Tag: incarnation

The Spirit of Antichrist

Saint John the Evangelist Writing German, about 1340

Anyone who has had the great patience, or the great misfortune, to have read as many as half-a-dozen or so of my posts on this blog or its predecessor, Catholic Scot, might think that I have an obsession with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Personally I prefer to think that I am possessed by, rather than obsessed with, this fundamental tenet of the faith. There is a key text from St John the Theologian which, I think, justifies this singular focus of mine, to wit-
How will you recognize the spirit of God?
Any spirit recognizing Jesus as the Christ who has taken our flesh is of God.
But any spirit which does not recognize Jesus is not from God, it is the spirit of the antichrist.
You have heard of his coming and even now he is in the world.
You, my dear children, are of God and you have already overcome these people, because the one who is in you is more powerful than he who is in the world.
They are of the world and the world inspires them and those of the world listen to them.
We are of God and those who know God listen to us, but those who are not of God ignore us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error as well.
(1 John, 4 )

There are and have been many inside and outside the Church who have recognised something about Jesus but not the thing, the one thing necessary. Namely that He is ‘the Christ who has taken our flesh.’ From Gnostics and Arians through to Anthroposophists and theological Modernists He has been proclaimed anything from an emanation of the Deity clothed in the appearance of flesh through to a great teacher of Wisdom who was nonetheless culturally conditioned and thus limited in His ability to see what ‘everybody knows’ in this present era.

Yet St John hits the nail firmly on the head in his advice to us. Jesus is fully and entirely the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Logos of God who has been with the Father from ‘the beginning,’ begotten not made, Light from Light. He is also fully and entirely the Son of Mary, flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, dependant upon her in the womb, requiring the milk of her breasts in infancy. He is both these things at the same time, and because He is both these things, and only because He is both these things, He can come to us fully present in the material elements of the Eucharist and feed our souls.

The world cannot understand such a doctrine and rejects it as incomprehensible. Which is why the Theologian says that those who fail to recognise Jesus for who He is but who instead teach another Jesus, a false Jesus of their own devising, are inspired by the world. The wish to conform to the beliefs and prejudices of our neighbours overwhelms the little seed within which prompts us to conform instead to the Christ who has taken our flesh and who, in that flesh, was crucified.

Even among those who formally adhere the the Nicene Creed there are many who disbelieve in practice what they proclaim in theory, making void their profession. This can be seen in the qualifications with which they attempt to surround and hedge in our Saviour so that they can radically reinterpret Him in the light of the era in which they happen to live; as if the Son of God had lacked the capacity to once for all deliver a message to all the ages and for all the ages of human history.

Some translations, such as the Douay-Rheims, make the point even more explicitly-
Every spirit that dissolveth Jesus, is not of God: and this is Antichrist
To dissolve Jesus is to separate the Divinity of the Logos from the flesh of Mary’s Son. The result of such an operation not only diminishes Him it also diminishes us. If the Christ has not taken our flesh then our flesh has not achieved the consummation of perfection, a perfection which we can share if we clothe ourselves with Christ. If Mary is not the Mother of God then the death of her Son in the flesh has not won our Redemption, it has simply been another tragic episode in the long history of human cruelty, worse than some perhaps but not of such a nature as to change the entire fabric of the cosmos forever. If the Jesus who rose from the grave is not fully Man as well as fully God then death has not been defeated and it yet retains its sting.

When the doctrine of Incarnation is fully accepted, that is, when it is truly known and not simply known about, then it is a radically life changing truth. A radicalism that goes beyond the merely political categories that each generation clothes it with as if they were being daringly original. It is a radicalism that strikes deep into the category known as ‘me.’ And into every ‘me’ that ever lived. It is life changing because it teaches us the truth both that this ‘me’ killed God and that this God thinks me so lovable that He willingly embraced both my life and His death. If the 200 000 or so words I have written in my Catholic blogs have convinced anyone of the importance of this truth then it has been, at any rate, a magnificent obsession

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The picture of St John the Evangelist writing is from a 14th century manuscript in the Getty collection.


Christian Mysticism & the Incarnation

Simone dei Crocifissi Christ on the Cross with the Virgin the Magdalen and St John

Plotinus, a Neoplatonist philosopher, spoke for many different religious and philosophical belief systems when he described the vocation of the mystic as-
The flight of the alone to the Alone.
By which is meant the journey of an individual, particularly the spirit or mind (broadly defined) of that individual, towards God or the universal ground of being or the primordial Buddha nature or whatever label particular traditions apply to their goal. If successful this process culminates in a Union of Man (male or female) with God.

If most mystical traditions propose a pilgrimage from, as it were, Earth to Heaven Christianity with its doctrine of Incarnation reverses the direction of travel and offers a Union of Man with God achieved through the conception of the Logos of God in the womb of Mary. This Union grows and develops from its human side throughout the life of Jesus but is always supremely perfect in its Divine aspect. Christianity further proposes that what Jesus achieved by nature His followers can also achieve by Grace through participation.

Christian mystical tradition looks in particular at three exemplars of perfect Union with the Divine. The Blessed Virgin who achieved perfection primarily through reflection, as a mirror of the Blessed Trinity. St Mary Magdalene whose primary path was intense devotional love of the person of Jesus (what Hindus might call Bhakti Yoga.) And the Apostle St John who primarily achieved Union through direct intellectual apprehension or noetic wisdom (Jnana Yoga.) In this context ‘primary‘ does not mean exclusive, each of the three shared to a degree the approaches of the others but one particular way predominated for them. It is no coincidence that each of these persons was intimately involved in the drama of Christ’s Crucifixion, a point to which I shall return.

It would, however, be too simplistic to suggest that non-Christian mysticism is about Man’s journey to God while Christian mysticism is about His journey to us. All the great mystical traditions affirm that, in this life at any rate, the ultimate destination is the same as the original starting point. That is, because God indwells each one of us we are already in a state of Union with Him. The pilgrimage to enlightenment is a process of stripping away the veils which prevent us from realising (making real) an already existing truth. This idea has been illustrated in numerous texts, perhaps most strikingly in the classic Sufi work ‘The Conference of the Birds.

Christianity does not deny this truth, once again though the Incarnation makes a crucial difference as to how we perceive it. In the other traditions His Spirit unites to our spirit and our liberation consists in us becoming all spirit and only spirit (or Mind) and leaving everything material behind. For Christians flesh as well as spirit has been divinised because the Logos became the Son of Mary as well as the Son of the Father. This means that the Union with God which we must realise involves the whole of who we are, our bodies, our emotions, our hunger, thirst, cold and tiredness as well as our spirit because God Himself by nature through Jesus is united to these things. If we by grace participate in what He by nature is then we cannot take flight from any part of ourselves, except sin.

A key illustration of the significance this has for mysticism is to be found in the phenomenon of suffering. The Divinity as Divinity, or ground of being or Buddha nature or whatever cannot suffer. Therefore in the path to realising the Union with God suffering is a thing to be bypassed or left behind or somehow destroyed. Yet the supreme moment of most perfect Union which the Blessed Virgin, the Magdalene and the Evangelist achieved with God was precisely during those hours they spent at the foot of the Cross fully entering into the agony and death of Jesus. It was there, where Christ experienced extreme suffering and death that His Union with Man arrived at its total consummation, perfection and completion.

In order to be fully united with God it is not necessary that the mystic herself experiences suffering; it is necessary though that God goes through that experience. This is because the capacity to suffer and the certainty of death are not incidental to our human nature, they are a part of its essence. Union consists of a fusion between our essence and His essence and without a God who suffers and dies such a Union is necessarily incomplete and imperfect. The Incarnation, then, may be characterised as a flight of the Alone to the alone (there are theological grounds to quibble about the word ‘alone’ in this context but that would require more space than I have here.) It is precisely this flight which opens the possibility of the fullness of Union and it is precisely those who, through Grace, most closely identify with the suffering Christ that can enter into it.

The paradoxical elements of mysticism, that it involves a journey to a point at an infinite distance from ourselves and that everything we require is already fully present within us, are resolved through the self-emptying of the Son. He it is who makes the infinite journey, and He it is, dwelling within us, who has already plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of all that it essentially means to be a fully human person. The task of the Christian mystic is simply to make real our ‘Yes‘ to Jesus.

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The painting, by Simone dei Crocifissi, is Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalen and St John.

Catholicism & the Feasts of Valhalla

Caravaggio emmaus

An event, action or object can be simultaneously real in itself and also symbolic of something beyond itself. While Catholics may, in principle, accept this statement they tend to become somewhat twitchy when it is applied to the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This reaction is understandable, for centuries insisting on the Real Presence of Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine in the elements of Holy Communion has been an existential matter for the Church. To talk, then, about symbolism in this context can feel to many like a betrayal of the faith.

It remains nonetheless true that that an event, action or object however sacred can be understood at multiple levels of meaning. It takes nothing away from the dogma of Transubstantiation if we also look at the other things which the drama of the liturgy reveals to us about God, about the transcendent dimension and about ourselves.

The Eucharist, then, also stands as symbolic of a shared meal. As such it is a universal sign. Sharing food, breaking bread together, is a unifying ritual (as well as a pleasant way of taking on board nourishment) recognised across the whole world and throughout the span of human history. And any one such event has multiple resonances of other similar events, sharing with family members, sharing with friends, sharing in peace and hope with strangers.

These experiences of eating, taken together, are each of them simply visible manifestations of the unseen reality of love. Love realised with family and friends, love in potential when with strangers. So, considered either as an actual meal in ‘normal’ life or as a ritual meal in the Eucharist these communions with others represent a breaking through of the invisible into the world of the visible.

At a deeper level still the Mass represent an aspect of the unification of earth with heaven, the participation of time bound flesh in the eternal sharing of the transcendent dimension which is itself a reflection of the essence of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who exchange their Love always. This heavenly dimension is made explicit in Catholic belief in a twofold way. Firstly it is believed that whenever the Mass is worthily celebrated the visible congregation is joined by invisible hosts of angels and saints who share in the rejoicing, Secondly Our Lord Himself spoke of a heavenly banquet in which we shall all share in the Kingdom of God and the Eucharist is recognised as a forerunner of this divine meal.

Though this specific warrant from Jesus exists it cannot be said that all the aspects of this vision, a meal which stands as a sign for both love as such and the uniting of earth with heaven, is a uniquely Christian one. It can be found in other belief systems. Among the Vikings it was believed that, after death, warriors would share with the gods in the feasts of Valhalla. The Olympians dined on ambrosia and nectar, food and drink so potent that any mortal given them would themselves become one of the immortals. Which is to say there is or has been a widespread religious belief in shared meals which unite the visible with the invisible. It is, in fact, a universal archetype.

This is another thing about which Catholics get twitchy; the description of aspects of the faith as ritual reenactments of universal archetypes. Such descriptions are often a preliminary to a statement, which is really a non-sequitur, that therefore Catholic ritual is based not on truth but upon a legend devised to meet the unconscious longing for an archetype.

However, universal archetypes exist for a reason. In the spiritual life of a person they express a deep rooted desire that the separation effected by our alienation from primordial unity be healed through a reunion with the One who is both source and end for each one of us who are of the many. And this desire is certainly reflected in many of the religious myths and legends anent shared meals and heavenly banquets.

Because of the Incarnation, though, the Christian feast, the Eucharist, is more than just a legend among legends. Christ united in Himself heaven and earth, temporal flesh with eternal Spirit. The Mass is not an enactment which like a play depicts the heavenly banquet, it is the heavenly banquet in our midst. The archetype is a reflection in human minds of a divine reality which the Eucharist makes present in the world. And if we share in the meal with a full openness to the action of the Spirit it is a lifting of us as flesh and blood into the Kingdom of Heaven for a moment of time which is also a participation in eternity.

The point, then, about the Mass as both reality and symbol is that what it symbolises is a universal longing and that what it is is a fulfillment, so far as is possible in this life, of that longing.

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The painting is Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio