Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Incarnational faith

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.
Last Saturday, Lenore and I were talking with two friends, strong Catholic converts. The 6:00 bells rang, and we paused to recite the Angelus. Then we resumed our conversation about the physical aspects of Catholicism: kneeling and standing at Mass, the employment of our bodies in our worship.

The Annunciation The Angelus prayer commemorates that singular moment in history when Mary said yes to the angel, and the second person of the Holy Trinity came to physically dwell within her: God Incarnate, God in the flesh. This is central to the ancient Christian faith, that Jesus was both true God and true man. The baby growing within Mary's womb was no disembodied spirit, but a physical baby, who also happened to be God. Like any human, Jesus nursed at Mary's breast, dirtied his diaper, slept, cried, and grew. He lived a completely human life, working with his hands and growing tired and requiring rest. He felt real pain when he was scourged and nailed to the cross. He shed real blood, and died a real death. It was through his physical human flesh that Jesus won our salvation. From this it becomes clear how we, too, composed of both body and spirit, must live out our faith. Faith involves the whole person: spirit, mind, and body. This is incarnational faith. So, standing and kneeling are a part of our worship, and not mere incidentals. We employ the Sacraments and sacramentals: Baptism, Holy Communion, bells, incense, etc.

Almost as ancient is the Gnostic denial of all the above. To the Gnostic, Jesus was either not truly human, or (like the present-day Jehovah's Witnesses believe) not truly God. Typically, this denial of the Incarnation turns the life of faith into a purely spiritual affair, with minimal thought given to our physical nature and the material world.

Protestantism can run the gamut between these two extremes, but classic Protestantism is also likely to see faith as spiritual, comprised solely of an internal relationship with Jesus. Any emphasis upon physical trappings like rosaries, holy water, ashes, and such may be regarded as unnecessary and even as superstitious or idolatrous. To the Evangelical Protestant, salvation comes via an internal, purely spiritual encounter with Jesus, and baptism is just an act of obedience following that faith experience. To the Catholic, Baptism is the channel of saving grace, the water just as necessary as the internal faith response. To the Evangelical, the Lord's Supper is a symbolic remembering. To the Catholic, the Eucharist is the real Body and Blood of Jesus. So it is with the other Sacraments as well - in the Catholic understanding, each one truly confers God's grace by physical means.

One more Sacrament in particular bears mentioning: Matrimony. In incarnational terms, marriage consists of some essential physical realities, namely, the union of two bodies, one male and one female, with the usual result of producing more incarnations. For that is precisely what every human conception involves: the knitting together of a physical body with an immortal soul to produce an incarnate spiritual being. This explains the incarnational believer's horror over the crime of abortion, the murder of a priceless human being, newly incarnated in the image of God. To overlook or downplay the seriousness of this crime involves a Gnostic-like denial of the pre-born's humanity. Likewise, many folks attempt to redefine human marriage via a Gnostic-like spiritualizing, a denial of the physical essence of marriage. The incarnationalist can never facilely spiritualize these essentials, and can never divorce the physical from the spiritual.

And that's why I find the typical 'Catholic' politician so repugnant. It was, ironically, our only Catholic President, JFK, who popularized the current mantra of not letting his personal religious beliefs interfere with his job as President. Such is not true Catholicism, but is the cry of the Gnostic: Let me be personally and privately and spiritually religious with no Incarnation, with no outward and concrete expression of that faith. The early Gnostics could pretend to be Christian while doing nothing to warrant martyrdom. The modern one claims to be privately spiritual while conveniently accepting or promoting the politically correct heathenism of modern culture.

No comments: