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 the passage from the liturgy read today, as I write this, December 29, of the Christmas Octave. It is 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)
I. Faith is incarnational – Note first of all what a practical man John is. Faith is not an abstraction, it is not about theories, abstractions, generalities or merely 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,” in that 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. Therefore our faith cannot remain merely immaterial. What we most are, must be reflected in our bodies, in 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.
II. 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 usually more than a mere intellectual knowing. The verb used in this passage to denote “know” is γινώσκομεν (ginoskomen). This type of knowing means an experiential knowing as distinguished from a mere intellectual or “book” knowing, more commonly indicated by the Greek word “oida.” So the kind of knowing set forth in this passage (ginoskomen) means more fully, to have a 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 person with a bodily dimension, 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.
III. 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.” True, 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.
IV. 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 divide 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 not necessarily so.
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.
So, faith is real. It is “incarnational.” At Christmas we acknowledge that the Word, Jesus Christ, 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 song arranged by Richard Proulx (RIP) of an anonymously composed 15th Century Carol. The song is available at iTunes. The translation is as follows:
Verbum Caro Factum Est (The Word was made flesh)
Habitavit in Nobis (And dwelt among us)
Notum fecit Dominus (The Lord has made known)
Salutare suum (His Salvation)
Prope invocavit me: (Near is he who calls me: )
“Frater meus est tu!”” (“You are my brother!”)
Here is another anonymous 16th Spanish Carol: