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Simcha Fisher: The Incarnation of Christ remains as scandalous as ever

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Benito Prieto Coussent, Cristo de Kennedy (1964). IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Have you heard the phrase “the scandal of the incarnation?” It’s a phrase that doesn’t always land well, because the word “scandal” can mean such different things to different people.

To some people, “scandal” means a damaging, possibly illegal act committed by people who are supposed to be trustworthy, like embezzlement or bribery, or of course rampant abuse and its cover-up.

To others, “scandal” suggests some kind of salacious, transgressive behavior that we can all enjoy hearing and talking about because the people involved aren’t real, they’re just celebrities.

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To Catholics, though, “scandal” has a very specific meaning: “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” By the Church’s definition, scandal not just something that’s unexpected and unseemly; it’s something so outrageously against the norms that it actually shakes your faith and might lead you astray.

So the “scandal of the Incarnation” implies that the reality of the Incarnation is such that, if you think hard enough about it, you might just decide … nope. It’s too much. You’re out. This is precisely what happened when Jesus told people to eat his body and drink his flesh. Some people were like, “What? WHAT? Absolutely not!” and they left. And that has been happening ever since.

It occurs to me that, even if we could all agree that “the scandal of the Incarnation” refers to that specific definition of “scandal,” it’s still scandalous in different ways, to different people, at different times. It’s a sort of universal all-scandal that has something to horrify and repulse people in every generation, as long as you can convince people that you actually mean what you say.

I believe the phrase “scandal of the Incarnation” was coined by Von Balthasar talking about Irenaus, who was responding to the gnostics of the time, and to their belief that the body was evil. You can easily imagine how the Incarnation would be scandalous to someone who thought flesh is hopelessly corrupt, and that the true God would never have anything to do with it.

But what Catholics profess is that, when Jesus was a zygote, he was God, and he was holy and immaculate. When he took on human flesh, it was a cosmic even that transformed what existence meant for all other human bodies. All flesh is now holy, because the Holy One took on flesh.

So if you were a second century gnostic who wholeheartedly believed that flesh and spirit were diametrically opposed, you can see how this would be a problem.
I think the “scandal of the incarnation” offends people in a different way, today. You could argue that 21st century are like the gnostics, because we clearly don’t believe all flesh is holy. Look how we treat the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the refugee. Look how we treat our own bodies when they don’t look how we want.
But I don’t believe this particular heresy, a disregard for the intrinsic value of the human body, is the main one plaguing our world right now. Instead, I think it’s an unwillingness to believe that anything not embodied is real.

Rather than rejecting the idea that humans contain a divine spark that animates us, we believe that humans are all there is, and we’re animated by electrical impulses. The dirty trick is, reducing human existence to mere flesh doesn’t have the effect of elevating the respect we have for humankind.

Just the opposite: It makes us feel that, if this is all there is, how much could it possibly matter? Go ahead and abort, euthanise, mangle, and exploit. If you’ve done wrong, there’s no divinity to offend, so it’s a wash.

And this is why it’s almost refreshing when someone actually is scandalised. At least it shows they’re taking the concept seriously. I recently came across someone who simply couldn’t accept that the efficacy of the sacraments doesn’t depend on the holiness of the minister. In other words, you don’t get more grace by being baptised by a saint than you do by the world’s sleaziest deacon.

You don’t get more Eucharist per gram if it’s the pope saying the words of consecration, rather than if it’s a priest who’s also an axe murderer. The sacraments are what they are, and they do what they do, and they don’t get their power from the minister, but from God.

This is an old heresy, but it’s one that modern people are prone to because we’re so reductive, so willing to say that an entire human life can be summed up in a quick blurb, good or bad, righteous or corrupt, worthy or unworthy of respect.

We have become very primitive thinkers, and expect entire sets of truths to come pre-packaged together, with hashtags and merch and no contradictions or inconsistencies. When there are inconsistencies, we simply dump the whole thing and tell ourselves we never liked it anyway.

And so the Incarnation—which is at the heart of how the sacraments work—is scandalous because it implies (actually shouts out loud) that not only human flesh, but even things like water, oil, wheat, and wine, can become sacred. This is pretty outrageous! We want things to be tidy and easy to understand, and the sacraments are anything but.

They are unfathomable. They are a mystery, not because we cannot understand them, but because they are so profoundly rich that there will always be more to understand.

I almost think that someone rejects Catholicism because its claims are too outrageous shows a better heart than someone who refuses to even think about it, and this includes practicing Catholics who doesn’t ponder, wonder about, or take seriously the claims of their faith.

Better to take the implications seriously than to make yourself comfortable by saying that it doesn’t matter, or nobody really believes that, or it’s not worth bothering about. The Incarnation is at the very heart of everything we believe, and if we aren’t troubled by some aspect of it some of the time, we’re probably not giving it its due.

I take this almost as a divine joke. Just as Jesus is the great lover of all mankind, and came to save all peoples in every age, he is also available to scandalise all mankind in every age. It’s a strange faith we hold. Don’t forget how strange it is.

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