Thursday, March 28, 2013

Christ Incarnate - Christ Crucified

For us Catholics tomorrow is "Good Friday," or "Great and Holy Friday," or "Great Friday of the Crucifixion" depending on which of the Catholic traditions you belong to (Roman, Byzantine, Maronite, etc.). Growing up I remember there being this huge emphasis that on Good Friday "God died for us." Jesus, Who is both God and man, gave His life that we might also have life. Christ died in order to free us from our slavery to sin and death.

This, of course, is all true. But for me it has always rung as somewhat ambiguous. I have always experienced Good Friday as a pie-in-the-sky type event; an event of great spiritual importance, but spiritual here in the sense that it has little to no impact on the day-to-day nitty-gritty of daily life. Christ died for my salvation. Peachy. Okay, time to punch the clock and set about another day's monotonous work.

I can only presume that I am not alone in this experience. As Christians who hope for a Kingdom yet to come there is a strong temptation to focus our sight on the eschatological "not yet" of Christ's Kingdom and to all but forget the "already," the here and now of this Kingdom. We look at the world around us. Perhaps we get a little depressed or jaded at how secularism is taking over even within the Church. We see how the ideals of Christianity have not been lived up to, but are being casually swept aside as "inadequate." We may even see Church leaders who are behaving and speaking in such a way that is completely against the teachings of the Church. The temptation at this point, at least for me, is to brush it off. "Eh. At least we still have the coming Kingdom to look forward to." But this was not Christ's response when He saw mankind steeped in sin and death.

One of the things I love most about the writings of Archbishop Joseph Raya as well as Fr. George Maloney is just how very "Incarnational" they are. Archbishop Raya in particular puts a very strong emphasis on Christ's humanity, without of course ever losing sight of His divinity. "Christ-God became man..." It is as though Archbishop Raya was completely enthralled with this reality. "God became man." One could mull over this reality for the rest of one's life and not even begin to scratch the surface of the depths of this mystery.

I believe this reality is very important for us to remember. We live in times that are very "heady." We like ideas, information, facts, abstracts, philosophy. So many of us have our head in the metaphorical clouds while at the same time being almost completely out of touch with material reality. This I've even observed to be true among Christians. As Christopher West points out, many Christians have the attitude that the body (the material world) is bad and only the spirit is good. So many Christians seek a way to escape from the body; to be solely spiritual. This, of course, is completely against man's nature and, were it true, would render Christ's Incarnation laughable. Why would God take on flesh if flesh itself were evil? Where would the power of the Cross be if Christ Himself hadn't taken on flesh?

So as we celebrate the memorial of Christ's Passion, Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, I believe it is also important that we look back to His Incarnation and Birth. Just a few days ago we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), exactly nine months before we will again celebrate Christ's birth. It is very telling that we would celebrate the Incarnation this year during great Lent - and during Holy Week no less. Christ's Crucifixion is rooted in His Incarnation. St. Anthanasius tells us that what is not assumed cannot be saved. If Christ hadn't become incarnate, then His Crucifixion would've been meaningless to save us. Had Christ not taken on flesh, then we would still be enslaved to sin and death.

The (relatively) recent movie, The Passion of the Christ, I believe did a wonderful job driving home to Christians just how very real, how very physical Christ's sufferings were. Whether or not such a movie was appropriate is a different question, but we certainly can't argue the portrayal itself. I remember one Lent reading a portion of the book A Doctor On Calvary in which a medical doctor examined the Shroud of Turin to decipher just what exactly the Person in that image had undergone just hours before His death. It was truly horrifying.

As I was driving to work a couple days ago I was thinking of how the weight of my own sins feel on me personally. We speak of "a guilty conscience" or of something "weighing on our shoulders." That got me to thinking, if we were to experience the cumulative weight of our own personal sins on our shoulders, not only would we be crushed under them, but we would probably also be driven insane. Now take that weight and multiply it by every human being who has lived, is living, and will ever live. Imagine the extreme weight! It would be unbearable. And yet that is what Christ bore on His human shoulders as he ascended the hill of Golgatha. It is said that the Cross itself would've had to have weighed at least 200 lbs. A weight that is extremely difficult for even a health and strong man to carry any real length. Now imagine having been beaten to nearly an inch of your life and having lost a great quantity of blood in the process. Let's see you pick up a 200 lb. object and carry it for more than a yard without any help! My wife just gave blood yesterday. She could barely support herself, let alone one of our children, and definitely let alone 200 lbs. of solid wood.

Christ carried the suffering and sin of the world on His shoulders. This is something wonderful that I discovered in the writings of Archbishop Raya and in his enthrallment with the Incarnation. When confronted by our own suffering and sinfulness, Christ's response was not a philosophy of suffering or a code of ethics. Christ's response was action. He healed the sick, restored walk to the lame, made the mute speak, and the deaf hear! He raised the dead from their graves, He fed the hungry, He forgave sins! This was not heady abstract stuff, it was concrete action on His part. God didn't become man to give us some guidelines and a rule book. He became man to literally pull us up out of the mire of our sins, to confront the sufferings we had caused ourselves because of sin and death. To give us a new way of life in Him, as brothers and sisters in Him instead of slaves to sin.

So as we celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, I believe it is important that we also keep close to heart the Incarnation and Birth of Christ. Never lose sight of the fact that God has physically entered human history in order to address directly the problems with which we are faced both individually and corporately. To quote St. Athanasius again (or was it St. Irenaeus???), "God became man in order that man might become god." May heaven consume us.

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