The Prolongation of the Incarnation

Pope Francis’ document “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) is not a dense theological read.  It is typically Francis – straightforward, often informal, calling us to something higher.  The document is peppered with what you might call “Francis phrases” – striking phrases that tell a truth and leave an impression.  One of my favorites is Francis’ reference to the “unruly freedom of the Word” (EG 22).  That simple phrase captures the living nature of God’s Word:  the inspiration that breathes life into it, the way it has its own movement and mission, and how it should not be – cannot be – controlled by human beings – not even in their own well-meaning interpretations and applications.  We must accept that God’s Word “accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking” (EG 22).

Another of my favorite phrases from the document is:  “the prolongation of the incarnation” (EG 179).  First of all, it has a nice ring to it!  And it rhymes just as nicely in Spanish (which I would imagine is the language Pope Francis was “thinking in”) as it does in English:  la prolongación de la encarnación.

So what is the “prolongation of the Incarnation”?  What does this poetic phrase mean?  Francis writes:  “God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us:  ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40)” (EG 179).  Pope Francis makes the point – and makes it crystal clear – that the Gospel message has implications for how we treat each other.  The “prolongation of the Incarnation” simply means that Christ lives in every human being.  That is one way he continues to be incarnate, continues to be with us.  Therefore if we claim to love him, we must love them.

This is not a new idea, of course.  It is an ancient idea.  In addition to the words of Christ himself, I think of St. John, who the stories say told his own little flock “Love one another” so many times that his disciples got annoyed and asked him why he kept saying it.  He answered, “If you do this, it is enough.”  He did not say this because it didn’t matter if they loved God or not, but because in loving one another, they were loving God very well.  John also wrote, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20).  That’s another crystal clear way of saying:  when you love your brothers and sisters, you prolong the Incarnation!

 

 "Washing your feet means I am at your service," Pope Francis said to the youth whose feet he washed on Holy Thursday 2013.

"Washing your feet means I am at your service," Pope Francis said to the youth whose feet he washed on Holy Thursday 2013.

A Joyful Life

The word “joy” has the connotation of exuberant happiness, big smiles, and irrepressible optimism.  When we hear people say Christians should be joyful, we might wonder if we measure up.  Doesn’t this kind of joyfulness come more easily to some personalities than others?  In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis offers an insightful commentary on joy that might give us a better understanding of what the word truly means as a way of life:

“There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.  I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty.  Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.  I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress:  ‘My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is…  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness…  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord’ (Lam. 3:17, 21-23, 26)” (EG 6).

An elderly woman who was looking back at her life once told me, “I was content.”  She meant that she was not always happy, but she was at peace.  It was a simple way of describing a long life full of good things but fraught with difficulty.  One might describe the life of Christ himself in much the same way.  The joy of a Christian is realistic, genuine, compelling – it is not manufactured or manic.  As Pope Francis wrote, joy adapts and changes.  Sometimes it is exuberant, but sometimes it just “waits quietly.”  The essence, the undercurrent, of Christian joy is a habitual falling back on the steadfast, infinite love of the God who saves and who holds all things in existence.

Wonderfully Complicated

 Pope Francis on Good Friday.

Pope Francis on Good Friday.

"Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord's wounds at arm's length.  Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others.  He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people's lives and know the power of tenderness.  Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people."

-- Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 270

A Prayer from Pope Francis

An excerpt from Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel:

"Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you.  I need you.  Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace."

Nests

"This church . . . is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

I was already on the Pope Francis bandwagon. But when I read these words I pushed my way up a few rows and took a seat even closer to the front. It had been awhile since I had read anything so beautiful, so true, and so alarming. Like most people who heard or read this, I knew instinctively what it meant:  how we've strayed, what we are supposed to be, how we have deformed the bosom of the Church.

It also got me thinking about nests. In nature, nests are for a select few.  But in the Church -- whose identifying feature should be love -- the capacity of the nest must be limitless. Nests are places of protection – but they are also places of nurturing, places where family members gather to grow and stay warm. 
 
I found Pope Francis’ words alarming not just because of what they said about my church – but because of what they said about me.  I’ve built my own share of exclusive nests, I’ve protected my own share of mediocrity.  Afraid to do the things our pope – and other popes, saints, prophets, friends and family have urged us to do all along – get our hands and feet dirty, heal wounds, open our doors, discover the joy of the Gospel. 

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