Hope ’15, Theology Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy Recently, Elizabeth Scalia over at the Patheos Catholic blog wrote a piece about the need for the Church to be evangelical and missionary. She specifically highlighted what she called the “Incarnational” aspect of good evangelization. In the Incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt” (“pitched His tent” as the translation sometimes reads) “among us.” And so she discusses the need for this Incarnational evangelization:
Incarnational Evangelization happens when Christian men and women leave the comfortable place of their own origin, just as the Word proceeded from the Father, to set a tent among the “others,” where they are at, and learns their names and their stories. It talks with them, eats with them, laughs and cries with them, helps to birth them and, if necessary, to bury them. It is first and foremost about service to the “other” and to Love. Which is God.
Talking about the need for the Church to be more evangelical is definitely on the forefront these days. Both Scott Hahn and George Weigel have recently written books about it and Pope Francis’ leadership style has further lead to the wider Church collectively thinking about this and acting on it in various ways. However, I’d like to make a bit of an addition to what Elizabeth Scalia is saying. When we talk about the Church as evangelical and missionary, about being present, about “serving,” we tend to set up a false dichotomy. We’ve got the “social justice” (“progressive,” as the media labels this) people on one side and those who want to teach or retain an understanding of the Church and the sacraments on the other (these folks usually get labeled the “Tradition and liturgy and sacraments,” the “conservative, Church-ey” kind of people). We see a classic example of this in how the Pope Benedict persona versus the Pope Francis persona gets played out in the media; Pope Benedict was a fuddy-duddy who cared about liturgy and translations of things, and Pope Francis really loves the people because he wants to hug and serve them. (This is also unfair to how Pope Benedict actually led as well, but that’s for another piece at another time.) The progressive versus conservative, reductionist lens of understanding what faith is and how faith works—especially when it comes to understanding how we ought to evangelize– does a disservice to the Church. I love the quote Scalia cited from Pope Benedict about thinking about what ought to be the goal in evangelization. Christianity is not about a concept or a cause. Christianity is about a Person:
“One doesn’t begin to be a Christian because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation. The evangelization of the person and of human communities depends totally on this encounter with Jesus Christ.”
The way to be an Incarnational and an evangelizing, missionary Church comes not in choosing one version of presence. In order to be “present in people’s lives,” and to walk with them, we don’t have to lose the chance to “understand the Real Presence” and the sacraments. Our evangelizing mission in this world, our seeking the face of Christ as we walk with with our brothers and sisters does not come from leaning on one over the other. Learning how to better be an incarnational Church comes in learning that we can hold the people and the Person in tandem. It comes in learning that we can and need to say social justice and liturgy. Relationships and worship. Community building and sacraments. Active action and deep lives of prayer. The two are not diametrically opposed. Far from it! They absolutely need each other. I think that we sometimes think of liturgies, of the Mass, and of the sacramental life of the Church as boring, as non-incarnational and as less helpful at building relationships with Christ and with others because the latter are old. For example: the Mass is a sleepy habit to most of us. It is an hour’s length worth of motions that we go through, that many of us have been doing as long as we can remember. This is why the new translation of the Roman Missal jerked us out of our complacency for a short while and made us think about what we were saying at Mass. What do I mean here by “old”? It’s time to turn to my good friend Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is…. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” (From the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy)
In order to fully restore the concept of how we can evangelize as a Church, how we can most deeply speak to the needs of this world, we have to remember both to be present to people in relationships and in walking with them through a liturgical life. To do that we have to realize that we have aged in sin and that the heart of our relationships have gotten a bit stony. Instead of beating excitedly with young love because we encounter Christ in a deeply Incarnational way through the sacraments, our hearts have old-married couple syndrome. So the action of the Church and the rooted nature of the Church need to be constantly feeding off of each other, for the betterment of both of them. I think this is why two of the most important documents from Vatican II were on the mission (Gaudium et Spes) and the nature (Lumen Gentium)of the Church. The AND is where we ought to be. Our Lord held this tension in mind better than anyone. In Matthew 28, the classic citation for evangelization, He said:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Because He is with us always and He has called us to be with others always, He has simultaneously commanded that we baptize and practice and fully live the sacramental life of the Church. The way we observe all that He has commanded us is to properly hold the tension between active, present love in the world that meets people where they are the way that Christ did, while simultaneously loving and being loved in the way He is present to us in the sacramental life of the Church.