Doing Christ: incarnation and liturgy

by Christopher Evans

Historians and theologians sometimes argue that a catholic emphasis is on seeing God and an evangelical or Reformation emphasis is on hearing God. Both arguments may be partly true, though Luther’s retaining of the elevation at Wittenberg muddies this overly drawn distinction every bit as much as do Benedictine monks at prayer. After all, any good Benedictine-type would point out that both are actually catholic. And where iconoclasm did not take hold of the Reformers, God’s Visible Word as sacrament remained central to proclamation. And have you seen the St. Mary’s Church altarpiece in Wittenberg? We Anglicans on the other hand had to recover from spastic fits of image hatred. Our praying reformed the excesses in time.

To hear the Word, Christ Jesus, and to see the Word, Christ Jesus, are of the whole and of proclamation. They are one. The Reformer’s emphasized one more than the other, but that is not unusual to larger catholic tradition either. Time and context always play a part in highlighting one or another catholic emphasis in prayer.

Our time, in my opinion, requires highlighting a full-sensory experience in the face of a technologized reduction of life to sight and sound. In our time, the Incarnation is at stake, not only in icon or proclamation, but in flesh and blood and clay and dust. Comfort with grinding poverty and ecological devastation are the most acute facets of our capitulation to a docetic Christology quite at home with a technologized society focused on sight, sound, production, consumption, use, and usefulness.

Our Christian failure to attend to our relatedness to the entirety of the cosmos through, with, and in Emmanuel-Incarnate-Word, Christ Jesus, has roots in our failure to attend to the full-sensory experience of the Incarnation at prayer. In attending to the Incarnation at prayer, our senses are renewed to experience all of creation as God’s dwelling place. We may even be surprised to find ourselves drawn to reverence and attend to grass, and earthworms, and one another. Veneration, after all, is not only intended for icons or Saints who have passed into the heart of Christ, but is a stance toward all life and “being-with” [1]: all life barely, sentient, and conscious and all “being-with,” mineral, vegetable, animal…, angel.

So I want to draw our attention to skin, if you will. On Sunday mornings when I am able to suspend my spousal duties at my partner’s parish to attend my own parish, I look forward to the censing of the Gospel Book processed into the middle of the congregation. I close my eyes for just a second and breathe in deeply the smells of myrrh and frankincense. The sweet bitter pungent smoke announces every bit as much as the Sanctus, Christ Jesus—and by means of His Person the Persons Three, present and showing up explicitly, coming among us in cloud and fire to meet the entire people of God in the mystery of smell as much as resonance of sound. And when I bow reverently at “The Holy Gospel according to Saint…,,” I respond in spine and clasped hands to the One Who makes them for attention and reverence.

At Holy Communion, as I raise the chunk of bread cupped in my hands ever so carefully and attentively and reverently to bring Jesus to my lips, I smell the goodness of the Lord, the goodness of the One Who Is With Us And Causes Us To Be With warm and yeasty with crusts. And I remember that, no, actually, we do live by Bread alone, for God so attends to our creatureliness that God in Christ Jesus, by Whom alone we live, has so identified with us as to meet us as creatures and give himself to us now as bread, as creature still. I am reminded of that ditty attributed to Elizabeth I or John Donne. “Is” and “as” are powerful words.[2]

In the Incarnation, God brings together what we would divide in our desire to flee the flesh, our desire to be other than creatures, our sin.[3] In the Incarnation, God is with creatureliness, and through, with, and in the Second Person, with each and every created.[4] In Christ, God meets us on the margins of Godself, if you will and enters into life with us. The cosmos, the entire creation is brought into God’s own life in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. And through the Left and Right Hands of the Father, each and all existing too is icon, Book, and yes, Christ-dimensioned symmetry if we but pay attention even through all of the mess and sin and death.

The paradox is that the Incarnation leads us to embrace of our creaturehood, and by that embrace, that comfort with being skin, grace works in us the divine relating precisely through flesh and blood and clay and dust. Ss. Irenaeus and Athanasius glimpsed this so long ago as the paradox and joy of the Incarnation. Yet this happens not through miserable hatred or a spiritualizing angelism of human being or triumphant escape of flesh, but precisely through embrace of our created existence and loving of all life and “being- with.”

And so I lick the last crumb of Jesus from my palm in preparation for the sweet, sticky wine. And bringing the cup to my lips, I touch the garment, the very goodness of Christ.

We are not just eyes and ears, something for which technology can easily account and turn to use. We are noses, and taste buds, and nerve endings where the brain extends into our skin and our skin touches the cerebrum to make indeed the “body’s mind compound.” [5] Our senses demand liturgy, theo-poetry, full sensory encounter. Such encounter is contrary to a socio-economy that reduces everything to use and usefulness. I’m reminded of the woman with nard. She knows liturgy.

Liturgy at its best not only gives us a vision of God through colorful clothing and paraments and postures and gestures meant for our seeing the Lord, and liturgy at its best not only gives us the hearing of God through words and singing. Liturgy brings us to encounter with God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, and by means of this One of all created existence.

We smell, taste, and touch God too. Liturgy, if it be Christian, concerns itself with the fullness of all created, for it concerns itself of encounter with the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ, the Person in Whom by particularity as human being, the whole of heaven is come to meet the creation and all of the cosmos is brought to Father in high priestly representation. God chooses to bless all of creation through the particularity of this Human One, and in this One, through all of humanity. We might like to think us special then? A chosen people set apart. But lest we forget our humble relatedness, we are reminded again and again in Scripture that God chooses the particular one and ones not for ourselves but to bless the whole, to witness to the Word among each and all in the fullness of createdness, among every creature and their kind. Imagine when we shall meet with awe and reverence other conscious beings, not out in the far reaches of space, but here on our shared earth? Imagine ourselves good elder siblings to the many varied-conscious creatures of earth: crows, dolphins, gray parrots, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, elephants, and more?

So this encounter leads us not further into a sanctuary of escape, but into a cosmos where the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch of creatures each and all is intended to declare a God who meets us through flesh and blood and clay and dust. God became human being, not that we might lord it over one another or other creatures, but that we might witness to God’s blessing each and all in word and image and deed.

In the concentrated form of encounter with the Incarnate One in liturgy, our senses are open to Christ’s Presence at work hiddenly in general society and all of creation. And we are called to Name Christ there and “do” Christ. Only by incense, can I recognize Christ in the smell of aged piss that covers the alley behind my parish, urging attention to and reverence for beloveds without a place to lay their heads. Only by meeting Christ in the sanctuary in the fullness of frankincense and color and bread am I nourished to encounter all of creation as sanctuary, God’s dwelling place, God’s home. Only by encounter of the Incarnation at prayer am I strengthened to engage with worldliness, in Church or general society, in myself and in others, all that would destroy flesh, all that would denigrate creatures, all that would deny that in Christ Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit each and all of us are related to God.


[1] From the works of Douglass John Hall. I recently started reading Hall for the first time and found we shared insights about creatureliness, God’s self-identification with us, and God’s going all the way for us in the Incarnation.

[2] I owe this insight to Alvin Kimmel’s work on Martin Luther.

[3] See Luther’s Lectures on Genesis.

[4] See the work of George Tinker.

[5] Christopher Evans, “Scar Tissue,” Unpublished manuscript.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

Past Posts