Don’t Be Liar at Christmas! A Meditation on Incarnational Faith

At Christmas we celebrate the fact of the Word becoming Flesh. But what does this mean for us today? Fundamentally what it means is that our faith is about things which are very real and tangible. As human beings we are persons with 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 only about thoughts or philosophies, concepts or historical facts. While all these things our true, their truth in us ultimately must touch the physical part of who we are. Our Faith has to become flesh, it has to reach and influence our very behavior. If this is not the case the Holy Spirit speaking through John has something to call us: Liar!

 God’s love for us in not just a 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 merely about theories and words on a page. I tcannotbe reduced to slogans or even to merely pious sayings. It is about a transformed life, it is about the actual love of God and his Commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about the actual love of of my neighbor. True faith is incarnational, that is to say, it takes on flesh in my very “body.”

As stated already, 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 physically and actually doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must include a physical, flesh and blood dimension.

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. 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, it has to become flesh and blood if it is authentic. John later uses the image of walking in this passage: 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) 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 really knowing the Lord.

But don’t 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 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. Faithis 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 and our calimto have faithwill be said in truth, not as a lie.

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 of the flame. They are so together as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a candleflame 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 are always together in reality. 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 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.

Here is a largely unknown Christmas Carol to Americans, unless you are familiar with Renaissance music. It is by an anonymous composer of the 16th Century and is an early Spanish Carol. The gist of the Carol is that the Word (Jesus) has shown his love for us by becoming flesh. Mary who has real faith would do anything for Jesus but has nowhere even to lay him down. The song then rebukes this rich world for its lack of faith manifested in love and cries out in effect, “Will you not at least offer some swaddling clothes to the one you have forced to be born in a smelly stable!” And thus the world’s true faith must be manifest by its acts of love. Here is an incarnational Christmas Carol. I provide the text and translation. Enjoy.

Verbum caro factum est          (The Word was made flesh)
Porque todos hos salveis.       (for the salvation of you all
Y la Virgen le dezia:                 (And the Virgin said unto him)
‘Vida de la vida mia,                (‘Life of my life,)
Hijo mio, ¿que os haria,         (what would I [not] do for you, my Son?)
Que no tengo en que os echeis?’ (Yet I have nothing on which to lay you  down.)’
O riquezas terrenales,             (O wordly riches)!
¿No dareis unos pañales        (will you not give some swaddling clothes)
A Jesu que entre animales    (to Jesus, who is born among the animals),
Es nasçido segun veis?           (as you can see?)