In the Office of Readings during the sixth week of Easter, we celebrate the Word becoming flesh. We read from the First Letter of John, which emphasizes the Incarnation of Jesus and demands that we experience the Word becoming Flesh in a practical way in our own lives.
Fundamentally, the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity becoming flesh, means that our faith is about things that are tangible. As human beings, we have bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual, but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence it is never enough for our faith to be about only thoughts, philosophies, concepts, or historical facts. Their truth must also touch the physical part of who we are. Our faith must become flesh; it has to influence our behavior. If that is not the case, then the Holy Spirit, speaking through John, has something to call us: liars.
God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and touched. 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 in the recesses of our intellect. They must become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and the Catechism and become flesh in the way we live our life, the decisions we make, and the way we use our body, mind, intellect, and will.
Consider the following passage, read at Mass during the Christmas season. (This excerpt is fairly representative of the tone of entire First Letter of John.)
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).
Note some teachings that follow from it:
1. Faith is incarnational. What a practical man John is! Faith is not an abstraction; it is not merely about theories and words on a page. It cannot be reduced to slogans or pious sayings. It is about a transformed life; it is about truly loving God and making His Commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about the loving of neighbor. True faith is incarnational. That is to say, it takes on flesh in our very “body.”
Human beings are not pure spirit; we are not just intellect and will but also flesh and blood. What we are must also be reflected in our bodies, in what we physically do.
Many people spout this phrase too often: “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional physical absence is understandable, but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Showing up physically and doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. Our faith must include a physical, flesh-and-blood dimension.
2. A sure sign – John said, 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 more the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love; it is the fruit of it.
In Scripture, “knowing” refers to more than an intellectual level. It refers to deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person. It is one thing to know about God; it is another thing to “know the Lord.”
John is saying here that in order to be sure that we have deep, intimate, personal experience of God, we must change the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord, will change our behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with Him. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. Theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.
For a human being, faith cannot be a mere abstraction. In order to be authentic, it has to become flesh and blood. In a later passage, John 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 (1 John 2:6). Although walking is a physical activity, it is also symbolic. The very place we take our body is physical, but it is also indicative of what we value, what we think.
3. Liar? – John went on to say, Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. This is strong language. Either we believe and thus keep the commandments, or we are lying about really knowing the Lord and we fail to keep the commandments.
Don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully? John seems so “all or nothing” in his words. His math is clear, though. To know the Lord fully is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). If we know Him only imperfectly, we still experience sin. Hence, the more we know Him (remember the definition of “know”) 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 we who do so. We say, “I have faith. I am a believer. I love the Lord. I know the Lord.” Perhaps we would be more accurate by saying, “I am growing in faith. I am striving to be a better believer. I am learning to love and know the Lord better and better.” If we do not, then we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.
Many in the Protestant tradition tend to reduce faith to an event: answering an altar call or accepting the Lord as “personal Lord and savior.” We Catholics do it, too. Many Catholics think that all they have to do is be baptized; they don’t bother to attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” or even “devout” Catholics yet dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we make. Without this harmony between faith and action, we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. The bottom line is that if we really come to know the Lord more and more perfectly, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments, and be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our claim to faith will be the truth and not a lie.
4. Uh oh, is this salvation by works? No, but it is a reminder that we cannot separate faith and works. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving or real faith. Properly understood, the keeping of the commandments is the result of saving faith actively present and at work within us. It indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.
The Protestant tradition erred in dividing faith and works. In the 16th century, the cry when up from Protestants that we are saved by “faith alone.” Faith is never alone; it always brings effects with it.
Our brains can get in the way here and tempt us to think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can do so in reality, but this is not always the case.
Consider, for a moment, a flame. It has the qualities of heat and light. We can separate the two in our mind, but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame from its light. They are so interrelated as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a flame are distinguishable theoretically, but they are always together in reality.
This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically, but the works of true faith and faith itself are always together in reality. We are not saved by works alone or by faith alone. They are together. Faith without works is dead (James 2:14). In other words, faith without works is a nonexistent concept; it is not a saving or living faith. Rather, as John teaches here, to know the Lord by living faith is always accompanied by keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.
So, faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. Similarly, our own faith must become flesh in us, in our actual behavior.
The following was sung in my own parish by the St. Luke’s Ordinariate Choir: