Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
An Incarnational people
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Dec. 4, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
(Reprinted from the Dec. 1, 2005 edition of the Inland Register.)
The pivotal point in all of human history is certainly the Incarnation – the Word of God taking on human flesh and dwelling in our midst. The reality of the Incarnation is celebrated at every liturgy, but specifically on the feast of Christmas, and nine months earlier, on the feast of the Annunciation, remembering that moment when Mary “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
But the Incarnation is really a two-fold event. Indeed, more than 2,000 years ago the Son of God took on our frail human form, but the Incarnation continued, and continues today, in Christ’s church. The church is now the body of Christ. To refuse to believe that Christ is really and truly present in the gathered church would be contrary to our Catholic Christian tradition, and yet this central belief seems to be unknown and unrecognized by many Catholics. We need to know more about this wondrous mystery of Christ’s presence among us, and it is critical to our understanding and appreciating the richness of the liturgy.
Like the followers of Jesus who were straining to see him as he disappeared into the clouds on the day of his ascension into heaven, we need to be told not to look for the risen Christ in the sky, but to find him in the lives of people, particularly people who are the neediest. And how does this “incarnational” understanding of humanity help us to better appreciate and pray the liturgy? The liturgy assumes that Christ is already present in the people who gather for the liturgy. This is Jesus’ reminder to us before we leave for church: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The corollary of this, the conclusion that follows from this, is that liturgy demands great respect for the gathered assembly in whom Christ dwells.
One way to recognize this presence of Christ in the assembly is to offer welcome and hospitality to all, by greeting people at the door and with hospitality time after the liturgy, providing coffee and refreshments. Another way is to work on our own attitude as worshippers. Are we willing to be a part of the body of Christ? Do we find that we come to church to seek time for private prayer and reflection, and do we find ourselves preferring to sit in isolation from others in the assembly? Do we participate as fully and actively as possible, joining in the singing and in the responses? Being an active member of the body of Christ at prayer means taking certain risks, and perhaps leaves us feeling somewhat vulnerable. It means willingness to leave our personal preferences, habits and idiosyncrasies behind in order to join in a common act of worship.
Decades ago, during the days of the Latin Mass, a curious thing happened at the end of the liturgy. At the very end of the Mass, after the dismissal, the priest would read another Gospel passage, then we would recite special prayers for the conversion of Russia. These liturgical anomalies are now gone, but there was something striking about what we used to call “the last Gospel.” It was always the same passage, the introductory verses from John’s Gospel. In a way, these poetic verses called our attention to how the liturgy transforms us more deeply into the body of Christ, and to how we then go out from the church to try to make some difference. We are, after all, the place where Christ now dwells. Those first verses of John’s Gospel are the entire Gospel in miniature – the story about how the Word of God, the light, entered the darkness of our world, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory….”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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