I used to think that being Christian was all about leaving this world to be with God “up there” somewhere. In my mind, I had a vision of my soul leaving my dead body and floating up to Heaven to be with billions of other souls. There we would have an eternal, spiritual party worshiping God. At some point, my dead body would be all fixed up and reunited with my soul, but I didn’t really know why that mattered. The point of this present life was to leave this world behind and “get to Heaven.” Everything about the Christian life was “spiritual.” Matter didn’t really matter. In fact, matter was an obstacle that interfered with the spiritual. “Material” people were not “spiritual” people. I didn’t really see how the material and the spiritual were intimately connected by God’s design.
As a Catholic Christian, I now see things differently. Rather than focusing on me rising up to a spiritual Heaven, I see that Heaven has already descended and merged with the material world (including me). The incarnation is about God becoming a Jewish carpenter with a material, human body and human nature. Redemption is about all of material creation being made new. This transformation of creation is already happening. For example, it happens every time a person is baptized. The water (matter) is used by God to transform the person into a “new creature.” Baptism, like all the Sacraments, uses matter to affect God’s grace.
The connection of matter and spirit is also evident in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist in the Catholic Mass. Baptized Christians look the same as other humans even though they are new creatures. In a similar way, bread and wine appear to be bread and wine even though they have been transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This is Heaven descending into the world of matter to transform it and heal it. We are material and spiritual beings. It only makes sense that we need to be fed by food that is both material and spiritual. Why do people accept God being physically present in the form of a Jewish carpenter but balk at God being physically present in the form of bread and wine? A look at Jesus under a microscope would reveal human flesh, but he is God. Under the microscope we see bread and wine, but it is his glorified flesh and blood. He is here!
I no longer focus on “getting to Heaven.” I focus on Heaven coming into this material world to transform it and me. This is what the incarnation is all about. This is what the Holy Eucharist is all about. After God created everything He said it was good. It is still good, but it needs healing. Jesus came to heal all of creation, including you and me.
The incarnation did not suddenly stop after Jesus ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit. He promised to send the Holy Spirit as a teacher and a guide, but he also promised he would not leave us orphaned. He promised he would always be with us. He would never leave us or forsake us. If he is only here “in spirit” then his physical body is missing. The physical presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist means that Jesus is still the Word become flesh and he is still “God with us.”
During my many years in non-Catholic churches I often felt like something was missing. I realize now what it was. Most everything was spiritualized and subjective. There was less sense of how connected matter and spirit actually are. For example, The Lord’s Supper seemed like a very reverent Memorial Day ceremony. It was a time of remembering what Christ did 2000 years ago. Remembering is not a bad thing. Folks are typically quite moved during such services, as I was. Remembering is not the same as participating, however. Holy Communion is not ONLY for remembering what Jesus did, regardless of how moving it is to remember. Communion is for physical as well as spiritual communing with God and with each other.
The Mass is where Heaven descends to this material world and allows us to merge with it, not merely remember it. “…Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…Give us this day our daily bread…” It is the will of God that we on Earth be physically and spiritually connected to Heaven through the incarnate Christ, the Bread of Life. This happens DAILY all around the world in the Catholic Mass. This connection between Heaven and Earth is an objective one. That is, it happens whether or not the believers “feel” it happening. It is not a subjective experience that flows from how moved or inspired the participants are. Christ makes it effective, not the feelings of the believers. A vaccine “works” by virtue of its objective, physical connection to the patient. Similarly, the Holy Eucharist “works” by virtue of its objective, physical and spiritual connection to the recipient (not our subjective feelings, strong as they may be). Jesus saying, “Take and eat, take and drink” is like a doctor saying, “Take this medicine.”
So, these days, I think less about us going to Heaven and more about Heaven coming to heal us daily. One day, all things will be made new. Right now, the process is underway. We simply need to accept it and participate in it. Going to the doctor includes following the doctor’s orders to take your medicine. Accepting Christ includes following his command to eat his flesh and drink his blood. That’s how the spiritual merges with the material every day. That’s the incarnation, “God with us.” Christianity is as much about the material as it is the spiritual, because we are material and spiritual creations. That’s why all seven Sacraments matter, and that’s why matter matters to the Christian.