If you’re like me, you have a struggle every morning: do I dare read the news today? What new calamity is going to befall us? In what new ways will people hurt each other? How can I stay centered when the world around me is so off-center?
Part of me just wants to turn my back on all of it. Stay off the internet, not put on NPR when I’m driving somewhere, ignore what’s on TV. With the exception of the sporadic “human interest” stories that local stations put into their lineup—the baby deer rescued, the Girl Scout helping her elderly grandmother–the stories all seem to underscore a lack of spiritual values in a very material world.
Some days, it’s hard enough hanging on to one’s faith without being assured, time and time again, that material values seem to be taking over all of life.
I live in the United States and am more than aware that I live in a culture of acquisition, what my friend Shannon calls “stuffification.” Buy this and you’ll live longer. Buy that and you’ll be happier. Open a new charge account. Get a bigger house. Drive a better car. Eat at the most fashionable restaurant. Do all of this, and your life will be fulfilling.
Listening to all those voices can be dispiriting, and the impulse of many Catholics is to reject this culture of acquisition, to draw a bright line between what’s “material” and what’s “spiritual.” The mistake there is that they’re not so easily separated out.
Before we reject the material world altogether, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider where it came from. It’s worth remembering that, as much as humanity has made some pretty spectacular mistakes with what we’ve been given, the main point is still there: God made the earth. He made it physical, and he made us physical beings to live on it. So there has to be something sacred about that creation. And then—and this really is the most amazing part of the story—he became part of it, through the Incarnation.
“Incarnation” comes from the Latin in carne, which means “into flesh.” To redeem humanity, God became part of humanity. In the Gospel of John, we read that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word is God’s own self-communication, given to us out of all eternity. What is flesh? It’s everything material, perishable, vulnerable, finite. In other words, it’s all the things that we feel we need to reject in order to be “spiritual.”
God became material. By becoming flesh, the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality, not just in a spiritual sense, but in its material dimension as well. He made humanity holy by becoming part of humanity.
Jesus continued this profound connection with the world. He lived and preached mostly in agricultural communities, and used language those communities could understand: his parables talk about seeds, harvest, vineyards, weeds. They speak of sheep and birds, of rain and sunsets. He spoke lovingly of how God clothes wildflowers with beauty. He reminded people that God cares even about a dead sparrow. It doesn’t get much more earth-bound than that!
Jesus’ actions, too, were physical. People’s bodily sufferings were at the center of his healing ministry, and he used his own spittle and warm touch to convey health. And he fed people, not just on his words, but on real physical material food as well. He fed large numbers of people on hillsides, and he fed smaller groups in homes. He instituted the central sacrament of the Church, the Eucharist, in the context of a meal.
As the gospel stories show, bodies matter to God—all bodies, not only those beautiful and full of life, but also those damaged, violated, starving, dying; and not only those of humankind—remember that sparrow?—but also those of the rest of creation.
God didn’t just play at being human: he was incarnated, became fully human as much as he was fully divine. And if we ever forgot that, then our liturgies would remind us of it: our sacraments are filled with cosmic and earthly symbols of light and dark, new fire, flowers and greens, water and oil, bread and wine.
Ours is an incarnational faith. And even though we celebrate that fact, we don’t actually think much about it. There’s still that line in our minds that divides the spiritual and material worlds. And we think that at our peril, for therein lies danger. One of the first heresies, Gnosticism, held that matter—all matter—was evil, an idea borrowed from certain Greek philosophers that both contradicts Genesis 1:31 (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”) and other scriptures, and also denies the Incarnation. If matter is evil, then Jesus Christ could not be true God and true man, for Christ is in no way evil. Thus many Gnostics denied the Incarnation, claiming that Christ only appeared to be a man, but that his humanity was an illusion.
It’s not either/or: it’s both. It is unique to Christianity to discover a God who takes the initiative in becoming flesh in order to redeem sinful human beings, and in so doing has become both fully human and fully divine. This is our story, and we need to remind ourselves of it when we decide to reject part of God’s creation.
C. S. Lewis wrote that “the Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” In Galatians, St. Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.”
And that’s the core of the story, isn’t it? That God really did so love the world that he gave his Son to be born, to live within a material culture, and then to die in order to redeem his children. Every day we need redemption. Every day we wake up to discouraging news, to inequities, to commercials, to suffering; and every day we need to ground ourselves in the knowledge of the Incarnation, of God-made-flesh, of a spirituality that lives through material things rather than in spite of them.
But—and here’s where we have some agency—appreciating and sharing material goods is very different from acquiring them for the sake of acquisition. Jesus moved among the poor, the outcasts, those living in the margins of society; their culture was where he focused, not the palaces of the wealthy. The Incarnation honors God’s creation and challenges us to use it wisely, without excess, without pride or ownership.
The Incarnation challenges us to review and, if necessary, adjust our priorities. To be grateful for all that we are given and see it as good, but not desire or acquire more than we need. To hold what we do own lightly and in thankfulness. And somehow, with that in mind, it’s just a little easier to endure the news and the commercials and the acquisitiveness of our culture. Keep it in perspective.
And keep growing in faith.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir