Incarnation and Sacrament
Fr. Tony’s Mid-week Message
December 7, 2016
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14)
This time of year, a major point of our reflection and meditation is the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnation, or God’s taking on of flesh, is a central doctrine of Christianity. It generates a whole range of beliefs, practices, and feelings in the catholic tradition of Eastern and Western Christianity, whether Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or Anglicanism. Anglican Bishop of Oxford Charles Gore, in his magisterial Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation (1890), quotes several earlier Christian theologians on how our view of nature and the world changes in light of the doctrine of Incarnation:
“The wisdom of God, when first it issued in creation, came not to us naked, but clothed in the apparel of created things. And then when the same wisdom would manifest Himself to us as the Son of God, He took upon Him a garment of flesh and so was seen of men” (Hugh of St. Victor, Migne Patrologia LatinaV 177 para 580).
“As the thought of the Divine mind is called the Word, Who is the Son, so the unfolding of that thought in external action … is named the word of the Word … The incarnation is the exaltation of human nature and consummation of the Universe”” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV 13).
“The whole world is a kind of bodily and visible Gospel of that Word by which it was created” (Herbert of Bosham, Migne Patrologia Latina V 190 para. 1353.)
“Every creature is a theophany” (John Scotus Eriugina, Migne Patrologia Latina V 122 para. 302)
“Every creature is a Divine word, for it tells of God” (Bonaventure, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, ci. t. ix).
Because of this ennobled view of all creation, in which the Creator took on the limits and weakness of being a creature, catholics (again of all stripes, whether Eastern, Roman, or Anglican) see throughout creation and created things the presence of God. This is clear in how we understand sacraments, those God-given practices and actions where an inward reality and presence of God is made manifest in an outward sign, one that not only points to the inward truth symbolically, but also which actually helps bring about the very truth it points to. In baptism, washing in water in the name of the Holy Trinity symbolizes and brings about regeneration and life in God. In the Holy Eucharist, bread and wine not only symbolize Christ’s body and blood, but make them truly and really present for us. (It is not so much that they “re-present” Christ’s sufferings and victory over death but rather make us present at the original event.)
But this sacramental view based in incarnation extends much further. In the words of Fr. Andrew Greeley in his book The Catholic Imagination, we “live in an enchanted world.” Our lives are full of created objects that hint at and reveal the mystery and light behind and beneath them and all our lives: beautiful art in worship, whether music, heart-felt liturgy, or lovely vestments, be they stained glass, votive candles, incense, images and statues, or holy water or anointing oil. As Greeley explains, these “paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which … see[s] the holy lurking in creation. [W]e find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.”
In the early 1900s, the Canon at Westminster Abbey, Percy Dearmer, wrote the following hymn. It sums up better than anything else, I think, this sacramental, incarnational view of our lives:
“Draw us in the Spirit’s tether; For when humbly, in thy name,Two or three are met together, Thou art in the midst of them:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Touch we now thy garment’s hem.
“As the brethren used to gather In the name of Christ to sup,
Then with thanks to God the Father Break the bread and bless the cup,
Alleluia! Alleluia! So knit thou our friendship up.
“All our meals and all our living Make us sacraments of thee,
That be caring, helping, giving, We may true disciples be.
Alleluia! Alleluia! We will serve thee faithfully.”