Recently, I took the guilty opportunity to watch The Incredibles replayed on TV, while my wife and daughter were watching British drama on the main TV. I had been informed in the past that The Incredibles was a good film, but then again I have been so disapppointed by recommendations of contemporary animated films: their obvious moral relativism, their rude, tawdry preoccupation with adult issues disguised as childishness, rather than childlike innocence; their political ideologies, etc. They are cleverly constructed, and only very mildly amusing. In fact, I had given up going to any film on release, relying on the video release, so I can fast-forward through the graphic sex and violence and perhaps, just perhaps, enjoy what may be a really interesting story.
Well, The Incredibles took me by surprise. I was enchanted and experienced some joy, like the little boy on the tricycle at the end of the film, who expresses great delight at the final display of superpowers by the ordinary family next door. Wonderful indeed. But why? After all, this was the second time in 15 years I had been really impressed by any cultural work.Fifteen years ago I accompanied my art history students on a tour of France and Italy. Unexpectedly, we were all more impressed by Giotto’s narratives in the Arena Chapel and Martini’s Annunciation panel in the Uffizi than all the Renaissance works put together. According to the learned, and I count myself included, we should have experienced the Renaissance works as superior, conveying the nature of the Catholic Faith more effectively through greater, more convincing naturalism. Instead, Giotto’s narratives and ornate Mediaeval altarpieces carried the day.
Last year, I retired from teaching, and we immigrated to Sydney, Australia, from little ol’ NZ (Kiwiland). We joined the Maternal Heart of Mary Traditional Catholic Mass FSSP Community at Lewisham in Sydney. After a month going to Solemn High Mass there, the same feeling washed over me – heartfelt joy and hope. I looked to my wife and there she was, in tears of happiness. We were both actually singing Latin Gregorian, among clouds of incense, the Elevation among pealing bells, candles, the profound bowing, the numerous genuflections, the veils and Medieval Latin hymns.
The Incredibles, Medieval Art and Traditional Solemn High Mass? I think I could throw into this mix the climax of Pride and Prejudice, and Frodo’s cry of “Elbereth, Githoniel” in Shelob’s lair.
I may hazard a guess about reactions to Giotto and Medieval Art – innocence, purity and especially humility – the Mystery of Faith, human and divine. The same with the Gregorian Solemn High Mass. There is profound gentleness and no sentimentality.
But why The Incredibles?
The little boy realises that there are indeed super bodies which only he could dream about in his wildest dreams. Yes, the goodies win, but what joy to behold “ordinary” people possessing what may in fact be a promise to us all, an expectation that we might break free from the limitations of physics. I think, Startrek fans share similar fantasies. But then all mankind share this dream: that if we could have our way, we would live forever as human beings with real bodies, to fly, to go where no man has gone before, to thrill with absolute bodily freedom free from the limitations of our world. I do not think we really want “spiritual”bodies – real, physical bodies is what we would prefer, thank you very much. The Greek and Germanic gods had such bodies, and I suppose, most other developed religions thought the same.
Human beings really do want to live forever. But then we want to be happy as well. Death sucks. The little boy, in The Incredibles, like the rest of us, has a sneaking suspicion that it all may be possible, and that is why we respond with him – yes, let me have one too. And the reason for our reticence in voicing our hope in this fantastic possibility – to live bodily forever – is that none has set us a scientifically-proved example of breaking the barriers of physical space and time.
But, one cannot have this gift unless one is prepared to accept the full truth of the Passion, the Sacrifice, the Cross and the will to join oneself with Him. So, we can enjoy the ecstatic vision of God by becoming God in His Flesh and Blood, hearts which become like the Sacred Heart which can stand the demands of love of the Vision of God Himself.
It is all physical, mate! Christianity is all about bodies. About the hope of having a body with a heart so big that Mr Incredible’s body size and self-sacrifice is nothing compared to Christ or what is demanded of us. Yep! Christianity is Incredible. It is incredible that any group of Jews or Gentiles 2000 years could have invented a set of promises which infinitely surpasses the rationalism and idealism of Greek philosophy, the promises of all other religions of the world, and answers and surpasses the hidden heartfelt desires and yearning of the whole of humanity.
The bold claim by Christians that Jesus Christ did exactly that – overcome with His body the limitations of time and space – has been attacked from every possible angle, by historians, by scholars, by scientific theorists, even by Christians themselves. In these years of the Post-Modern world, the very meaning of the terms of “The Resurrection” have been nuanced out of existence. We have people making claims that this event is no more than what a Buddhist or Hindu means about heaven – a state of perfection of the soul reaching the highest levels, and purified by good living. Or we have some Christians claiming that this Resurrection is a Resurrection “event” – a symbol of hope in goodness and hope in the future of some kind of “spiritual” perfection. A faith in having faith. A symbol of the need to have good feelings about each other, to be kind and nice to each other. We have replaced the physical meaning of the Resurrection with “finding ourselves”, “looking for the spirit inside ourselves”, closing our eyes and meditating, etc. All very “wishy-washy”, vague, insubstantial – nothing new here because human society has always had its “spiritual improvement” side-by-side with its “moral movements”. A Heaven with resurrected physical bodies has been replaced by a “state of goodness”, a “state of perfection”, a higher state of [here it comes….] “spirituality”. And with this “spiritualizing” of our hopes and dreams, the “Real Presence” becomes a “spiritual” presence of Christ – no wonder the tabernacles have been removed to the side altars!I don’t think the little boy in the film would jump up and down with these beliefs. These reductive beliefs about the Resurrection are joyless, washed-out, “mellowed”, “reflective”, self-absorbed, and certainly not physical. So, what is the content of Christian belief about the Resurrection and Heaven.
Christ had a real physical body after the Resurrection. Hundreds of Christians, not just the Apostles, saw, touched, ate, and drank with Him. He appeared at any time at any place. His Resurrected Bodily Presence was so powerful that Christianity became a religion based almost solely on the Apostles and others proclaiming His Resurrection, certainly not because he was a good, loving guy who died for our sins, and not because of his nice teachings. It was the physical fact of the Resurrection – the in-your-face physical fact.
Secondly, He promises that we all will have recognisably our own bodies, bodies which will live forever, perfect ageless bodies which will be able to do anything , not restricted to the must-therefore-be very “provisional” laws of this universe. We will be able to fly from one end of an endless universe to the other in no time.Thirdly, we have been promised the ecstatic vision of the Face of God – the Face that the cherubim and seraphim cover their eyes from, the Face that one glimpse would sear your eyeballs in their sockets, the glow of which would burn one’s flesh off one’s bones, the vision of Love which would make one’s heart leap out of one’s chest, and a vision which only God can endure. And all in the company of other physical gods and goddesses, physical princes and princesses of a physical heaven, in place and time (but not our time).
Now the big point – our hearts and minds cannot take the power of these promises. We cannot take the infinite on board just like that. To experience the infinite and eternal is for gods. This Revelation of Christ is that we can only enjoy these things of God Himself unless we become in our hearts and minds perfect like God Himself. Our hearts and minds, the very substance of what we are, has to grow in this world in order to embrace fully the possibilities of the next. Christ promises us this absolutely mind-boggling future – a future which will come anyway, a future which every human being born on this planet will experience. Some will have a bad experience of this future. Why? because they reject the very openness to the fundamental love required to enjoy the physicality of the new world – I imagine that they will live “point-bodies” circling within themselves forever. Others of us, may, we hope, become purified after death. This will be a very, very painful experience! An extreme heart-rending experience, which only the saints have experienced in this life. An experience where every unintegrated desire will be expunged by the fire of love. Only those who have fully experienced the sacrifice of the Cross will be able to enjoy these promises. Unlike the Muslims, the promise of a physical heaven demands a fundamental change in our very physical substance.
Fourthly, He gives us the physical nature of Himself in the Eucharist – the god-making power of His Body and Blood – the physical stuff of the future so that we can be the Incredibles for real! As soon as one starts to theologize, to rationalize, about this promise it is reduced. He – the Lord of the Universe, the Resurrection Himself – is “physically” present, localized, in the Tabernacle, in the Host, unlike any “spiritual” presence. The words of the early Church Fathers and John’s Gospel use Greek terms like “crunch” and “gnaw” on his bones. Those are not to be taken symbolically, or “spiritually”.
In conclusion, Giotto’s narratives convey the profound humility of Christ and a humility of what is required of us; the Medieval altarpieces convey the physical glory of the promises in the sheer physical substances of gold and fine detailed rendering of everything with such gentleness and quiet joy; the Traditional Solemn Mass conveys the same gentle, pure, humble, many-layered reality of the Promises. Here at these Masses in particular, the physical reality of the sheer mind-boggling Face of God and the Sacrifice necessary for us, is made present in the only way possible for us in this world. The modern Mass on the other hand is too nuanced, too vague, too obviously hand-made, too comfortable, and too “spiritual” – needing further instruction for the faithful to understand things which it cannot convey. The Incredibles convey the shared joy in the very possibility of the promises of Christ.
This day, August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary – taken physically to heaven, the first of mankind to experience heaven with a body. Mary, the most humble maiden, is now magnified in Heaven, she now physically sees her son’s physical Face to her physical face in his glory. She now sees us as we are now, hears our said prayers, is present where she wills to be, her will being totally united with her son’s will. Her intercessions for us are physically-present as a mother of her adopted sons and daughters. In our eating her son’s Body and Blood, we are more than her adopted sons and daughters – we are physically made her real sons and daughters. She has now become our real physical Mother.
Pray for us, Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the Promises of Christ.