The Scandal of the Incarnation never stops being strange

Have you heard the phrase “the scandal of the incarnation?” It’s a phrase that doesn’t always land well, because the word “scandal” can mean such different things to different people.

To some people, “scandal” means a damaging, possibly illegal act committed by people who are supposed to be trustworthy, like embezzlement or bribery, or of course rampant abuse and its cover-up.

To others, “scandal” suggests some kind of salacious, transgressive behavior that we can all enjoy hearing and talking about because the people involved aren’t real, they’re just celebrities.

To Catholics, though, “scandal” has a very specific meaning: “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” By the Church’s definition, scandal not just something that’s unexpected and unseemly; it’s something so outrageously against the norms that it actually shakes your faith and might lead you astray.

So the “scandal of the Incarnation” implies that the reality of the Incarnation is such that, if you think hard enough about it, you might just decide … nope. It’s too much. You’re out. This is precisely what happened when Jesus told people to eat his body and drink his flesh. Some people were like, “What? WHAT? Absolutely not!” and they left. And that has been happening ever since.

It occurs to me that, even if we could all agree that “the scandal of the Incarnation” refers to that specific definition of “scandal,” it’s still scandalous in different ways, to different people, at different times. It’s a sort of universal all-scandal that has something to horrify and repulse people in every generation, as long as you can convince people that you actually mean what you say.

I believe the phrase “scandal of the Incarnation” was coined by Von Balthasar talking about Irenaus, who was responding to the gnostics of the time, and to their belief that the body was evil. You can easily imagine how the Incarnation would be scandalous to someone who thought flesh is hopelessly corrupt, and that the true God would never have anything to do with it.

But what Catholics profess is that, when Jesus was a zygote, he was God, and he was holy and immaculate. When he took on human flesh, it was a cosmic even that transformed what existence meant for all other human bodies. All flesh is now holy, because the Holy One took on flesh.

So if you were a second century gnostic who wholeheartedly believed that flesh and spirit were diametrically opposed, you can see how this would be a problem.
I think the “scandal of the incarnation” offends people in a different way, today….Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: 16th-Century Icon of Christ – Institute of Ethiopian Studies (Ethnographic Museum) – Addis Ababa University – Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, photo by Adam Jones via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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4 thoughts on “The Scandal of the Incarnation never stops being strange”

  1. I stopped listening to Bishop [then Father] Robert Barron, back in 2009, when he put out his You Tube video agreeing with his hero, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book “Dare We Hope That All Men be Saved.” That video was taken down due to backlash – but a French language copy (dubbed in English) has been put back). Barron, ever the master of ambiguity, failed to explain how Our Lord got it wrong about Judas Iscariot. Barron “clarified” by explaining that that to ‘hope’ and to ‘expect’ are very different things. Yep! Barron is back at it telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Maybe that’s why he’s so popular. I dunno.

  2. Great article as usual Simcha!
    The only quibble I have with your well written essay is when you stated that the main heresy plaguing our world right now is an unwillingness to believe that anything not embodied is real.
    I think the main heresy of our age is more related to people believing wrong things about the soul than not believing in one to begin with.
    Stuff like gender ideology states that you can be born in the “wrong body,” as in you can be born in the body of a male but your “true self” (ie your soul) is female.
    People truly believe there can be this separation between your soul and body, but as Theology of the Body states, God did not create us by inserting a soul into a body, we were created both soul and body simultaneously as embodied spirits, a unified being. And if there’s psychological conflict between the two then it should be treated (with kindness) instead of encouraged to the point of mutilating one’s body with unnecessary surgeries or hormones.

    I can think of another weird example of that heresy: I once watched a video about a woman who made the very sad decision to abort her twins. Aborting one baby is sad enough, but in her case two lives were lost. When interviewed afterwards she seemed so unfazed with the decision. Her reasoning was that her babies souls would simply move on to the next expectant mother, and that she was thankful for them choosing her but she simply wasn’t ready to have any babies. And she really believed that!
    She didn’t think she had destroyed the lives of her own children, to never be born, she just sent them on their way to be reincarnated to another person.
    I think the Catholic Church can do a better job on educating people on what the soul and body are, and what they are not.

  3. Jesus transforms the sacred to every day bread and wine. Breaking bread together means sharing in common. Instead of LITERALLY offering blood and flesh sacrifice to an absent God.
    There is nothing about eating the flesh of Jesus in any of that.
    And btw how does Gnosticism predate Jesus? Shame and mortification of the body is a product of misapplied Christian theology. Jesus was not a chaste despiser of the body in any way, as is shown when he freed Magdalene from her “sin”.

  4. Another meaning for “scandal” is “stumbling block” which is not necessarily an obstruction — or even a danger — but something that requires one to tread “carefully” (another word with long corridors of possibly meanings).

    The University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus in Amherst has a Fine Arts Center built at the head of a long mall. Originally, it contained a wide open walkway leading down to the main campus beyond. Soon after, in front of the center, they installed a sculpture of twisted metal that also conveyed the idea of a gateway or portal. This is still standing and one can still walk through it.

    Sometime in the 80s another sculpture was installed. It’s gone now, but it conveyed the idea of a large pointed stick, taller than a man and almost as long as city bus. It lay diagonally and askew across the wide gentle staircase leading down to central lake of the main campus. Too big to stumble over, its point jutted threateningly just above eye level. Its impact was almost offensive (the way being “scandalized” merges into being “offended”) and certainly disconcerting. It required exerting the efforts to walk around it, but if you did that enough, you might meditate (just a bit) on what a university was for, why and how young people were being educated (or older ones were teaching) and what it means to take care, or to be careful, or careless.

    Maybe to be careless means to forget there are always new challenges or to ignore the ever-present potential to rediscover old ways of understanding eternal mysteries? Maybe that’s why medieval cathedrals posted gargoyles. A stumbling block to understanding is the familiarity that obscures what is mysterious and, potentially, sacred.

    The last time I visited the Amherst campus the walkway had been glassed in. Of course, this is no true obstruction to anyone who chooses to enter the main campus by this route. The doorways are wide, easy to open, and the large passage is now sheltered from the elements so that all kinds of installations and events can be staged there. That metal sculpture with all its twists and contortions can still convey more metaphors than I have yet perceived.

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