Faith Has to Become Flesh

At Christmas we celebrate the fact of the Word Becoming Flesh. God’s love for us is not just some theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can actually be seen, heard and touched. But the challenge of the Christmas season is for us to allow the same thing to happen to our faith. The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of  a book or the recesses of our intellect. They have to become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and Catechism and become flesh in the very way we live our lives, the decisions we make, the very way we use our body, mind, intellect and will.

Consider a passage from the liturgy of the Christmas Octave from the First Letter of John. I would like to produce an excerpt and then make a few comments.

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.  (1 John 2:3ff)

  1. Faith is incarnational – Note first of all what a practical man John is. Faith is not an abstraction, it is not about theories and words on a page. It is not about slogans. It is about a transformed life, it is about the actual love of God and his Commandments. It is about the actual love of of my neighbor. True faith is incarnational, it takes on flesh in my very “body-person.” Remember, we human beings are not pure spirit, we are not intellect and will only, we are also flesh and blood. And what we are cannot remain merely immaterial. What we most are must be reflected in our bodies, what we actually, physically do as well. Too many people often repeat the phrase, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional absence is understandable but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Actually showing up and actually doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must have a physical, flesh and blood dimension. Our faith is to be reflected in our actual behavior and the physical conduct of our life.
  2. A sure sign – John says that The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith, it is the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love, it is the fruit of it. Note this too, in the Scriptures, to “know” is always more than a mere intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Scriptures means, “deep intimate personal experience of the thing or person known.” It is one thing to know about God, it is another thing to “know the Lord.” So, what John is saying here is that to be sure we authentically have deep intimate personal experience of God is to observe the fact that this changes the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord will change our actual behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with the Lord. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. It changes the way we live and move and have our being. For a human being who is a body-person faith cannot be an abstraction, it has to become flesh and blood if it is authentic. John also uses the image of walking: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.  Now walking is a very physical thing. It is also a very symbolic thing. The very place we take our body is both physical and indicative of what we value, what we think.
  3. Liar? – John goes on to say Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. John uses strong language here. Either we believe and keep the commandments or we fail to keep the commandments and thus lie about knowing the Lord. But all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully!  John seems so “all or nothing.” But his math is clear. To know the Lord fully, is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). To know him imperfectly is still to experience sin. Hence, the more we know him (remember the definition of know from above!) the less we sin. If we still sin it is a sign that we do not know him enough. It is not really John who speaks too absolutely. It is really we who do so. We say, “I have faith, I am a believer, I love the Lord, I know the the Lord!”  We speak so absolutely. Perhaps we could better say, I am growing in faith, I am striving to be a better believer, I’m learning to love and know the Lord better and better. Otherwise we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in. Many Protestants have a bad habit of reducing faith to an event such as answering an altar call, or accepting the Lord  as “personal Lord and savior.” But we Catholics do it too. Many think all they have to do is be baptized but they never attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics  but they dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we actually make. Without this harmony between faith and our actual walk we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. Bottom line: Come to know the Lord more an more perfectly and, if this knowing is real knowing,  we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked.
  4. Uh Oh! Is this salvation by works? Of course not. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving and real faith it is the result of it. The keeping of the commandments is the necessary evidence of saving faith but it does not cause us to be saved, it only indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects. But here too certain Protestants have a nasty habit of dividing faith and works. The cry went up in the 16th Century by the Protestants that we are saved by faith “alone.”  Careful. Faith is never alone. It always brings effects with it. Our big brains can get in the way here and we think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can divide it in reality. This is arrogant and silly. Consider for a moment a candle flame. Now the flame has two qualities: heat and light. In our mind we can separate the two but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame and the light. They are so together as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a candle flame are separate theoretically but they are always together in reality. This is how it is with faith and works. We are not saved by works but as John here teaches to know the Lord is always accompanied by the evidence of keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.

Faith is real. It is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. So too our own faith must become flesh in us, really, physically in our actual behavior in our very body-person.

I put this video together with a lesser known carol (possibly by Praetorius). The translation is as follows:

  • Verbum Caro Factum Est (The Word was made flesh)
  • Habitavit in Nobis (And dwelt among us)
  • Alleluia
  • Notum fecti Dominus (The Lord has made known)
  • Salutare suum (His Salvation)
  • Alleluia
  • Prope invocavit me: (Near is he who calls me: )
  • Frater meus est tu!”” (“You are my brother!”)
  • Alleluia

7 Replies to “Faith Has to Become Flesh”

  1. A lot of people have this great idea that I am a good Catholic. They think that just because they see me at daily mass, and bible study, and the whole nine yards that I must be good at practicing my faith. In truth, I have probably missed Sunday Mass more times due to work than anything else, and I have struggles in my personal life that make me lose faith at times. But, I am thankful for my work because I see God’s grace many a hard night.

    Christmas Eve was probably the worst shift i have worked in my history of working night shifts in the ER. All of my coworkers were in agreement on that one. Why was it so bad? Because we wanted Christmas miracles for families and it wasn’t happening. Three people died that night. And then all the rest were intubated or extremely critical. I actually cried that night and I rarely show emotion, if ever, in public. I cried for and with the families, and I cried because I felt like I had failed God and the patients that passed away (they were somewhat young – late 50’s to early 60’s). I had to be back Christmas night, and it was then I really appreciated being able to work in the hospital. It was quiet, and I got to spend time with coworkers, and talking with patients. I got to take my time and really appreciate my team, and get to know some of my patients that were stuck there for a while sick on Christmas.

    I am constantly growing and changing in my faith, but I always need help to get there. And I really appreciate this blog, and the people that comment, because it gives me insight on how other people are struggling, or finding things useful, and I enjoy sharing my insights when I can think of how to share them.

  2. Dear Father,

    This is by-far one of the best and most concise explanation of the need for faith to bring us to do good works that I have read through a blog.

    It is too true. Faith is never alone. When I came to my faith as I have enshrined it today, it brought me to an entire change in attitude and action. I do good works not because I believe they will bring me to salvation, but because of the effect of my faith.

  3. I think when you understand what Paul means by faith and than you read this great article on faith, you realize that Jesus is faith incarnate 🙂

  4. “Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics but they dissent from important Church teachings.”

    I really enjoyed reading this, and appreciate the reminder that ‘works’ flow from faith, and not the other way around. It is a constant struggle for me, because instinctually I believe that salvation is something I must strive for, not the free gift it really is, and that I could never really earn.
    That being said, the line I quoted above, the apparent spirit of which seems to be a consistent theme in your blog, troubles me. First, the implied judgement of someone who voices, or even lives, disagreement with one of the POLICIES of the ADMINISTRATIVE body of the church, seems to be in direct contradiction with the instruction that we not judge, and that only God can really judge what is in someones heart. Second, can we please make a distinction between the teachings of the CHURCH, the living body of Christ, and the interpretations of a group of designated ministers/teachers. Yes, they have been chosen by God to lead and teach the rest of the Church. And yes they are given special graces to carry out this responsibility according to God’s will. But let’s face it: history has shown (and common sense predicts, since they are, after all, human) that sometimes, priests, bishops and even popes get it wrong. So if someone dissents from one of these policies, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are disloyal, or less devout. It is even possible to imagine situations where it means they are more devout than someone who meekly does and says whatever Authority tells them to.
    I don’t know, Msgr. Pope, if I have interpreted your statement correctly. If I haven’t, I hope that you can understand why I misunderstood. But it is statements like that which make me sympathize with Martin Luther, one of the all-time great dissenters.

    1. Your ecclesiology is rather a strange one. You refer to the POLICIES of the ADMINISTRATIVE body of the church. The Pope, the bishops and in general the magisterium are not mere policies neither are the Pope and Bishops, those currently living and those stretching back to Chirst an “administrative body.” They are sucessors to the apostles and they speak for Christ whenever they teach solemnly on matters of faith and morals. The Church’s opposition to Abortion (to mention the elephant in the room) is not a “policy” it is a very clear and consistent moral teaching and is clearly taught doctrine. If one dissents on a matter of doctrine they are in fact departing from the faith and there is no other way to describe this. To be a Catholic and a Christian means something. One cannot simply design their list of doctrines and still calim to be professing the actual Catholic faith. Actually I suppose people can “claim” anything, but the reality is that they are failing to profess the actual Catholic faith. As for priests, bishops and even popes getting it wrong sometimes. Please define what you mean. If a priest for example were to get it wrong about the weather, the outcome of an election etc. OK But when priests, bishops and popes teach the reavealed faith they are not getting it wrong.

      Your description of “someone who meekly does and says whatever Authority tells them to” suggest to me that you presume those who follow authority are just “meek.” I suppose you use “meek” to mean that they are mindless, or just weak in their following of authority. But perhaps Mike it is possible to follow authority in a way that is mindful and strong? What if I have squared my mind with the Church in a way that is strong and thoughtful. Do you see all strong believers as meek or is this just some theoretical straw man you set up to knock down?

      FInally as for “judging” other people. This is a rather old and tired protest from the world and you violate it in the very act of accusing the Church of “judging.” For in so doing you are judging us. Can we just please agree that although certain judgements are forbidden us in Scripture, the same Scriptures command us to make other judgments. We are commanded to judge between right and wrong. We are commanded to “know people by their fruits.” The Church is commanded to correct sinners and even at times excommunicate obstinate and unrepentant sinners. I have covered these texts extenively in a prior blog post here: tp://blog.adw.org/2009/11/fraternal-correction-the-forgotten-virtue/ and do not wish to go through all those text individually now but the post cites a dozen places where scripture both commands and commends the correction of the sinner and that the Church and the Christian speak the truth and correct the sinner.

      Your sympathy for Martin Luther may be a bridge too far because the last time I checked, he pretty seriously wounded the unity in the Body of Christ for which Jesus prayed.

  5. Astute message Msgr.! Have you ever thought about coaching football? I think you could offer the Redskin’s
    some sound advice on executing a strong and learned defensive response:)

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