“Glory to that Hidden One, Who even with the mind cannot be felt at all by them that pry into Him; but Who by His graciousness, was felt by the hand of man! The Nature that could not be touched, by His hands was bound and tied, by His feet was pierced and lifted up. Of His own will He embodied Himself for them that took Him” (Ephrem of Syria, Hymn II, “On the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh”).
Ever since the origin of the Christian claim that the Infinite Mystery at the root and destiny of all that exists took on human flesh, every effort has been made to reverse the Incarnation, to separate the “ultimate meaning” and “sense” of existence from the flesh of the one man Jesus of Nazareth.
A strange hatred of the flesh lies at the heart of this effort to separate Christ from the flesh. Remember Tertullian’s accusation against Marcion: “Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, declaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, heavy, troublesome, restless even in woman in travail which, however, ought rather to be honored in consideration of that peril, or to be held sacred in respect to the mystery of nature. Of course, you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb; you likewise, of course, loath it even after it is washed, when it is dressed-out in its swaddling-clothes, graced with repeated anointing, smiled on with nurse’s fawns. This reverend course of nature, you are, O Marcion, pleased to spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at its birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody?”
These words of so long ago sound frighteningly contemporary in this culture of death, when the Congress of the United States is debating the legality of infanticide.
Today this “dis-incarnation” is sought on behalf of an abstract “universality” that dissolves the Christian claim about the uniqueness of the man Jesus as the full and definitive revelation of God, turning Him into a catalyst that moves us to find God through the way he exemplified. Jesus is presented as the one who guides and focuses properly that quest of ours for ultimate meaning called the religious sense. In this case, wherever the religious sense is authentically pursued and lived, Jesus is held to be present within it, even if called by other names or imagined in ways other than as a concrete human being, the fruit of Mary’s womb.
But if the Answer to the religious quest is contained within it, only those who are “good at religion” can find it: only those with the interior resources to pursue adequately the religious quest, only those with exterior resources to purchase the time needed to pursue it, only those with the intellectual resources to grasp its concepts, in one word, the elites. And yet, it was not the elites who recognized Christ and followed Him. It was the poor, the sinners, those sick and wounded in the flesh. St. Augustine says that God came in the flesh to enable us to see His majesty by means of His humility. His glory no one can see unless healed by the humility of His flesh (Tractates on the Gospel of John). The Answer to the original and tormenting desires of the human heart expressed in the religious sense can be grasped only “by the humility of His flesh,” only those who embrace fully the humility of their flesh as He did can grasp it.
The flesh cannot be thought; it can only be felt, encountered, embraced, cared for, respected, healed. This is the place of the encounter with the Incarnate Mystery. Christian spirituality is not an escape from the flesh; it is an embrace of the humility of the flesh. St. Thomas Aquinas said the sacramental way of salvation is good because it forces us to accept the flesh, to find Christ with our flesh, rather than blame the flesh for our sins. That is how the Incarnation surpasses the boundaries of time and space to allow human beings everywhere and at all times to encounter Jesus Christ: not by escaping the limitations of the flesh, but by creating within history a “Body of flesh” for the Risen Lord where the event of the Incarnation is experienced, namely, the Church–the Church not as a vague, undefined, abstract reality, but as a people in the flesh in the midst of this world, living the humility of the flesh, placing Christ at its center, “incarnating” Christ in the world of human flesh. This is the motherhood of the Church, the continuation of Mary’s motherhood, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence, our Christmas prayer, the prayer of human flesh: Come, Holy Spirit! Come through Mary.