THE IMPLICATIONS OF FAITH IN THE INCARNATION
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 1 JN 3:22-4:6; MT 4:12-17, 23-25 ]
Very often, we hear remarks that the Catholic Faith is very ritualistic. This is because we pay great emphasis on the sacramentals of the Church, especially in the celebration of the liturgy. We have elaborate ceremonies especially on significant feast day celebrations. The liturgical rubrics are spelt out clearly so that the signs and symbols used will convey the reality that is celebrated. There is the use of liturgical vestments, incense, crucifixes, candles, procession, holy water, etc besides gestures of bowing, kneeling and genuflecting.
At times, we are seen to be superstitious as well. This is because we are very particular whether the rules are followed, especially in devotional practices, like fulfilling the nine days of Novena or blessing ourselves with holy water. Our people love to go on pilgrimages, visiting shrines, praying before statues, offering prayers and petitions, offering flowers, buying holy pictures and rosaries, lighting candles, wearing religious medals and believing in indulgences.
Besides the sacramentals, we have the seven Sacraments of the Church. These Sacraments are important in the life of a Catholic, especially the Sacraments of Initiation, namely, Baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation. Then we also have the Sacrament of Matrimony, where married couples are called to be the image of Christ’s love to each other and for humanity. Catholics also frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation when they need to have their sins forgiven. When they are sick, they are given the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The last Sacrament is that of Holy Orders to ensure the continuity of priests to serve the Church.
Because of the emphasis on sacramentals and Sacraments, some Protestants accuse Catholics of abandoning the Scriptures and subscribing to man-made traditions. Is this true? For the Protestants, their emphasis is on the Scripture as the Word of God. The rituals are secondary. What is fundamental is the preaching of the Word of God. Protestant services are basically Word service. Those mainstream Protestants who have branched out of Catholicism, continue with some of these traditions, albeit stripping the religious ceremonies of its grandeur for fear of giving the impression of being overly ritualistic and superstitious.
What is the basis for the use of sacramentals and Sacraments? It is based on the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what St John wanted to underscore in today’s first reading. The baby Jesus we adore at Christmas is not just any baby but He is Christ our Lord, the Saviour of the world. The baby Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, is truly man and yet truly God. Our confession of faith in Jesus as the Word made Flesh is fundamental to our salvation. This is why John insisted on faith in the incarnation. He wrote, “You can tell the spirits that come from God by this: every spirit which acknowledges that Jesus the Christ has come in the flesh is from God; but any spirit which will not say this of Jesus is not from God, but is the spirit of Antichrist, whose coming you are warned about.” Jesus is not just from God but He is also from man born of Mary. Faith in the incarnation means that God has assumed our humanity and it will be through and in His humanity that we will see the face of God. In the gospel, Jesus states in no uncertain terms, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (Jn 14:9-11) Those who deny the humanity of Jesus or deny His divinity, as many do, are the false prophets.
Indeed, the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation is to show us the face of God’s mercy, love and forgiveness. This explains why in His ministry, Jesus spent most of His time not just preaching but ministering to the sick and the suffering. In the gospel, we read, “He went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people. His fame spread throughout Syria, and those who were suffering from diseases and painful complaints of one kind or another, the possessed, epileptics, the paralysed, were all brought to him, and he cured them.” He gave the same instructions to the disciples when it came to preaching the Good News. He said, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” (Mt 10:7f)
The only way to convince people that God loves them is not by mere preaching alone but helping them to encounter God in a human way. This means for the sick people, healing; for the oppressed, deliverance; for the sinner, forgiveness; for the dying, eternal life. This is why Jesus left the Church the seven sacraments so that every Christian is sustained in his or her life journey through the graces that come from God in the sacraments. When we are sick or dying, we turn to the Sacrament for the Anointing of the Sick. When feel burdened by our sins and we need forgiveness, we turn to God who speaks through the priests, “I absolve you from all your sins.” When we are married and starting a new family, we celebrate the sacrament of Matrimony to give us the strength and renew our love for Him so that couples could love each other more deeply. Of course, the Eucharist is the Sacrament par excellence because He is truly present in the bread and wine given to us so that we might remain in communion with Him and His Church.
The sacraments become the basis for the use of sacramentals in the Church. As human beings, we need to see, to touch and feel the presence of God. Again this was what St John wrote, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.” (1 Jn 1:1f) We cannot see or touch the Lord physically today. But we can still feel His presence through the use of statues and medals, signs, symbols, sacred actions. This is not being superstitious unless we mistake the signs for the reality. They remain signs and symbols pointing to the reality behind what is manifested, seen or touch. It is just like the National Flag, a symbol of the nation. Just as we do not worship the flag when we stand at attention, we do not worship the symbols. But as human beings, signs and symbols are ways to help us get in touch with the mind and the spirit.
But faith in the incarnation is not just the signs and symbols used in the liturgy and worship, it must be concretized in humble service and generous giving. In assuming flesh, Jesus is identified with us. He is not ashamed to call us His brothers. (cf Heb 2:11) He is identified with the least of our brothers and sisters. (cf Mt 25:40) That is why right worship must lead to right practice, which is the love for our fellowmen. St John wrote, “Whatever we ask God, we shall receive, because we keep his commandments and live the kind of life that he wants. His commandments are these: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and that we love one another as he told us to. Whoever keeps his commandments lives in God and God lives in him. We know that he lives in us by the Spirit that he has given us.” If God were to live in us, then this indwelling of God in us should remind us to reach out to the poor and the suffering. This is why charity is a corollary principle of authentic worship of God. It is futile for us to claim that we have the right liturgy and the right way to worship God but in our lives, we lack charity and compassion for the suffering and the poor. This is the basis for the social service of the Church, not primarily humanitarian but spiritual by showing them the face of God.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.