Words, like families, come to have greater or lesser social status over time, and to acquire relatives in high or low places. The Latin word “carnalis” has spawned many descendants over the centuries. Originally meaning simply “connected to the body,” the word family has become more lowlife over time. Webster comments, “the word now is related to the body as the manifestation of man’s lower nature and as a result is derogatory in its implications.” The English descendants include “carnal,” “carnivorous,” and “carnival.” The latter connected because “carnival” was originally the pre-Lenten blowout party just before Ash Wednesday, the last days before the fast that meat could be eaten and meat is flesh, still known as “carne” in Spanish and related Latin-based languages. In English, we have a small nuclear family of words around “carnivore,” flesh-eaters. In many countries today, “carnival” still means the pre-Lenten party (known to most here as Mardi Gras), but in America, we use the word to describe a variety of festivals unrelated to eating flesh or to the imminent arrival of a Lenten fast.
As for “carnal,” it is well known as a bad guy. There have been countless sermons denouncing carnal desires, seen as the very opposite of a godly lifestyle. Our spiritual nature is considered a better sort and we are exhorted to rise above carnal instincts to embrace it. But how “carnal” over time sank to its low estate is worth reviewing, because it tells us how we came to have a big problem with our very existence.
As we are told often in Scripture, the earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24, for example). He made it and evaluated his work as good (see Genesis 1 and 2). He made angels and souls and abstract thought. He equally made dirt, bodies and glandular urges. Among other things, he put all that together inside creatures made in his own image.
The result of that concoction devolved upon venial nasty folks, bad things happened and the Lord was grieved that he had ever thought up mankind (see Genesis 6:6). But you can’t unring the bell, as the lawyers say, so he was stuck with it, and besides, he loved the unworthy bunch and devised a plan to salvage the good earth and its creatures, and restore it to its original joyful perfection.
The Gospel, the good news, outlines this clearly. The plan means our salvation from, basically, ourselves. He comes to our earth in amazing humility, as one of us, to eventually rise again and absorb us into himself in our own risen life, restoring what was lost. The plan begins with Incarnation, his coming into our form of existence on our little planet, so that he can effect this transformation from the inside, as it were.
“Incarnation” means to become flesh, to be carnal. Therein lies an etymological paradox reflecting a theological one. God made material, and carnal material mankind, as good. Our rampant abuse of the earth, each other and ourselves does not make the earth bad, including its carnal parts, it makes our abuse bad.
Some Christians have always understood the distinction. But others have absorbed philosophy from pagan and Gnostic sources which sees our spiritual side as good and our physical side as base, if not actually bad, spiritual things as higher and material things as lower. It establishes a whole new realm called “secular” outside of God’s creation and Kingdom. Many in the Church are complicit in the deception, seeing a dualism in creation which ultimately denies God’s sovereignty over the material world. They will tell you that spiritual is better than material, souls are better than bodies, celibacy is better than marriage, Church vocations are better than “secular” ones, priests better than farmers. It leads to a doctrine of incarnation with the carnal removed, to the need for an immaculate womb to hold a being who seems to shrink from being a fully carnal human. You can see it in their artistic portrayal of an ethereal man, barely in human form. He is so spiritual looking that he appears to have serious health issues. Yet the Gospels tell us of a robust young man who routinely hiked long distances, strong enough to throw moneychangers out of the temple.
It is important to proclaim that we follow an incarnate Lord, we embrace a material world and we are made body and soul, both seen as good creations. “Secular” is an illusion, there is only God’s good earth. Christmas, incarnation, reclaims that earth, and us. God does not need to remake either the Virgin’s womb or our own hearts. He has done a good job on the first try. What is needed instead is obedience to his Will, and that is what makes the fully human Virgin so special, and such a superb role model for the rest of us.
Obedience is not material, you can’t buy it at the mall. It is a spiritual achievement, not a physical one. And disobedience is also not physical, but spiritual. Satan, after all, is a spiritual being. And the spiritual evil perpetrated by humans easily matches any of our carnal efforts.
A specific example of this is much in the news currently. The way in which God provides for the reproduction of the species says a great deal about his nature. This could have been done unilaterally, involuntarily and without pleasure. Instead, it requires the combined effort of two people, in an act which can give great pleasure when done with love and assent. Humans, in our sinful condition, have distorted this in many ways, but the process itself is both carnal and sacramental, a wonderful invention by our God.
The many sinful negations of this are often not physically destructive. Pedophilia, for example, seldom leaves physical damage. But the spiritual evil done is enormous and often scars for life. The problem with this and other sexual aberrations is not usually carnal damage but violence done to the soul. Spiritual evil is very real. Like the material, spiritual life is made to be good, but in our human condition, can be abused and abusive.
A corrective is thus important. Christmas is really not an optional holiday, but rather an important message from the Creator to understand the basic goodness of his world, including the carnal, material part of it. The illusion of the existence of a “secular” existence is banished by the reclaiming of the world by God’s Son. The problem is not with the material, carnal part. God has made it to be good and his Son embraces it and thereby sanctifies it.
This month, we celebrate the incarnate Lord coming to restore his good creation. In so doing, we recognize the victory of Christ over the “secular” illusion and understand that the material, carnal world is his world, despite our spiritual and material sinful efforts. The carnalis family of words now has a royal relative in the incarnate Word.