People seem to be able to understand things better when they can break difficult issues and concepts down into categories and classifications. We do this in virtually every area of life - in religion, in politics, in medicine, in law, and in philosophy. A classic example is how we have conveniently divided the human person into body and soul, an understandable way to help grasp and explain that we have both a physical or bodily side to us, as well as an invisible, spiritual side. However a common concern about dividing things into categories is that we may forget to put them back together again. Thus theologians, psychologists and philosophers alike remind us that whatever elements constitute the human person, we are a complex reality, and all our components, physical and spiritual, work together to make us, hopefully, into a unified whole.
Not that long ago Christians did not easily see the human person as a unified whole. Our theological language spoke so frequently of a person as composed of body and soul, giving great priority to the soul, the spiritual side of us. Even the cosmos was described by theologians as a sort of two-story universe. There was the earthly existence that we experience here, sometimes prayerfully described as “this vale of tears,” and the heavenly realm above. Pursuing the holy life was frequently thought of as getting successfully out of this dark and sinful earthy world and into the pure and eternal heavenly world, commonly thought of as somewhere up above.
What has changed this rather common world view of the past is a deeper consciousness we have today of the incarnation - what it means that the Word of God one day became flesh, took human form. From that moment, in Jesus we see the uniting of the divine with all humanity. From that moment, all people, indeed all created reality, took on a new dignity. Today we better understand that all of creation is sacred, all creation reveals something of the Creator, and all creation points ultimately to the divine reality that is God.
The liturgy that we celebrate each week clearly and constantly expresses the implications of the incarnation. The liturgy in no way shuns earthly things, but absolutely depends on earthy elements like water, fire, oil, bread and wine, and, of course, people. True, there is often a tension, experienced by many good worshipers today, as we try to ritually express the God who is immanent and at the same time transcendent, a God who is intimately with us but at the same time the God of mystery who fully eludes our grasp.
It is for this reason that good-willed people will worry that good-willed people will worry that in highlighting the humanity of Jesus in the liturgy we might loose the sense of mystery that we need in our worship, while others may worry that in stressing the mystery and the sense of “otherness” in the liturgy, we may forget that the risen Jesus is not somewhere in the heavens above, but really and truly present with the rest of us - as Eucharistic Prayer IV says of him, Jesus who is “like us in all things but sin.”
The incarnation is pivotal to our understanding of the liturgy and to our liturgical prayer. The more deeply we appreciate how the divine and the human have united in Jesus, the more we will appreciate the liturgy’s rich use of created things and created actions. The incarnation tells us that the liturgy is not separated from the toils and drudgery of human life, but rather embraces all of what is human about us, including our sinfulness, with the hope and expectation that all of that will be transformed in the power of Christ.