Et Verbum Caro Factum Est
With these words, whether intended or not, Houselander mentions the beautiful power of the Incarnation. Believing the divine God can become human flesh, experiencing in full humanness the limits of being human, is not something I think many people spend time considering and reflecting upon.
The challenge, I think, is that we tend to be able to focus on only one nature of Jesus at a time.
The concept of nature is, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, something that answers the question, “What?” What is it? So, if I ask myself, “What am I?”, my answer is, I am a human being. That is, I have a human nature. But others with human natures are not the exact same as I am, and so there is a need for yet another term to separate human beings, since we are not all one big being. And that word is person. Again, Sheen helps by telling us that the word person answers the question, “Who?” Who am I? And the answer to that question is unique to each one of us. I am The Friar, and I am a human. My person is my name, it is who I am. My nature is what I am. The question of nature works with things. A dog has the nature of a dog, a chair has the nature of a chair and so forth. Human beings all share the same nature, human nature, because all human beings are equal in their humanness. But each human being is a unique person.
But for Jesus, especially since we take seriously the incarnation, it is different when he becomes human. That is because when Jesus becomes human, he takes on human nature. But Jesus does not leave behind his original nature, which is his divine nature. The mystery of the Incarnation is such that it is hard to imagine how it is that Jesus can be fully human, assuming human nature while at the same time, as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity he has always had his divine nature.
I remember that a prominent Catholic liturgical musician once mocked in a presentation I was at the idea that the Church used the word mystery in a disingenuous way, almost taking the tone that if it could not be explained, the Church “tricked” people by relegating it to the role of mystery.
But that the Incarnation cannot be explained is precisely the point. It is an article of faith. Mocking the use of mystery indicated a profound misunderstanding of the notions of faith and reason. It showed a deep misunderstanding of the notion of revelation. Rather than seeing the idea of mystery as something to be entered into and lived, mystery was viewed as a shortcoming that meant the very notion of a Trinity, or Jesus present in the Eucharist, is that we could not ever be smart enough to figure these things out on our own, but rather, we only know them because God in is love for us reveals this to us. These mysteries are very much deep confirmation of the love of God for each one of us.
To accept the Incarnation means not only that we accept that Jesus is both human and divine, however that is possible, but to also accept that human existence is always a mix of the human and the divine. We are limited material humans, yet we have an immortal, nonmaterial soul. We live in a world of created things, yet at the same time we experience, if we are open, the divine presence of God.
To believe in the Incarnation is to believe that Jesus is always present, to believe there is never a time or a place where God is not present. And our lives are such that our task is to see and view the holiness everyone is called to exercise in their lives. But it is not that we do the holy things only on Sundays, and the non-holy things every other day of the week. The spiritual life is not just lived on Sundays for a limited time, and the worldly, material things at every other time. No, we go to Church on Sundays in order to sanctify all the other good aspects of our lives.
Houselander writes that the inability to reconcile and accept the Incarnation is to have a “part-time spirituality.” One “tries to become a saint by being spiritual on her day off.” Such is the great temptation. To hear the rich young man being challenged to go and sell his possessions to be given to the poor is fine on Sunday but does not apply in the “real world” of business. We can be admonished to forgive our enemies and pray for our persecutors, but that does not mean I need to make any real changes in my life and the way I treat people the other six days of the week.
When Jesus speaks of the “world”, he is cautioning us to recognize that we can never make anything or anyone more important than our relationship with Him. But too often, when people talk about the “world” as only a negative reality, what they can really be suggesting is that the gospel is the spiritual part while the world is a place where we can do anything we want, even ignore the words of God.
But Jesus lived in the world and recognized the goodness of the world. Yet he also challenged people to see that the world could never fully satisfy or fulfill the needs human beings have. Only God can do that.
One persistent heresy, one that has come back in one form, or another for centuries is that of Gnosticism. It is the belief that only the spiritual world has goodness, whereas the material world is evil. In fact, Saint Dominic founded the Dominicans precisely to fight this heresy. We believe the created world is good if it is used in the way it is ordered. Food is a good thing that is for our enjoyment even while it satisfies our hunger. But when we seek to use food to make us happy, or to eliminate sadness, then it is not ordered to its proper end, and it becomes destructive.
And so, to believe in the Incarnation is to avoid Gnosticism, for it is precisely in the Incarnation we see the absolute goodness of the material world when properly ordered. God did not create us as material beings because of some shortage of the spiritual, but because he wanted us to be created in a way where he could see us and know that we are very good.
It is in this notion of Incarnation we learn of our vocation. When a man and a woman give themselves to each other in marriage, they approximate in their lives and in their love for each other the love of Christ for the Church. In religious life, a man or a woman give themselves totally to God by living out the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In both instances vocation becomes the gift of body and soul, an incarnation of sorts.
For it is in his Incarnation that Jesus not only takes on the suffering of humanity, but he does more. “It was the Word that was made flesh. Not only did he take our sorrows to himself, but he gave the delight, the happiness that he is, to our humanness.” In becoming human, Jesus also shows us just how glorious we can be if we live in a particular way. We are good because God has made us good.
By Christ’s becoming human he shows us what it means to really and truly love. Christ makes marriage holy and sacred, stretching the human heart to discover that it is capable of far more love than we ever fully realize or understand. In a beautiful and holy marriage, and by seeing how it is that Christ sanctifies it, it is there we begin to see just how much it is we are loved by God.
How beautiful this is! Houselander tells us so beautifully that every sacramental encounter is one of flesh and spirit. Bread and wine are the vehicle for Christ to become really present to us. Water becomes the very way in which we share in the salvation of Jesus in baptism. God forgives sins through the raising of the hands of the priest in confession. Oil becomes the material sign of healing and anointing reminds those ordained of the high calling to serve Christ the anointed King. By acknowledging the Incarnation, and more importantly by living it, the words of Psalm 139 ring true. “I praise you, because I am wonderfully made.”
Previous Commentaries on the Reed of God
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