea at iMonk, they would be roundly ridiculed, and I wanted to point that out; but that is no excuse for venturing into harshness or ridicule myself, and I apologize.

        One thing I think it’s important to remember when we consider this topic is that the material world is always in a continual process of flux and movement. The Holy Land that existed 2000 years ago is no longer where it was in the universe then, nor is it the same arrangement and pattern of matter that existed then. The appearance of it may have maintained greater or lesser similarity in different places to what existed then; but that is an appearance, and in fact flux has had its way so that in some very real sense it is not the same material reality it was then. Places, like people in this world of flux, are not stable or permanent. Maybe the loci of “thin places” are stable in a way that material reality cannot be.

        • Dana Ames says

          Elissa writes for an EO audience, with a shared understanding of the sacramentality of the world according to Classical Christianity. I’ve corresponded with her by email. I don’t get the sense that she is the kind of person who denigrates the legitimacy and authenticity of the faith of others.

          I’d be surprised if a fundamentalist Protestant would present such ideas at iMonk; Pentecostals, not so much… I would like to believe the regulars here wouldn’t ridicule. I don’t agree with a lot about how Pentecostals interpret those phenomena, but God is generous and meets people where they are.

          So the Holy Land of the past is not the exact same material reality; okay. At the same time, something happened in those places, and *that* doesn’t go away. I suppose one has to be open to certain possibilities; the philosophy in which we swim these days doesn’t make that openness very easy.


      • Dana Ames says

        Either we live a two-storey existence and such things are “superstitions”, vaulted up to the second storey… or reality is One Thing and all is meant to be Sacrament (to varying degrees of “thin-ness”).


  10. I’m going to follow Robert F’s cue and offer an apology to the iMonk community at large for my pushback today. As a writer myself, I know not everything connects with everyone and I should have been more gentle in my critique. This probably falls into the category of “posts best discussed face to face in person over a nice cold brew.”

    Sorry if my criticisms got carried away, all.

  11. Susan Dumbrell says

    As a ‘Real Presence’ person I find the thin places where ever and when ever I participate in the Eucharist.

  12. “Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?”

    “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…..”

    Yes, there are special and not so special places (to our minds….)

    Somehow, the 3/1 redeemed it all. I would prefer sooner than later. But if eternity includes this moment, they are all special……

    John Randy Royse

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