Living in Carnate

When I attended Incarnation Elementary School in Glendale, California during the 80’s, I wasn’t necessarily impressed by the theology in my school’s name; it just reminded me of “Carnation” Instant Breakfast. But in many ways the language of the actual Incarnation, the mystery of faith it represents, and its implications for human nature began with these childhood memories. What does it mean to be embodied, to be “in the flesh”? Is it about the purity and innocence of a newborn? Can it be more than a seasonal remembrance?

Sometimes, words escape us; other times, words become our world. The events surrounding the birth of Jesus seem to accomplish both as I recently came across this poem from St. Ambrose entitled “And the Word Became Flesh”:

Give ear, O Shepherd, Israel’s King,
Enthroned above the angel band.
Appear before us as we sing;
Come with your strong and saving hand.

Come, Savior of the nations, come,
Divulged by Mary’s virgin birth.
Let all the world be rendered dumb
By such descent of God to earth.

Begotten not of mortal seed
But by God’s own mystical breath,
God’s Word became true flesh indeed,
The fruit enwombed that conquers death.

The belly of the Virgin swells,
Her maidenhood remains secure:
Under the banner of “Noel”
Tents God within her temple pure.

The God-Man goes forth from his room,
The great hall, yet the Maiden’s keep;
The double-natured mythic groom
Runs quickened on while sinners sleep.

First from the Father went he out
Then to the Father went he back
His course went down; he broke hell’s clout
His course went up; he, finished, sat.

You, equal to the Father, wear
The trophy of our flesh and blood,
Imparting strength to what you bear
By vivifying mortal mud.

Your manger is now luminous;
Its glow suffuses night’s dim air,
The barren night now numinous:
May faith direct our footsteps there.

When I read this, I was especially drawn to the imagery of the line describing the “double-natured mythic groom runs quickened on while sinners sleep,” as if to remind the reader that Jesus’ human/divine nature challenges us to act and serve in almost perpetual motion. The mental and physical hurriedness of the holidays can leave us tired and irritable, quite oppositional to the joy sung about in hymns. To live incarnate means we are reminded about our fragile mortal bodies but that they are never the final word. It is an invitation to embrace the senses of our body, the lights and sounds of the holiday season, and the joy that surrounds family gatherings and hearing from friends. For even in the darkest moments, the slightest illumination is all the more radiant!

Merry Christmas! It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!


The featured track from the metal band Tool’s new album is titled “Pneuma,” which means “breath” or “spirit” and the opening lyrics reflect a particular biblical motif of unity:

We are spirit
Bound to this flesh
We go around one foot nailed down
We’re bound to reach out and beyond
This flesh become Pneuma
We are will and wonder
Bound to recall, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, sun becoming

Word-Flesh. Immanent-Transcendent. These theological and philosophical pairings are not intended to be abstract constructions but rather serve as a way of framing the human condition. As Teilhard de Chardin, SJ reminds us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In a meta-cognitive kind of way this reminds us of how we recognize what is recognizable about ourselves as individuals and as part of a collective entity. Many communities speak to having a unified front or an authentic sense of togetherness despite numerous differences, the way an athlete overcomes a career threatening injury. Likewise, families themselves are a microcosm of “unified chaos.” They emulate the way numerous obligations, agreements, and conflicts somehow overcome the challenges of time to emerge as a unified whole, however imperfect and flawed. But that’s the nature of relationships; they’re messy and complicated, like sausage-making. The quest for unity is not linear or simple; it is fraught with detours, distractions, and doubt.

I often describe my approach to school as a “systems thinker,” most likely a reference to Peter Senge’s work in organizational learning. Since most of my academic background is in systematic theology, I tend to view things in a way which recognizes the potential influence of each aspect of an organization. In a theological discussion, for example, you can’t talk about God unless you talk about human nature and you can’t talk about human nature unless you talk about the impact of freedom and sin, etc. So too we can’t talk about the unity of oneself or of a community without its parts, without the challenges and flaws that make it a uniquely distinct entity. In short, it’s not reasonable to conflate unity with agreement. Unification does not mean that conflict or disagreement have somehow dissipated into the ether of community-building but rather views this mosaic of differences as a collective whole.

“One breath, one word…” go the lyrics from “Pnuema.” Breathing is a habit we are usually unaware of. We are rarely fully aware of our breath unless it is shortened after rigorous exercise or in need underwater. But it requires intake and output, giving and taking, critiquing and supporting. To be unified about any issue or problem is more complex than we realize. But there is a grace in knowing the journey toward it is a priceless spiritual investment in ourselves and those around us.