An Incarnational Day: The Annunciation, Flannery O’Connor, John Paul II, and Priestly Formation
Today is one of only two days within the entire liturgical year when we are instructed to genuflect during the recitation of the Creed at the words “and was incarnate.” The other day is Christmas, which is exactly nine months away. On March twenty-fifth we celebrate the conception of our Lord in Mary’s womb, and on December twenty-fifth we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem. Both days are a celebration of the Incarnation, of God becoming one of us.
God didn’t save us by becoming an angel; he became a human being, like us in all things but sin, in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. And as familiar as we may be with the story, we often do not consider how great a story it is, and the impact that it has not only on our lives, but on all of human history. I remember my freshman year of college seminary – Joan Osborne had a big radio hit, “What If God Was One of Us?” The tune was catchy, but lyrically it was an offense to the Incarnation. Few noticed. Few took the time to consider the fact that Ms. Osborne’s hit was written as if Jesus was a sham. As a culture, and sadly as a Church, I fear that many of us suffer from a bad case of Incarnational amnesia. We’ve forgotten that in Jesus, God did become one of us.
It was St. Athanasius who said, “God became man so that man could become God.” The Christian mystery is summarized in those nine words. God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ so that we, by encountering Jesus Christ – who is both God and Man – can become another Christ, an alter Christus. To settle for anything less is an offense to the Incarnation.
Flannery O’Connor was born ninety years ago today, on the Feast of the Annunciation, a most appropriate date for such an Incarnational writer. As a matter of fact, it has been said that O’Connor is the only great Catholic fiction writer that America has ever produced. She was unapologetically Catholic, proudly confessing, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.”
According to O’Connor, it was her Catholicism – especially her belief in the Incarnation – that formed her imagination and worldview. She said as much herself: “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that.” Although O’Connor was not a philosopher or a theologian, she was philosophical and theological, and she knew well that because we are human beings and not angels, we come to know the world first through our senses.
That knowledge begins in the senses explains why God became one of us in the Incarnation. God came to us in a way that we could know him as human beings. In other words, we come to know God’s divinity through his humanity, and we come to God first through our senses. We come to know God Incarnationally, through our humanity, not in pure spirit like an angel. The importance of this Incarnational principle cannot be overstated. It explains the Sacraments and the sacramental imagination as well – God communicates himself to us through material things like water, bread, wine, oil, and human bodies. It explains why architecture, candles, incense, liturgical vestments and religious garb matter – because matter matters. O’Connor explains, “every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses. Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible church.”
What makes O’Connor’s fiction so good is that it is so very Incarnational. She notes, “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals to the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” We don’t come to know the world through abstractions but through the concrete. O’Connor continues, “What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is.” And this notion of what-is speaks to another anniversary celebrated today.
On March twenty-fifth, 1992, John Paul II published a work entitled Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), a post-synodal exhortation on the formation of priests. John Paul was very deliberate in choosing the date for the publication of this document, as the most groundbreaking aspect of this document is inspired by the Incarnation: Human Formation.
Human Formation is the buzzword around seminaries these days, and it ought to be, as John Paul II calls Human Formation “the basis of all priestly formation.” But it wasn’t always so. To put the conversation in context, it’s important to know that John Paul II did not invent the notion of Human Formation, but he surely gave it the unprecedented prominence that it holds today. Before the publication of PDV, priestly formation was comprised of three major dimensions: spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. Fueled with a great love for the Incarnation and a deep understanding of mystery of the human person, John Paul decided to list four (not just three) dimensions of priestly formation, and he started not with the spiritual dimension, but with the human. With all we’ve said thus far about the Incarnation, such a move makes perfect sense. A man studying for the priesthood must begin with his humanity, because it’s only through his humanity that he can get to his spirituality, as a human being is both body and soul, and not simply a spiritual being, as many (falsely) believe.
John Paul II insists that all priestly formation must begin with Human Formation precisely because God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ as a human being, and it’s in Christ’s humanity that we come to know his divinity. So too, it is through our humanity that we first come to know Jesus, and in turn, come to know ourselves. Attempting to run from our humanity, or to repress our humanity, or to ignore our humanity is common trap that seminarians and priests (and laity too) may fall into in an attempt to be holy, but authentic holiness can never be attained apart from our humanity.
One of the most often quoted lines from PDV is this: “In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.” Think about it. The best priests and seminarians tend to be the ones who are most human, in the best sense of the word. These men show you that holiness is attainable through your humanity, and not apart from it.
John Paul continues, “Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others.” What good is a priest who is “spiritual” if he can’t relate to people? People do come to know Christ through the priest, but if the priest is afraid of his own humanity, he won’t be able to relate his spirituality very well.
It is under the umbrella of Human Formation that John Paul II also addresses the importance of affective maturity and a proper understanding of and an appreciation for the gift of human sexuality as it relates to chastity and the gift of celibacy. No man who tries to repress or ignore his humanity, especially his God-given longings for union, will be capable of an authentic spiritual life, as Christian spiritual life is always Incarnational – it’s never without the body.
I am the director of Human Formation at our college seminary in Cleveland, so a big part of my job is making sure that my guys don’t run from their humanity, but actually meet Christ in it, so that others can come to meet Christ through their humanity. So things like practicing virtue, working out family issues, navigating friendships, speaking reverently and honestly about sexuality and sexual desires, simplicity, generosity, diet, exercise, grooming, etiquette, and even punctuality come under the umbrella of Human Formation. All that very human stuff matters.
Talk to any bishop today and he’ll tell you that if one of his priests gets himself into trouble, the cause of that trouble is normally not traced back to the spiritual, intellectual or pastoral dimension, but to the human. When a priest or seminarian runs from his humanity, he also runs from Christ, the Incarnation.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, the day that Mary conceived Jesus, who is true God and true Man – the Incarnation. It’s also Flannery O’Connor’s ninetieth birthday and the anniversary of John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis. It’s a day when good things come together.
If you go to Mass today, watch closely as the priest prepares the chalice at the altar during the offertory – more good things come together. As he pours a drop or two of water in the chalice of wine he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Maybe we should genuflect at that line too.