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Are there some places or objects that are more sacred than others? Is there anything special about the spot where Jesus was entombed after Joseph of Arimathea obtained his dead body from Pontius Pilate? How about the relics of saints, do they deserve special reverence? Or the cell where St. Theresa of Ávila spent her life, the patch of soil where St. Francis is buried or the spots where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged or St. Thomas More beheaded? Are they any different from your local supermarket?
Before a hasty “yes” to the above, let’s approach the question from the other end too. Isn’t all of creation, the entire Universe made holy because it has been created and is being sustained by God, because it has being only insofar as God makes it participate in His own? Isn’t God present everywhere and always? Isn’t it the case that wherever I may go, God is already there, awaiting me and waiting for me to discover him and relate to him there? Isn’t each person equally loved by God and therefore given equal dignity and worth? Shouldn’t we see His presence everywhere, always, in everything and everyone? Doesn’t that result in universal equality and equivalence?
As with very many questions of this kind, I believe the answer is a resounding “both” and the template in this case could be Patriarch Athenagoras’ saying: “God loves everyone equally, but secretly each one of us is his favorite.” It is both a confirmation of universal equality and of individual exceptionality and I believe that both are needed in equal measure. Focusing only on the former, universal aspect brings with it a danger of declaring a love of humanity while not particularly liking any one person, a danger of emphasizing the general principle while loosing sight of the instances in ought to be applied to. The risk here is an idealism that lacks flesh. A focus on the latter, instead risks an idolization of some while looking down upon others, a schizophrenia of reverence for people and objects that ostensibly possess special qualities while walking past the poor, the “ordinary”, the “everyday” whose dignity is equipollent. The risk here is a materialism - even when it may appear as sacred - that lacks soul.
What does a “both” attitude look like though, in the face of these seemingly polar opposites. Here, I believe the answer is the incarnation - and if you are not a Christian, please, bear with me, because I believe that the pattern of thought that it represents (and embodies!) is more broadly relevant.
Let’s see first how Pope Benedict XVI explains what “incarnation” means:
“Incarnation derives from the Latin incarnatio. St Ignatius of Antioch — at the end of the first century — and, especially, St Irenaeus used this term in reflecting on the Prologue to the Gospel according to St John, in particular in the sentence “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). Here the word “flesh”, according to the Hebrew usage, indicates man in his whole self, the whole man, but in particular in the dimension of his transience and his temporality, his poverty and his contingency. This was in order to tell us that the salvation brought by God, who became man in Jesus of Nazareth, affects man in his material reality and in whatever situation he may be. God assumed the human condition to heal it from all that separates it from him, to enable us to call him, in his Only-Begotten Son, by the name of “Abba, Father”, and truly to be children of God. [...]At the heart of Christianity there is a co-existence, a simultaneity between the eternal and the transient, the splendid and the humble, the self-sufficient and the contingent, which invests the latter with the former. It elevates material reality to a status that is inseparable from the uncreated, the eternal, since the uncreated made Himself created, while retaining His uncreatedness.
The Logos, who is with God, is the Logos who is God, the Creator of the world (cf. Jn 1:1) through whom all things were created (cf. 1:3) and who has accompanied men and women through history with his light (cf. 1:4-5; 1:9), became one among many and made his dwelling among us, becoming one of us (cf. 2:14).
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council said: “The Son of God... worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin” (Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 22). Thus it is important to recover our wonder at the mystery, to let ourselves be enveloped by the grandeur of this event: God, the true God, Creator of all, walked our roads as a man, entering human time to communicate his own life to us (cf. 1 Jn 1:1- 4). And he did not do so with the splendour of a sovereign who dominates the world with his power, but with the humility of a child.”
Elevating the material through the incarnation also elevates the specific to the status of the general. Material being brings with it Leibniz’s principle of identity, whereby no two entities can be the same since they will always differ at least in temporal and or spatial location. Since no two material entities can be the same, their distinction and specificity is intrinsic to material being, whose elevation through God’s incarnation also raises the specific, delimited to the level of the general and infinite.
Because God became flesh, flesh becomes not only a signifier of His presence, a token, but His actual presence. The value that materialist atheism attributes to matter is therefore in no way undermined or diminished by the Christian’s belief in its being in relationship with God, its being a manifestation of His presence. Both can, and the Christian ought, lest they deny the reality of the incarnation, value the physical, without caveats.
Pope Francis, in fact, makes Christian love conditional on being connected to Jesus’ flesh, which the flesh of the poor, the suffering and the needy makes present today, and he has harsh words for those who de-flesh the Church:
“A love which does not acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh is not the love with which God commands us: it is a worldly love, it is a philosophical love, it is an abstract love, it is a somewhat failed love, it is soft love. No! The criterion for Christian love is the Incarnation of the Word. [...]Instead of distancing Christians from atheist materialists, the incarnation makes every Christian be as much of a materialist as their atheist brothers and sisters. It makes them be both materialists and theists, fully materialist so as to be fully theist.
[W]hoever wishes to love not as Christ loves his spouse, the Church, with his own flesh and giving life, loves ideologically: they do not love with the all their body and with all their soul. And this way of theorizing, of being ideological, as well as the proposals of religiosity which removes the flesh of Christ, which removes the flesh of the Church, going beyond and ruining the community, ruining the Church.”