Is Worship Incarnational?
What would you say is the most important event in all of history? That‚Äôs a fairly easy question. Most Christians would say Jesus‚Äô ‚ÄúIncarnation,‚Äù or in other words, His becoming flesh. Expressed in Jesus‚Äô birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, the Incarnation is the most pivotal event of all time. Theologian Scott Hahn states, ‚ÄúGod became flesh. That is literally the central event in history.‚Äù John 1:14 records, ‚ÄúThe Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.‚Äù In verse one we read that, ‚Äúthe Word was with God and the Word was God.‚Äù The importance of the Incarnation of Christ has been summarized in one sentence by Saint Athanasius (297-373 AD). He said, ‚Äú(Jesus) became what we are in order that we might become as He is.‚Äù Few Church Fathers have more credibility on this topic than Athanasius who played a key role in battling the great heretic, Arius (256-336 AD). Arius claimed that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were creatures. Athanasius was used of God during the council of Nicaea to put forth language that has helped solidify our understanding of the Trinity, a concept under serious attack in 325 AD. Athanasius proposed terminology, embraced by the council, stating that Jesus was ‚Äúcon-substantial‚Äù with the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created. Indeed, Jesus came to earth as the God-man. The Word became flesh.
As Christians, is our Sacred Assembly ‚ÄúIncarnational?‚Äù Does Jesus come to us in worship? Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that in our worship, ‚ÄúThe Word becomes more and more flesh, and the flesh becomes more and more Word.‚Äù How can this be? Jesus came to earth two-thousand years ago and ascended to the Father after His passion. He is at the right hand of the Father. How then can our worship be Incarnational?‚Äù And, how can we, who are flesh, become more and more Word?
In a previous article we discovered that our Sacred Assembly is for the purpose of Covenant renewal. Covenants create families. Our worship helps us remember the story of God‚Äôs redemptive acts on our behalf and how we become sons and daughters of God within the covenant relationship.
In the Old Testament, covenant renewal consisted of hearing again the word and revisiting the sign of the covenant ‚Äì usually a sacrifice or a meal. Likewise, by hearing the word and sharing the sign, we actualize the sacred actions that have effected our status before God. Physically and spiritually we are swept into and participate sacramentally in the narrative of salvation history. By the re-presentation of the Word inspired ‚Äì the written record of this narrative, and the Word made flesh ‚Äì experienced at the Table of the Lord, Christ's incarnation is re-presented and experienced anew. As Jesus offers Himself to us, we are drawn deeper into Him.
Several New Testament passages clearly indicate the Incarnational Presence of Christ as found at His Table. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul teaches us that the bread we break and the cup for which we offer thanks are our "participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus."
1 Corinthians 11:29 strongly pronounces the reality of Christ‚Äôs presence with us at the Table. ‚ÄúFor anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.‚Äù According to Paul, because a number of the Corinthians had not rightly discerned Jesus' body and blood at the Table, they were weak, sick and some had died. This seems rather outlandish if Communion is merely symbolic!
Luke 24 further illustrates that we can ‚Äúknow Him in the breaking of the bread.‚Äù Jesus Himself said, as recorded in John 6:55, ‚ÄúFor my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.‚Äù The word John uses for flesh (sarx) is the same word used to describe the Incarnation in John 1.
When we come the Table of the Lord, Jesus becomes more and more real, more and more personal to us. Indeed, "Word becomes more and more flesh." And, as we feast on the Word made flesh, we recognize, rightly discern and participate in the body and blood of Jesus. John 6 says that when we eat His body and drink His blood, we abide in Him and He abides in us. In that sense, Balthazar was correct. ‚ÄúFlesh becomes more and more Word.‚Äù
This kind of thinking is quite foreign to many evangelical worshipers. I wonder what would happen to us if we were to embrace this kind of Incarnational thinking. If we truly believed that we would experience the Lord in our gatherings, we would long to assemble, arrive early, expect incredible things, and never miss. Sadly, on any given Sunday, of the 16.2 million Southern Baptists on the roles, only 6.5 million can be found in services of worship. We need a new way of thinking‚Ä¶no, we need an ancient way of thinking‚Ä¶Incarnational thinking.