Monday, April 2, 2012

Struggling to Understand the Incarnational Church

It's become a habit of mine to return each Holy Week to a short book written by (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) entitled, Called to Communion.  The book is a particular friend as I prepare myself for Maundy Thursday, which makes sense in light of the title.

This year, I have been especially struck by a short passage that I cherish for the clarity it gives many of the contemporary conversations in the Church - missional, emerging, or otherwise - which, at best, can be said to be struggling for clarity.  The language in all of these that I find unhelpful and sloppy is the manner in which the word "incarnational" is thrown around cheaply.  Despite a compelling legacy in the Catholic Church, use of "incarnational" has degenerated to the point that in some circles it seems to mean as little as hanging out with people moderately different from one's self.  If beer is involved it is definitely so.  

While loving strangers is undeniably of one piece with the Church's response to the Gospel, I struggle to call this incarnational.  Yet one church's website - in defining themselves as incarnational - makes the connection plainly: "we bring Christ to others as Christ was brought to us in birth..."  Again, no Christian would argue against bringing Christ to others (though it is worth noting that the baptismal commends to us the task of also seeking Christ in all persons - to say nothing of the paternalism and colonialism so often a part of phrases like that of the above website's).  The main point, however, is that to call this incarnational seems to either 1) grossly make light of the singular miracle of God-with-us born to Mary or 2) equally grossly condescend to view the difference between myself and my neighbor as equivalent to the difference between humankind and God.  That's preposterous.  But maybe I misunderstand.  I say that in all seriousness - as I look at the above caricature I pray that I do.  Or maybe "evangelism" has just become that bad a word for the Church.  That's fair, too.  In other words, so what?  What would be the material significance of the distinction?

Which brings us to Pope Benedict's words, wherein he helpfully reminds us that "the Church does not simply become Christ," but in holy union with Christ, the Church receives the love and the charge to "constantly become what she is..."  And so repentance is an inseparable part of the mission of the Church.  This truth may seem obvious, but it is a truth more easily forgotten when one conceives of oneself as God incarnate to strangers, I think.  But repentance is an inseparable part of the outward mission of the Church.  And this makes sense.  For as soon as he gave his disciples his body - "take, eat" - he gave them the cup to drink - for "the forgiveness of sins."  The prayer is not that he would dwell in us apart from our equally dwelling in him.  Which doesn't sound like a mutual incarnation.  But it does make me think of Maundy Thursday, which is why I return year in and year out to this book. 

Anyway, here's the passage:

"...the Church is the Body of Christ in the way in which the woman is one body, or rather one flesh, with the man.  Put in other terms, the Church is the Body, not by virtue of an identity without distinction, but rather by means of the pneumatic-real act of spousal love.  Expressed in yet another way, this means that Christ and the Church are one body in the sense in which man and woman are one flesh, that is, in such a way that in their indissoluble spiritual-bodily union, they nonetheless remain unconfused and unmingled.  The Church does not simply become Christ, she is ever the handmaid whom he lovingly raises to be his Bride and who seeks his face throughout these latter days.

"Yet against the backdrop of the indicative intimated in the words 'Bride' and 'Body', the imperative of Christian existence also emerges, making plain the dynamic character of sacramental reality, which is not an already accomplished physical act but takes place as a personal event.  It is precisely the mystery of love, seen as a nuptial mystery, that indicates in unmistakable terms...our task..."  

No comments:

Post a Comment