The central and, one might add, foundational, mystery of Christianity is the mystery of the Incarnation. Christians believe that God became man, that the transcendent God entered into time and space and became one of us, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1: 14). God submitted himself to all the limitations and imperfections proper of our bodily condition: he submitted himself to hunger, to thirst, to fatigue, to sadness and even to death. It is clear, then, that a religion founded on such a mystery must of necessity be an “incarnate” religion. Such is the case with Christianity. Many people assume incorrectly that Christianity is a purely spiritual religion that rejects material things. There is nothing further from the truth. As a matter of fact, when heresies that portrayed the material world as evil sprung up, the Church sent its most powerful minds to combat them. Christians do not despise the material world because God Himself did not despise it. We believe that after He created it, He “saw that it was very good” (Gen. 1: 31).
Anyone trying to comprehend Christianity needs to be aware of this incarnational aspect for it is present, though at times hidden, in the vast majority, if not all, of our beliefs. A few examples should suffice to show how the Incarnation is so deeply embedded in Catholic teaching. Before going into those examples, however, it might be helpful to think about why God could have conceived the idea of the Incarnation in the first place. Could He not have revealed Himself to us in some other way? The fact is, and we know this through revelation, that God is a personal God. As such, He desires to be in relationships with other personal beings. That is what He has been seeking since the moment of the creation of man. Unlike other religions, Christianity is not about man seeking God but about God seeking man. Saint John puts it this way: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4: 10). The entire history of salvation is about God reaching out to man trying to draw him to Himself. With this in mind, it makes sense that God would reach out to us not in his terms, but in ours. That He would make use of material things, including our own human nature, in order to communicate with us because we ourselves are material. He is speaking to us in our own language.
The examples I have decided to talk about are two: the Bible and the Church. I did not pick them randomly. Many non-Christians see the Bible as a “weakness” of Christianity because it seems too human to be divine. The same happens with the Church. Even many Catholics think that the Church as institution, the “hierarchy” as they like to call it, is not part of what God intended; that it is purely a human creation. All of this misses the point entirely.
Let us begin with the Bible. Like I said, Christianity is incarnational. It is obvious, then, that God’s Word would be incarnated and presented to man in human words even when that meant that it would be subject to all the limitations of human language, to the culture in which it was written, to the knowledge of the time, to the writing style of its human authors. Knowing the incarnational aspect of Christianity, this should not come as a surprise. We need to take all these things into account when interpreting it, and that is why Catholics have always left the interpretation of obscure passages to the experts. The argument that the “humanness” of the Bible is proof that it is not divine loses all its strength when we take the incarnational nature of Christianity into account.
Now, the fact that the text of the Bible is inscribed within a certain culture and context does not limit its message in any way; its message is not invalid for people of different cultures and times. The message is still universal and meant for the peoples of all eras and nations. It is, in a sense, like Shakespeare’s writings. However influenced by his time and culture, they still contain universal truths that transcend time and space. Any great work of literature has this universality. This is even truer with respect to the Bible.
Another area in which we can see the incarnational characteristics of the Bible is the way in which it came into existence. We have never believed that the Bible magically appeared or that God whispered its contents into someone’s ear. That is not how it happened. Was the Bible divinely inspired? Yes, it was. And yet, that only means that God made certain men His collaborators in writing down what He wished to tell us. He did not do this in some magical way. He simply inspired them to use their talents and skills, their knowledge and experience, to communicate something to all humanity. He did not write it for them nor did he control them as puppets of some sort. He let them write while making sure they did not write anything He did not wish to be written. He oversaw the writing process, if you will. He also oversaw the compilation process. Remember, the Bible is not one book; it is a collection of over seventy books. The development of the canon of the Bible (the “official” list of books that are considered divinely inspired) was a process of discernment. Once again, God did not come down from heaven to tell us which books were inspired and which were not. The final canon came into existence after intense study, discussion, and debate. In a very human way, God intervened to fix the list and reveal His will.
What about the Church? Did Christ really intend that there be priests and bishops and a Pope? Did he not intend, rather, simply to form a community of believers? Christ’s intention was, indeed, to form a community of followers, a family for God. But every community we form on this earth, every society, even every family, must take a visible form: an institutional form. The family has a father and a mother who exercise authority in their household; our societies have a government; even our social clubs have directive structures that allow them to function and preserve their existence. Even though there have been many crazies who have said that we can do without any form of authority and structure, that is not the case. We might say that a community becomes incarnate in an institution. And so it happened with Christ’s Church. It happened even when this meant that it would be subject to all the imperfections of our institutions, to the need of being reformed from time to time, to the possibility of corruption.
Some others question how a Church that claims to be divine and holy can make so many mistakes and be so full of sinners, how it can be so far from perfect. Once more they are missing the point that the Catholic Church is a Church incarnate. It is a Church made for humans that are imperfect, sinful, and sometimes plain stupid. The Church has never made the claim of being perfect because it recognizes that its human component is not perfect. The Church has never claimed that its members are free from sin because it is actually a Church for sinners who are seeking redemption. God has allowed His Church to be subject to the imperfections of an imperfect humanity so that it can embrace all of mankind. If the Church were perfect how could we, who are imperfect, fit in? A perfect Church would be a church for angels, not for human beings.
These same people usually go on to question whether we actually need all the rituals and ceremonies, all the sacraments and rites, all the incense and candles, so to speak. Could we not just worship and love God in the secret of our own hearts? Catholicism, because it is incarnational, would say no, that is not enough. That is not in our nature. The external and visible things reveal the internal and invisible ones. For example, it is not enough for a man to love a woman only “in his heart.” He must do and say things that allow her to know that he actually does love her, things that make that love visible so she can perceive it. It is the same with God, not because He needs that but because we do. It is in our very nature to perform rituals and ceremonies that reveal that internal attitude of worship. We need the sacraments because we need to be certain that God’s grace has been poured on us, and a purely spiritual or internal action is not enough for us. We need something physical, something we can touch and smell and feel. We need something incarnate.
This can lead some to say, “Well, if Catholicism is so incarnate, so human, then perhaps that is all there is to it, there is nothing divine about it.” Once again we must turn to the mystery of the Incarnation to answer this. When God became man he did not cease to be God. Christ is true God and true man. He has both natures. When the Word of God became human word in the Bible it did not cease to be God’s Word. When God’s Church took on a human form it did not cease to be divine. The mystery of the Incarnation is precisely about the union between God and man, between heaven and earth. Human words are lifted and united with God’s Word and give rise to Sacred Scripture. A human institution is raised and wedded to a divine institution to form the Catholic Church.
This is a matter of faith: a spiritual matter, you might say. But all I have said is related to how Catholic beliefs are immersed in the Incarnation; therefore, it is not only a matter of faith. There are things that appeal to our reason and point in the direction of the truth of the things I have affirmed. Let us take the case of the Church. By faith we know that it is divine. Our reason, on the other hand, distinguishes that there is no other institution in the history of mankind that has gone through all the things the Catholic Church has. It has been attacked from the outside and it has overcome its enemies; it has rotted on the inside but has managed to become purified; it has been persecuted and suffered martyrdom only to prosper and grow; it has become corrupt beyond measure but it has been able to reform. It has survived in its moments of greatest weakness and, more surprising yet, in its moments of greatest strength. Where all other human institutions have eventually failed and withered away, the Church has remained and even thrived. When it seems closest to death it always resurges with the vitality of young age. Despite its humanness, there is something about it that can only be explained as divine.
To be able to fully grasp Catholicism, one needs not to look into the depths of an infinite and abstract heaven. One needs only to look into a small carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. It is necessary to look at God Incarnate; it is necessary to look at the person of Christ.Tags » authority, church, incarnation, scripture
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