Splendor of the Church
by Alan Schreck
I began writing this article on October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. What better way to begin to prepare for Christmas and to reflect on Catholicism as "the religion of the Incarnation" than to consider Francis!
Our Bodies, Our World--- "Very Good"
How many people (and be honest, it often may include us) seek to find God and live a "spiritual" life by "rising above" the material order and human nature? We aspire to be in God's presence, and this, it seems, means leaving behind ordinary daily life with its mundane activities. At its worst, this is manifest in the Gnostic heresy of "dualism" that claims that only the spiritual (or spirit itself) is good, while all material things (and matter itself) is tainted or evil.
Against this tendency stands the great affirmation of Genesis 1:31: "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." This affirmation is echoed in St. Francis' "Canticle of Brother Sun" that proclaims how God is glorified through every part of his creation - Francis' "brothers and sisters" the sun, moon, stars, wind, air, water, fire, the earth, people who grant pardon and endure trial, and even through "Sister Death."
The glory of the Creator is revealed in the very existence and beauty of the creature. Yet this is not all. Christianity claims that God has gone one step further: he has actually entered into this creation and has "become" one of the creatures. This is the mystery of the Incarnation-"the Word [of God became flesh and dwelt among us" Un 1:14).
The Great Self-emptying
St. Francis was awestruck by this reality that God did not disdain our feeble, insignificant state, but even came among us as an infant born in a rude stable into a humble small-town family. St. Bonaventure recounts how St. Francis came to make the first manger scene to commemorate the Incarnation.
It happened in the third year before his death that he decided, in order to arouse devotion, to celebrate at Greccio with the greatest possible solemnity the memory of the birth of the Child Jesus. So that this would not be considered a type of novelty, he petitioned for and obtained permission from the Supreme Pontiff.
He had a crib prepared, hay carried in and an ox and an ass led to the place. The friars are summoned, the people come, the forest resounds with their voices and that venerable night is rendered brilliant and solemn by a multitude of bright lights and by resonant and harmonious hymns of praise.
The man of God stands before the crib filled with affection, bathed in tears overflowing with joy. A solemn Mass is celebrated over the crib, with Francis as deacon chanting the holy Gospel. Then he preaches to the people standing about concerning the birth of the poor King, whom, when he wished to name him, he called in his tender love, the Child of Bethlehem.
The Incarnation, I would claim, is the foundational miracle of Christianity. If it is true that God has entered into human history by becoming a human being -- this great voluntary "self-emptying" (kenosis) of God's divine status (Phil 2: 5- 11)--then nothing else that God does in and through Jesus should appear surprising or impossible. If Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate - God in the flesh - should it surprise us that he could do mighty works or "miracles," overcome death in others and in himself; ascend into heaven, and continue to be truly present and give himself to us forever under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist?
The Incarnation Principle: Basis of Sacraments
One common thread that connects all these is the thesis that God decided to make himself known to us and accessible to us in and through material things. This "incarnational principle" is the basis for all the sacraments. In the sacraments, Catholics believe that Jesus is truly present, especially in the person of the minister of the sacrament who acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) and in the sacramental signs (bread, wine, water, oil, etc.). They are "signs" because they point to the reality of God's presence and action. To understand this takes faith, and it seems that a special faith is needed to believe that we ourselves, the baptized, are also sacraments, for we are, corporately or "all together," Christ's living presence on earth as the Body of Christ, the Church.
Individually, each of us is also a dwelling place of God - a living "temple" of God the Holy Spirit who lives within us. It is another "miracle" that God is present in and acts through weak, feeble human instruments. He is present and acts in each baptized person. In a special way, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, he acts in those who continue the ministry of the apostles to serve and build up the whole Church. St. Francis recognized the gift of the priestly ministry to the extent that he refused to condemn or judge even the most sinful priest, because God still used him to consecrate the Eucharist.
Through the Eyes of Faith - and Beyond
The Incarnation necessitates that we look upon Jesus, the sacraments, the Church and ourselves with the gift of faith in order to see their true meaning. It is all too easy to stop at the appearance and fail to see the reality. We must "look beyond" (as a devotional hymn puts it) the humanity of Jesus to see his divinity. If we accept the "signs" which God has provided in Jesus' life, ministry and impact on history, this faith should not appear to be unreasonable. We must "look beyond" the outward signs of the sacraments to see, in faith, God's presence and action in them. We must "look beyond" the human frailty and failings of the members and ordained ministers of the Church in order to see Jesus present acting in and through them.
This, too, takes faith, though we do see glimpses of God's glory in the Church. God loves us and accepts our human limitations (which he made), and he enters into our lives in order to purify and to transform them into his perfect image, the image of his Son, Jesus. This process (being made holy) is often a painful and gradual one, but it is possible to see signs of this transformation and to recognize that God is truly present.
Beneath the Surface of Scripture
We also have faith that God has revealed himself to the human race through inspired words that have been written down and proclaimed by the Church to be "Sacred Scripture." This, too, is very incarnational, because God uses human authors and their languages and customary styles of writing and "literary forms" to communicate the truth that he wishes to reveal. Sacred Scripture is rightly called "the Word of God in human words," and so the Catholic Church urges careful study and analysis of the "human words" and their literary, historical and cultural context in order to understand more fully what God desires to reveal about himself and his will.
We must remember, though, to "look beyond" or "beneath" the human words by the gift of faith to hear and understand God's powerful and inspired word to us in Sacred Scripture. This Word has the power to set us free - to heal and transform us as we hear it and respond to it in faith. In doing this, Catholics also recognize the importance of Jesus' presence in the Church's leaders, especially the apostles' successors, the bishops, as they carry on the mission that Jesus gave to the apostles to proclaim God's word and to interpret it correctly and faithfully the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, God uses people (the incarnational principle) to continue to spread this truth and to guide his Church into the fullness of truth.
St. Francis had a deep awareness of God's presence in Sacred Scripture, St. Bonaventure reported that he prayed the psalms "with such attention of mind and spirit, as if he had God present" St. Francis' rules for his followers were little more than texts of Scripture that he put together and commented upon briefly.
As we prepare for the great feast of the Incarnation let us ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts in profound reverence and joy to the meaning of this mystery. And may we ever appreciate our Catholic and Christian faith in its material and human expressions as instruments of God's presence and grace in this "religion of the Incarnation."
Alan Schreck, Ph.D., is professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and an EWTN program host.
This item 5843 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org