The Church today is particularly skilled at transforming articles of faith into principles for action. Once “abstract” theological concepts are now reinvigorated with pastoral insight and practical urgency. So, for instance, the divine perichoresis (the “mutual indwelling” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is understood to encourage “perichoretic” communities marked by mutual love and empathy. Likewise, the “self-emptying” of Jesus Christ (kenosis) challenges us to “kenotic” forms of mission and ministry — giving ourselves away for the sake of others.
The supreme example of this practical approach to Christian dogma is of course the near-constant reminder that we should be more “incarnational.” “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Therefore, we should “make flesh” or “incarnate” the love of God in the communities within which God has placed us. The mystery of God-with-us provides something like the rationale for St. Paul’s “I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22).
On the one hand, these examples are commendable reminders that “right belief” informs “right action.” Scripture certainly gestures towards the practical implications of theological convictions. Jesus’ pronouncement on the mutual indwelling of the trinitarian persons gives rise to his prayer:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us … I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one. (John 17:21-23)
Similarly, St. Paul’s great hymn devoted to the self-emptying of Christ is prefaced by this command: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). The Incarnation likewise informs the Church’s mission: “As you [Father] have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
So yes, in an obvious and crucial sense, faith is inextricably bound to practice. A loving and liberating God animates us to love and calls us to participate in the liberating work of his kingdom. The vocation of the Church, indeed the vocation of every human being, is to image our creator and redeemer. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Yea and amen.
On the other hand, at the risk of sounding like a Grinch this Christmastide, I wonder/worry/fear whether the rush to reduce terms and judgments about God to their practical “cash value” reveals something of our impatience with the important business of thinking and speaking faithfully about God. One often hears in theological circles (from educators and practitioners alike), “My interest in theology is strictly practical.” Or perhaps the imperative: “One’s occupation with theology ought to be primarily practical.”
Ignoring for the moment the vital role of contemplation in the Christian life, are we not at risk here of making the faith more about us and less about God? Is the knowledge of God strictly a signpost along the way to more pressing concerns? Is the Trinity primarily a social program? Are the works of God in Christ efficacious or merely exemplary?
In moving so swiftly from Incarnation to incarnational, we unwittingly convey a basic distrust (or perhaps just boredom) in the liberating, illuminating, enlivening person and works of Jesus Christ. Our activism runs the risk of drowning out our adoration.
The Incarnation is not a principle. It is not just a reminder that God works and speaks through people. It is not primarily a model for ministry.
It is the staggering, awe-inspiring good news that the one by whom all things were made came down from heaven for us and for our salvation. Fumbling in the darkness of our ignorance and self-deceit, we encounter in Christ the light of divine Wisdom. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Imprisoned in our self-harm and selfishness, God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Lowly in our pride, God has exalted us through the humiliation of his Son.
As St. Augustine declares in one of his justly famous Christmas sermons:
Maker of the sun, he is made under the sun. … Creator of heaven and earth, he was born on earth under heaven. … Filling the world, he lies in a manger. Ruler of the stars, he nurses at his mother’s bosom. He is both great in the nature of God and small in the form of a servant, but in such a way that his greatness is not diminished by his smallness, nor his smallness overwhelmed by his greatness. (Sermon 187)
We attest to this miracle by proclamation and by participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. We receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood in order to be united to him and thus become “one body” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Jesus shares in our humanity that we may become “participants in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). But we do not repeat the Incarnation in our lives and ministries. The Incarnation requires no such repetition; thanks be to God! Like John the Baptist, we point instead away from ourselves to the one “from whom we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
So this Christmastide and Epiphany, leave some space in your incarnational life and ministry for the Incarnation. And let us heed together the carol’s advice: Venite adoremus — Come, let us adore him.