Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pére Jacques on the Beloved Disciple and the Incarnation

Last year, I put up a post called The Incarnation and the Dignity of the Human Person. There was a quote in there from Fr. Michael Himes that really resonated with me:

Any form of spirituality which belittles humanity, which de-emphasizes the goodness and dignity of the human person, far from being a channel to God, is within the Christian tradition, an obstacle to genuine union with God, to truly being like God, to truly being holy.

We've also had discussions here on Celtic Spirituality and its appreciation for God's presence and visibility in creation, its appreciation for St. John the Beloved Disciple, as well as a post or two on the various theories of atonement.

Back in August, I posted about the film Au revoir, les Enfants, and one of the main characters of that film, Carmelite friar Père Jacques Bunel, who perished at concentration camp KZ Mauthausen shortly after it was liberated at the end of World War II. Recently, I've been reading a short book called Listen to the Silence: A Retreat with Père Jacques, which is a transcription of a retreat that he offered to a group of Carmelite Sisters at Pontoise in the summer of 1943. I liked what he wrote here about the Beloved Disciple and the Incarnation...

Consider those closest to Christ. Saint John the Apostle grasped what was indispensable for a clear understanding of his master. John never tired of probing and querying Christ. We can see how John thus gained richer insights and fuller explanations, precisely because he went to the bother of approaching and asking Christ to clarify each day's lesson. I picture John, walking close behind Christ, as he made his way about the Holy Land. Thus, John came to gain a wealth of intimate knowledge, which the other apostles did not acquire. Herein lies the explanation for the special character of the fourth Gospel. While the other apostles traveled across the then known world on their missionary journeys, John's unique apostolate was to remain close to the Virgin Mary, whom Christ had entrusted to him. Thus were these two great souls conjoined in love and prayer...

There is an adage, which accurately states: "far from the eyes, far from the heart."' Conversely, we need to feel the presence of our beloved in order for the heart to be kept aflame and the relationship to be kept alive. After the loss of a loved one, little by little, the sorrow fades. To be sure, some remembrance remains, but it is not the same as when the person could be seen. So it is with nonbelievers. Unfortunately, they can neither see God nor find his presence in the Eucharist.

Therein lies the problem of why God willed the Incarnation. You are well aware of the great debate among medieval theologians concerning whether or not the Word of God would have become flesh, even if redemption were not necessary. One school of theologians was shocked to think that the Word of God would become flesh solely to overcome sin. They explicitly taught that, even in the absence of sin, the Word would have become flesh, because Christ alone was the adequate explanation for all creation. This vast universe with all its diverse forms of being would, they argued, have been created only in anticipation of the Incarnation.

A familiar, beautiful text from the Christmas liturgy of the hours describes the enthusiastic acclaim of the Word made flesh: "In the fullness of time, God sent his Son" [Gal. 4:4]. Then the heavens shook in admiration, for at the moment chosen by God from all eternity, the Word became flesh! This theological concept opens up vast horizons for us. This concept likewise explains the fall of the angels. For, God would ages ago have granted the angels a view of his Word made flesh and affirmed: "This Child is your King! You shall be his servants!" In this perspective, we come to understand the revolt of Lucifer, who was unwilling to serve this humble human being, and who, as a pure spirit, considered this corporeal being inferior to himself.

These vast theological horizons are worthy of deep meditation in prayerful silence. Despite the debate concerning whether God had anticipated the Incarnation independently of human sin or vice versa, it is nonetheless true that Christ is the way to reach, to touch, and to come to God. You are aware of how strongly Saint Teresa insisted that her Sisters faithfully follow Christ in order to find God. You are likewise aware of how often the vocations of countless great saints are rooted in the humanity of Christ. The divine and the human meet in marvelous mystery in Christ!

Saint Francis of Assisi experienced a vision in which Christ appeared to him and said: "Francis, will you please rebuild my church?" Francis set himself to work and came to realize that the Lord wished that the Church itself, not the chapel of San Damiano, be rebuilt.' (Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, gazing upon a picture of the bleeding hands of Christ, understood that the Lord's blood continues to be shed. She longed to collect this blood and to offer it to God for the salvation of the world.) Countless others have likewise found the source of their vocations in the contemplation of Christ. Precisely because he is simultaneously God and man, Christ is paramount. He must be paramount for you, as the Scriptures confirm. There we read: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" [Jn 14:6]. In their Letters, Saint Peter and Saint Paul consistently emphasize this theme: "Christ has given us an example in his life so that we can be examples in our lives." Elsewhere Saint John tell us: "The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him ...we have seen his glory ...and from his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace..."' Saint Paul notes that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" [Col. 2:3]. Finally, turning again to Saint John, we rediscover the reason for the Incarnation and for Christ's earthly mission: "You sent me into the world, my heavenly Father, so that men might see with their own eyes the light which you gave me before the creation of the world."

You will undoubtedly be able to search out other similar texts in the sublime Gospel of Saint John and in the remarkable Letters of Saint Paul. In each instance you will surely see Saint John and Saint Paul stressing that we cannot come to God except through Christ.


Talmida said...

Thanks for this, Jeff. I first discovered Incarnation theology last year in an essay of Kenneth Overberg, S.J. It was like someone had flicked a light on in my heart (and not my head -- the usual site for my faith).

I'm still coping with the ramifications, primarily the realization that after 40 some years as a Christian, I have yet to get to know Jesus, whom I have always dismissed in favour of his Father (why bother with the Son or his Mother if you can go straight to the Top?).

I had never made the connection between Jesus and the Father's desire to truly BE human alongside us before.

I will have to look for Listen to the Silence.

crystal said...

I like that article by Fr. Overberg too ... Jesus wasn't plan B :-)

I had the maybe mistaken idea that Luke's gospel showed a more human Jesus and John's was kind of gnostic?

Garpu the Fork said...

I think we need more joy and more incarnation these days...I can't understand the "Jesus Camp" mentality that we're all dirty and evil, and everything not 'of God' (meaning the physical world) is fallen. Maybe i'd be a lousy Calvinist.

Jeff said...

Hi Talmida,

Yes, I like that article by Overberg too. Good old Duns Scotus!

Pere Jacques' retreat was written specifically for Carmelite nuns, but it holds up for laypeople pretty well after sixty years or so. He had a very kind way about him.


That's true about Luke's Gospel. Mark's Gospel is probably the one that shows Jesus' human side the most. I know what you mean about the Gnostic flavor. I've been referencing John a lot lately, but I've always been most fond of the Synoptics. :-)


You and me both! I'm tempted to say that there's a book waiting to be written called "Freeing Christianity from Augustine", but that probably isn't fair. I rarely pass up a chance to hammer him, but sometimes I get hammered in return. :-) A lot of people love him.

Jeff said...


Have you seen Jesus Camp?

Garpu the Fork said...

Amen about Augustine, but can't complain too loudly, since I'm at a Dominican parish. ;)

Jesus Camp: yes, I did. It's one of those that's both compelling and scary.

Jeff said...


I like the Dominicans... And Tommy A. (Aquinas)

cowboyangel said...

Nice job of pulling several of your previous posts together, Jeff.

"far from the eyes, far from the heart."

I think this points to one of the great strengths of the Catholic Mass over some other Christian services. Between the Crucifixon behind the altar, stained glass windows, Eucharist, greeting one another, the litrugy, etc., I've always felt like there was more Presence in the Mass. Other services may have their own strengths, but walking back from communion, listening to the music, glancing perhaps at the stations of the Cross, it's a very powerful reminder of the Incarnation.

cowboyangel said...

I don't know about John being the most Gnostic, but his Gospel is definitely the most poetic.

"In the beginning was the Word..."

How can a poet not love that?

Jeff said...


"In the beginning was the Word..."

How can a poet not love that?

Amen. There's hardly anything else like that Prologue, is there?