Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

The Incar­na­tion­al Tra­di­tion con­cerns itself with the rela­tion­ship between spir­it and mat­ter. In short, God is man­i­fest to us through mate­r­i­al means. 

Now, the spir­i­tu­al and the mate­r­i­al are not in oppo­si­tion to one anoth­er, but are com­ple­men­tary. Far from being evil, the phys­i­cal is meant to be inhab­it­ed by the spir­i­tu­al. We are cre­at­ed so as to receive life from God, who is Spir­it, and to express that life through our bod­ies and in the phys­i­cal world in which we live. The mate­r­i­al world is cre­at­ed, in part, so as to make vis­i­ble and man­i­fest the realm of the invis­i­ble spirit. 

God loves mat­ter. In his orig­i­nal cre­ative acts God affirmed mat­ter again and again, declar­ing it good at every point along the way. We, there­fore, should take the mate­r­i­al world quite seri­ous­ly; it is the icon” of God, the epiphany of his glo­ry. We must not dis­miss mate­r­i­al things as incon­se­quen­tial — or worse yet, as gen­uine­ly evil. The stuff of the mate­r­i­al world what Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin called holy mat­ter” — has been cre­at­ed by God and again he declared it to be good, very good (Gen. 1:25, 31). The mate­r­i­al world is intend­ed to enhance human life.1

It is also the realm or the place where we are to devel­op our spir­it under God. One of the main func­tions of mat­ter is to medi­ate the pres­ence of an infi­nite God to finite minds. The Ark of the Covenant and the Taber­na­cle were divine­ly appoint­ed arrange­ments so that God could be with human beings with­out destroy­ing them. The same is true of the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah as a babe in a manger. These mate­r­i­al real­i­ties are all gra­cious­ly designed to allow for the nec­es­sary space between us and God. In this way God can come to us and we, in turn, can come to God. Divine real­i­ties are thus medi­at­ed to us through the finite real­i­ties of our per­son­al his­to­ries, our social expe­ri­ences, our phys­i­cal bodies. 

Now, there are fun­da­men­tal­ly two are­nas or dimen­sions of incar­na­tion­al life. The first is what we, from a human point of view, would iden­ti­fy as the specif­i­cal­ly reli­gious dimen­sion. The sec­ond is the are­na of every­day life. 

The Reli­gious Dimension

The specif­i­cal­ly reli­gious dimen­sion is most ful­ly expressed in our cor­po­rate wor­ship. Here we uti­lize the phys­i­cal and the mate­r­i­al to express and man­i­fest the spiritual. 

In this dimen­sion of our life togeth­er it is impor­tant to under­score that all of us are litur­gi­cal. That is to say, we all use mate­r­i­al and human forms” to express our wor­ship of God. There sim­ply are no non­l­i­tur­gi­cal church­es. Monas­tics ris­ing to recite the Night Office and Quak­ers wait­ing in silent assur­ance upon the Spir­it, Catholics pray­ing the rosary and revival­ists singing hymns of devo­tion to the name of Jesus, Russ­ian Ortho­dox rit­u­al­ists bow­ing amid incense and icon and Sal­va­tion Army evan­ge­lists march­ing to drum and tam­bourine — all are engaged in litur­gy. We have a choice of litur­gy, but we do not have a choice of whether to use litur­gy. As long as we are finite human beings, we must use litur­gy; we must express our­selves through forms of wor­ship.2

Litur­gy—litur­gia—sim­ply means the people’s work.” Our task in litur­gy is to glo­ri­fy God in the var­i­ous aspects of our wor­ship life. We are to let the real­i­ty of God shine through the human or phys­i­cal forms. This is true whether we are singing hymns or burn­ing can­dles, danc­ing in ecsta­t­ic praise or bow­ing in speech­less ado­ra­tion. It is use­ful here to draw upon the Apos­tle Paul’s imagery of the trea­sure in earth­en ves­sels” (2 Cor. 4). The trea­sure is the glo­ry of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” as Paul put it (v. 6). The earth­en ves­sel is the human body, along with the var­i­ous cul­tur­al forms we use to man­i­fest the trea­sure. To apply Paul’s imagery to the issue at hand, the earth­en ves­sel” is, very sim­ply, our form of wor­ship. We must always remem­ber that the form itself is not the trea­sure; we wor­ship God, nev­er the form. 

Under­stand­ing this imagery helps us appre­ci­ate oth­ers who do not wor­ship in our way. We can rec­og­nize the trea­sure they are show­ing forth even though they wor­ship in a dif­fer­ent earth­en ves­sel from us. Many earth­en ves­sels, one trea­sure; many forms, one God and Father of us all. 

We can even learn to rejoice in the beau­ti­ful vari­ety of wor­ship forms among the peo­ple of God. Eve­lyn Under­hill (along with many oth­ers) speaks of forms of wor­ship as sacra­men­tals,” by which she means that they are more than sym­bols and less than sacra­ments.”3 In oth­er words, these phys­i­cal and mate­r­i­al forms are effi­ca­cious signs help­ing the wor­ship­ing soul appre­hend spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty. In the eighth cen­tu­ry John of Dam­as­cus argued in exact­ly this man­ner for the icons of East­ern Ortho­dox faith as signs or reflec­tions of the eter­nal and spir­i­tu­al reality. 

This dis­cus­sion of forms refers, of course, to far more than the icons of East­ern Ortho­doxy. Con­sid­er the music of J. S. Bach and Charles Wes­ley and Fan­ny Cros­by. Con­sid­er the pro­found silence of Quak­er wor­ship — the silence is itself a form, a litur­gy of wor­ship. Con­sid­er the rich tapes­try of Angli­can wor­ship. Con­sid­er the warm vibran­cy of Pen­te­costal wor­ship. Con­sid­er foot-wash­ing in the Brethren ser­vices or the lay­ing on of hands in Charis­mat­ic cir­cles or the Love Feast in House church­es. The list could go on and on. Our wor­ship becomes a mag­nif­i­cent, all-encom­pass­ing aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence. We see, we smell, we touch, we taste, we hear. We absorb the faith by reliv­ing the gospel and the pas­sion in the litur­gy. In short, God is man­i­fest to us through mate­r­i­al means. 

The Sacra­ments of the Church most com­plete­ly demon­strate God’s use of mat­ter to make present and vis­i­ble the invis­i­ble realm of the spir­it. They are, in fact, often called, vis­i­ble means of an invis­i­ble grace.” Sacra­ments are con­crete actions by which we are marked and fed in such a way that the real­i­ty of God becomes embed­ded in our body, our mind, our spir­it. The Holy Spir­it grafts us into the Trini­tar­i­an life by bury­ing and then rais­ing us up in bap­tism. And the Holy Spir­it con­tin­u­al­ly feeds us by enact­ing the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Christ in the Com­mu­nion ser­vice, or Eucharist.4

The Are­na of Every­day Life

But the reli­gious dimen­sion is the begin­ning, not the end. We are to take this life and incor­po­rate it into all we are and all we do. We bring it into dai­ly life: into our homes, into our work, into our rela­tion­ships with chil­dren and spouse and friends and neigh­bors and, yes, even ene­mies. Here we come to the most fun­da­men­tal are­na for the Incar­na­tion­al Tra­di­tion: the are­na of every­day life. It is the place, par excel­lence, in which we make vis­i­ble and man­i­fest the invis­i­ble realm of the spir­it. To move into this sacra­men­tal way of liv­ing, we must take deep into our heart and mind Paul’s words, And what­ev­er you do, in word or deed, do every­thing in the name of the Lord Jesus, giv­ing thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

The most basic place of our sacra­men­tal liv­ing is in our mar­riages and homes and fam­i­lies. Here we live togeth­er in well-rea­soned love for every­one around us. Here we expe­ri­ence the sacra­ment of the present moment,” to use the phrase of Jean Pierre de Caus­sade. We miss the point of this way of life if we are off con­duct­ing prayer meet­ings and oth­er church­ly enter­pris­es when the duty of the present moment is to be home, play­ing with our chil­dren or car­ing for oth­er domes­tic respon­si­bil­i­ties. C. S. Lewis wise­ly observed, The great thing, if one can, is to stop regard­ing all the unpleas­ant things as inter­rup­tions of one’s own’ or real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the inter­rup­tions are pre­cise­ly one’s real life— the life God is send­ing one day by day: what one calls one’s real life’ is a phan­tom of one’s own imag­i­na­tion.”5

Work is anoth­er every­day place — per­haps the most sub­stan­tive place — for incar­na­tion­al liv­ing. By work” I am refer­ring not mere­ly to our job; I am refer­ring to what we do to pro­duce good in our world. I am refer­ring to our voca­tio, our voca­tion or calling. 

Now, I real­ly must bear down on this point of our work as the place for liv­ing sacra­men­tal­ly. While some have a spe­cial call­ing to pas­toral or priest­ly work in order to equip the peo­ple of God, the call­ing or voca­tion for most of us is smack in the midst of the worka­day world. And even here we often miss the point of a sacra­men­tal life. One busi­ness leader pious­ly announced, I instruct my sec­re­tary to set aside one noon hour a week when, instead of going out to some pow­er lunch, I close the door on the dog-eat-dog world of busi­ness, open my Bible, and spend time alone with my Lord.” Now, this may well be a wise prac­tice, but it is not yet sacra­men­tal liv­ing. The real issue is how we live and act and react in the midst of the dog-eat-dog world of pow­er lunch­es and busi­ness deal­ings and board meet­ings. Or the dog-eat-dog world of restau­rant man­agers and servers, of con­trac­tors and sub­con­trac­tors, of mid­dle man­age­ment and office staff. Or the dog-eat-dog world of law and edu­ca­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship. This is where peo­ple des­per­ate­ly need to see the real­i­ty of God made vis­i­ble and manifest. 

And this is where we learn to do our work as Jesus would do our work if he were in our place. Now, in under­stand­ing how this works, we need to under­score Jesus among us in his office as res­ur­rect­ed and exalt­ed Lord, free from all the local­iza­tions of time and space, geog­ra­phy and his­to­ry, gen­der and race, nation­al­i­ty and voca­tion. For he is in our place. He con­tin­u­al­ly moves among us as our ever-present Teacher. He is, you see, the Lord of all voca­tions, and he real­ly can teach us how to ful­fill our call­ing. If you are a den­tist, Jesus can teach you to do den­tistry as he would do it if he were you. The same is true if you are a court stenog­ra­ph­er, a com­put­er pro­gram­mer, a research sci­en­tist, a jan­i­tor, or the CEO of a multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion. It is just as true if the thing you do to pro­duce good in the world is raise a fam­i­ly or paint pic­tures or cre­ate stained-glass win­dows or peel pota­toes. Who­ev­er, what­ev­er, wher­ev­er — he will teach you. Learn from him. 

The third place — in addi­tion to home and work — that we learn to live sacra­men­tal­ly is in soci­ety at large. Here we are to bring the real­i­ty of God to bear upon cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and insti­tu­tion­al life. The the­olo­gians call this the cul­tur­al man­date,” a teach­ing that is deeply root­ed in the cre­ation nar­ra­tive, where God gives the human pair stew­ard­ship author­i­ty to care for and man­age the earth (Gen. 1 – 3). And so we do. We work to lift our cul­ture, not just through the com­mon­sense moral stan­dards of decen­cy and hon­esty, but through art and lit­er­a­ture and dra­ma, jus­tice and beau­ty and shalom. We nur­ture the good, the true, the beau­ti­ful” through­out soci­ety — through the per­son-cen­tered car­ing of the schools we run, through the beau­ty of the parks we build, through the entre­pre­neur­ial empow­er­ment we offer the poor, through the imag­i­na­tive and redeem­ing lit­er­a­ture we write, through the eco­log­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ty we bring to land use and devel­op­ment, and so much more. 

Fam­i­ly, work, soci­ety — these com­prise the are­na of every­day life. Now, it is of utmost impor­tance that we keep a con­stant and inti­mate link between the specif­i­cal­ly reli­gious dimen­sion and the are­na of every­day life. This con­nec­tion, inci­den­tal­ly, is seen in many of the sacra­men­tal” pas­sages in our New Tes­ta­ment— pas­sages that car­ry this dou­ble ref­er­ence to both the reli­gious dimen­sion and every­day life. In the sixth chap­ter of John, for exam­ple, where Jesus gives an extend­ed teach­ing on eat­ing the flesh of the Son of Man and drink­ing his blood,” we imme­di­ate­ly see both the ref­er­ence to Com­mu­nion and the call to our con­tin­u­al feed­ing on his life. As Jesus says, The words that I have spo­ken to you are spir­it and life” (John 6:63b). The same thing can be seen in Jesus’ dis­course on liv­ing water” with the woman at the well, where bap­tism stands in the back­ground of his teach­ing on the sus­tain­ing life that he gives to all who trust in him.6

Mar­tin Luther pro­found­ly linked the reli­gious sphere with com­mon life when, in writ­ing about bap­tism, he said, For as long as we live we are con­tin­u­al­ly doing that which bap­tism sig­ni­fies, that is, we die and rise again. … [T]hat which bap­tism sig­ni­fies should swal­low up your whole life, body and soul, and give it forth again at the last day, clad in the robe of glo­ry and immor­tal­i­ty. We are there­fore nev­er with­out the sign of bap­tism nor with­out the thing it sig­ni­fies.”7

This bridge is also seen in the Ref­or­ma­tion prin­ci­ple of the priest­hood of all believ­ers.” To be sure, this prin­ci­ple teach­es us that the plow boy and the milk maid” can do priest­ly work. But even more pro­found­ly it teach­es us that the plow boy in his plow­ing and the milk maid in her milk­ing are in fact doing priest­ly work. 

Have I giv­en enough sub­stance for you to grasp the con­cept of the Incar­na­tion­al Tra­di­tion? I could say more, but my guess is that you have the sanc­ti­fied imag­i­na­tion to take the cen­tral insight of this sacra­men­tal way of liv­ing and con­tex­tu­al­ize it into the many sit­u­a­tions you face day in and day out.

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Excerpt­ed from Streams of Liv­ing Water by Richard J. Fos­ter, pub­lished by Harper­One. Copy­right Richard J. Fos­ter. Used with permission.

[1] Today we encounter the mate­r­i­al world in its fall­en state. It is a good world gone bad,” as C. S. Lewis put it. There­fore, on a prac­ti­cal lev­el, we are con­stant­ly deal­ing with the many dis­tor­tions of the mate­r­i­al uni­verse the ways it can lead us into sin — and I will address some of these under the per­ils” of the Tra­di­tion. But that con­stant pas­toral and prac­ti­cal strug­gle must nev­er keep us from affirm­ing the good­ness of mat­ter as cre­at­ed by God.

[2] What is often called the litur­gi­cal move­ment began almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in dif­fer­ent parts of the Chris­t­ian world in the years fol­low­ing the First World War. It has had dif­fer­ent forms and col­or­ings in each of the Chris­t­ian con­fes­sions, and with­in these con­fes­sions it has devel­oped in a vari­ety of ways in var­i­ous coun­tries. While it is true that this move­ment has been most promi­nent among the high church­es,” hard­ly a group has been left untouched by it. And the litur­gi­cal flow moves both ways: many of the spon­ta­neous litur­gies of the low church­es” have been adapt­ed into more sacra­men­tal set­tings with great benefit.

[3] Eve­lyn Under­hill, Wor­ship (Guild­ford, Sur­rey, UK: Eagle, 1991), p. 33.

[4] Through­out his­to­ry dif­fer­ent Chris­t­ian groups have had var­i­ous lists of offi­cial Sacra­ments. By the twelfth cen­tu­ry the Roman Catholic Church had solid­i­fied its num­ber at sev­en: bap­tism, con­fir­ma­tion, Eucharist, penance, extreme unc­tion, holy orders, and mat­ri­mo­ny. Sacra­ments in the Ortho­dox Church are offi­cial­ly called holy mys­ter­ies,” and they usu­al­ly list a sim­i­lar sev­en. The idea of count­ing, how­ev­er, may be mis­lead­ing, for the more ancient prac­tice of the Ortho­dox Church has been to con­sid­er every­thing that is in and of the Ortho­dox Church as sacra­men­tal or mys­ti­cal. Protes­tants have tend­ed toward two Sacra­ments bap­tism and Eucharist though they have often also stressed the sacra­men­tal qual­i­ty of preach­ing. Quak­ers and the Sal­va­tion Army are the two groups that have done away com­plete­ly with out­ward and vis­i­ble Sacra­ments. Even these groups, how­ev­er, stress the sacra­men­tal char­ac­ter of life and the need for a vis­i­ble enflesh­ment of that life. This notion is well expressed in the fol­low­ing hymn writ­ten by Albert Ors­born, a gen­er­al in the Sal­va­tion Army: 

My life must be Christ’s bro­ken bread,
My love his out­poured wine,
A cup o’erfilled,
a table spread Beneath his name and sign.
That oth­er souls, refreshed and fed,
May share his life through mine.

[5] C. S. Lewis, They Stand Togeth­er: The let­ters of C . S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (19141963), ed. Wal­ter Hoop­er (New York: Macmil­lan, 1979), p. 499

[6] See John 4:1 – 26. For an extend­ed exe­ge­sis of this dou­ble mean­ing” see Oscar Cull­mann, Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Wor­ship (Philadel­phia: West­min­ster, 1953). 

[7] Baby­lon­ian Cap­tiv­i­ty,” Luther’s Works, trans. A.T.W. Stein­hauser, Fred­er­ick C. Ahrens, and Abdel Ross Wentz (Philadel­phia: Muh­len­berg, 1959), XXXVI, 57, as cit­ed in James F. White, A Brief His­to­ry of Chris­t­ian Wor­ship (Nashville, TN: Abing­don, 1993), p. 114.

Pho­to by Jose Anto­nio Gal­lego Vázquez on Unsplash

Text First Published October 1998 · Last Featured on Renovare.org November 2021

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