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Incarnation Is Already Redemption

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alternative Orthodoxy: Week 1

Incarnation Is Already Redemption
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
(Ash Wednesday)

The alternative orthodoxy of Francis and the mainline orthodoxy of most Christian denominations largely have different starting points. Francis’ alternative orthodoxy emphasizes incarnation instead of redemption. For Franciscans, Christmas is already Easter because in becoming a human being, God already shows that it’s good to be human, to be flesh. The problem is already somehow solved. Flesh does not need to be redeemed by any sacrificial atonement theory. This opens up an entirely different field in which to move freely.

Our sense of shame and guilt seems to localize in the body. The body ages and dies and so it looks inferior, but actually the soul can age and die too, and that is probably what we meant by the word “hell.” Both body and soul are on a journey. Of all people, Christians should have known that “flesh” is not a bad word. In fact, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) according to the inspired words of John’s Gospel.  Unfortunately Paul used the same word “flesh” (sarx) in a most judgmental and dualistic way—and that is the one most people remember. It got us off to a bad start.

I think my wonderful Church history and liturgy professor, Fr. Larry Landini, in Centerville, Ohio, may have given the best explanation for why so many Christians seem to be ashamed and afraid of the body. In 1970, on the last day of class, as he was backing out of the classroom, Fr. Landini offered these final words to us: “Just remember, on the practical level the Christian Church has been much more influenced by Plato than it has been by Jesus.” He then left the room, leaving us laughing and stunned, but fully prepared to understand the sad truth of what he had just said, since he had led us through the history of spirituality and liturgy for four full years.

For Plato, body and soul were incompatible enemies; matter and spirit were at deep odds with one another, utter opposites. But for Jesus, there is no animosity between body, soul, and spirit whatsoever. In fact, this is the heart of Jesus’ healing message, and this is why incarnation is at the heart of Franciscan theology. Jesus healed both body and soul in most Gospel stories.

Francis understood the deep implications of the Incarnation and took Incarnation to its logical conclusions: Real Presence is everywhere—in the neighbor, in the other, in nature, in animals, in Brother Sun and Sister Moon, in sinner and enemies, in the collective Body of Christ, and yes, in distilled form in the bread and in the wine, just as it was distilled and focused in the person of Jesus. The principle is this: we must struggle with the truth in one concrete place—and then universalize from there. This has sometimes been called the first philosophical problem of “the one and the many.”

The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, which many Christians recite at church, go back to the second and third centuries. In them we say, “We believe in the resurrection of the body.” I want to point out what that is not saying: We believe in the resurrection of the spirit or the soul—yet that is exactly what most Christians have almost exclusively concentrated on. The Christian religion makes the most daring affirmation: God is redeeming matter and spirit, or the whole of creation. The very end of the Bible speaks of the “new heavens and the new earth” and the descent of the “new Jerusalem from the heavens” to “live among us” (Revelation 21:1-3). This physical universe and our own physicality are somehow going to share in the Eternal Mystery, whatever it is in its fullness. Embodiment is not insignificant; your body is not bad. In fact, it is the new and lasting temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and throughout Paul). It is the very hiding place of God—so only the humble and the humbled will find such a Treasure.

For much of Christian history we’ve severely limited people’s in-depth experience of God by making religious faith largely into a set of mental abstractions. We split the mind from the body and both of them from the spirit. Many of us are now victims of not knowing how to receive, access, enjoy, suffer, and appreciate what can only be known in its wholeness. No wonder so many have left the church, doubt the truth of Christianity, become practical materialists inside the church (including many clergy) or agnostics and atheists outside the church (including many who are actual “believers”). I am not sure which is sadder. What they seem to affirm or seem to reject is too often not the real thing anyway. As wise Augustine said in the 4th century, “God has many that the church does not have; and the church has many that God does not have.” Any who put body and spirit together are already “had” by God!  They are privileged to “carry in their bodies the very brand marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).

Gateway to Silence:
Love with your whole heart, soul, mind, and body.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), discs 3 and 4 (CD, MP3 download).

Image Credit: St. Francis receiving the Stigmata (detail), by Giotto de Bondone from the Legend of St. Francis, 1297-1300. San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy
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