Tag Archives: Pope Francis

Incarnations Among Us

Michelangelo CreationThe link between God and man has always been sacred. The glory of the Creator permeates his creation. His life pulses through us, from conception to death, and into eternity. God, our preacher reminded us yesterday, is incarnate within us.

Such incarnation – in the flesh – is the heart of Christianity. This mystery was revealed two thousand years ago, made perfect in God’s incarnation as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. As St. John writes: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (KJV)

This moment in history revealed to a barbaric world the innate natural law to honor the dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, race, handicap, age, born and unborn. To be sure, before Christ, God led his Chosen People to this moment by giving them laws and judgments that taught the same respect, belief, and charity for one another and set them apart from other communities. But when God the Son entered humanity to live among us, he gave us incarnational means, sacramental means, to take part in his divinity through God the Holy Spirit.

The Church through the centuries has worked to make incarnation understood and experienced. Doctrines and dogma explain in words. Sacraments provide incarnate ways for God to enter his creation again and again in human time, hourly, daily, weekly. We receive his body into our body. We pray and praise, and his Spirit weaves among us, entering our hearts and minds. We, the created, are called to converse with our Creator, and he descends upon us, within us, filling us with his life and love. This is incarnation. This God in our own flesh.

Recently, at a concert at St. Peter’s, Oakland, “Bach Vespers, Cantata 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” with soprano Juliana Snapper and organist Jonathan Dimmock of the San Francisco Symphony, I knew I was experiencing a kind of incarnation. For music c0mposed for the worship of God, as this was composed, is prayerful praise. It links us with God through our hearing and our singing. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), church organist, wrote this stunning cantata for a Lutheran Evening Prayer service (Vespers), weaving music through Scripture readings and prayers. The audience of varying beliefs sang hymns with the rest of us. The music danced around us, in, and through us.

I have often called for the return of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the public square, not as theocracy but to remind our culture of the roots of our historic belief in human dignity founded on the belief that God indwells in each of us. Here, in the nave of this Oakland church, the public square came to us, for it was a public concert reminding ordinary citizens of the roots of freedom, this God of revelation. It was a powerful moment.

And when I saw Pope Francis address Congress this weekend, the first pope to do so, I was encouraged to see that Christianity had entered the public square for a short hearing. The pope, to be sure, appeals to a broad spectrum. As Peggy Noonan writes, Pope Francis has two sides, a lovable one, preaching the dignity of human life, and a not-so-lovable one, preaching an economic theory long ago discredited as helping the poor, one that hurts the poor. He is a pope, she writes, who “endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded… he doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given – and is giving – his own church.” Indeed, his own Argentina has fallen into poverty through socialist ideology. Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell weighed in this week: “The official poverty level in the United States is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the United States has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left.”

But even with the two sides of this lovable Pope Francis, I rejoice in his presence, for he has brought the Church into America’s public square, and many are listening to his words spoken from a loving heart. He has reminded us of our Judeo-Christian roots simply by his white-robed incarnate presence among us, for he represents historic Christianity through the ages. His visit, in this sense, has been a sacramental journey, to America but in time as well, as all true pilgrimages are.

Saturday night, at my fiftieth high school reunion, I saw  schoolmates I had not seen since high school. I tried to match names and faces. I studied the class photos on the wall. And as we linked with one another, searching for recognition and trying to read name tags with our reading glasses, I thought how unique each one of us was, how we had all moved through our given time changed and yet unchanged. Each one of us, created in the image of our Creator, carried his life within, in varying degrees. We are neither God nor gods, but we carry God’s spark within us, and those who had fanned it into a flame with prayer and praise and Scripture and sacrament shone brighter than those who hadn’t. They lit the room with their quiet glow.

Incarnations of God are all around us, in every person we meet. We are born to love and praise God, and this is the good, the wondrous news of salvation. We need not despair, for he is with us if we desire him. But we must desire.

I look forward to more public square incarnations, to the fusing of our culture with the Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God who proclaims the dignity of each one of us, no matter what, no matter who.

Pope Francis

They said the Holy Spirit would decide the election outcome of the new Pope. I wanted to believe this, but if truth be told I fully believed the Cardinals in conclave would decide. I did pray that the Holy Spirit nudge those Cardinals in the right direction.

Now, having heard and seen Pope Francis on television, I believe the choice was a good one. The Holy Spirit did indeed nudge those Cardinals and have the final say. This Pope is a saintly man, a humble suffering man, with a clear vision of rebuilding stone by stone the Church of Saint Peter. Young Francis Bernadone of Assisi heard God speak through the crucifix in the rundown chapel of San Damiano: “Rebuild my church which is falling to ruin.” And so seven hundred years later, a new Francis will answer the call again, will begin the rebuilding, the reforming.

I was deeply touched by the drama of Francis’s first twenty-four hours, particularly his sense of symbolic public act even at this early stage. He stands to meet the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, rather than sitting on the papal throne. He leaves them before finishing these ritual greetings to step out on the balcony to see his people, who must not be kept waiting any longer. He dons a simple white cassock. He stands on the balcony, his hands at his side, reminding me of Christ before Pilate. Here I am, take me, his body seemed to say. Then there were his first words to his flock. Good evening, brothers and sisters. He asks the packed square to pray for Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, and the entire throng say together with one voice their beloved Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be. Finally, he asks his people to pray for him. The square becomes silent in the damp night as they pray for their new Pope.

He is a man of the poor, pastoring the slums of Buenos Aires. He rode the bus, gave away the mansion, rented rooms where he cooked for himself and turned off the heat. He will rebuild his Church with the stones of poverty and humility, of obedience and discipline. He will expect those alongside him to do the same, as they gather such stones for a stronger foundation.

He is also a man of intellect, understanding. He knows what is true and what is not. He knows God, and he knows God’s Son. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. He is filled because he has emptied his self. He has a big job ahead of him, and with God’s help he can do it.

I wonder if Catholics fully recognize what has happened this week in the Church. I wonder if Christendom fully appreciates the man that will steer the course for the largest body of Christians in the world. This man will make a difference for all of us. He will carry on the work of those before him, but he will do it in a powerful way, a different way. He will straighten the paths with his humility and map the future with his discipline.

Today is Passion Sunday, marking the beginning of Passiontide, the way of love and suffering of Our Lord. These two weeks before Easter are a time of deep Lent, when we draw closer and closer to the Way of the Cross, the path to Golgotha, the hill of the skull. We act out the drama of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. We consider what it all means.

I am always startled on Passion Sunday, taken aback as I enter the nave. Everything in the sanctuary is draped in purple – the six tall candlesticks, the tabernacle and altar, the crucifix, the sculpture of the Madonna and Child to the left. All that purple, all that draping of the physical and dear expressions of our faith, stun me each year, again and again. These shrouds of mourning remind me of a world without Christ, a world where we cannot know God, a world without God.

For it is only through Christ that we can know God, who he is, what he is like: just but merciful, a God of love. Because of the living, breathing, temples of God – we Christians, the Body of Christ – his Holy Spirit weaves through this world, through them, through us. Each one of us is a tabernacle holding Christ, depending on the space we have emptied for him. He lives in each of us. He in us; we in him.

As I look at Pope Francis, and recall his namesake, I see a man whose bodily tabernacle has been emptied of pride, of self, emptied so that God can fill him. And I see hope for all of Christendom in this man, in this temple of the Holy Spirit. I see hope for each of us.

And I know, although deeply and profoundly saddened by those purple drapings, that Easter is soon to come. For the Holy Spirit is moving among us.