Poised on the brink of the third millennium,
many people around the world have visions of New Year’s Eve
extravaganzas dancing in their heads. After all, midnight December
31, 1999, is the symbolic moment that kicks off not only a new
year and a new century but a new millennium as well. What a
great time for a party!
But December 31 is not the big date in the mind of the Christian
community and the Church. “That’s not the way we’re thinking,”
the pope and Church leaders seemed to say when they decided
on a quite different timetable for the celebration of the Great
Jubilee year. The Jubilee year, set by Pope John Paul II, begins
Christmas Eve 1999 and concludes January 6, 2001, the Feast
of the Epiphany.
In short, the focal point of the Christian observance is decidedly
religious. The primary reason why Christians are marking the
arrival of the year 2000 is to celebrate the 2,000th birthday
of Jesus Christ—that awesome point in human history when the
Word became flesh. That’s why Christmas Eve is the more meaningful
To explore the significance of this momentous event was the
task given me by St. Anthony Messenger. Though no human
can presume to do this adequately, I will try my best to share
my reflections on the meaning of the Incarnation as I have come
to see it. I do this as a student of the Scriptures, an enthusiast
of St. Paul and a Franciscan.
All Christians know the standard, chronological way we tell
the story of human salvation. The basic time sequence is this:
1) Creation, 2) the fall of the human race and 3) the coming
of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
In looking at the life of St. Paul, we find that at the beginning
of his conversion he accepts that same chronological sequence.
Later on in his life, however, Paul gives a revolutionary twist
to this sequence as he comes to a deeper understanding of the
Incarnation. But it will take a while for his thought to blossom.
Paul’s first experience of Jesus Christ, the Savior, of course,
was on the road to Damascus. Paul was so overwhelmed by this
encounter with the risen Christ and his sudden conversion that
he was really not able, at that point, to fathom completely
the identity of Christ or the mystery of the Incarnation. He
would try to do that later.
In the days and early years after his conversion, Paul’s view
of Jesus was like that of anyone who has just been rescued from
disaster. He was overpowered with a feeling of blessed relief
and gratitude for the one “who gave himself for our sins to
set us free from the present evil age, according to the will
of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).
Paul’s experience was something like this: If you were drowning
and someone attempted to save you, would you pause and ask your
rescuer for credentials such as: Who are you? Are you qualified
to save me? What is your background and purpose? If you were
drowning and put a halt to the rescue attempt with such questions—sorry,
my friend—the next step would probably be the notification of
your next of kin!
So it was with Paul. He could only raise those more profound
questions about his encounter with Jesus after he found sufficient
time for reflection. Paul eventually found that leisure time
when he was behind bars.
From prison in Rome he writes to the Philippians, for example,
about his struggle to grow spiritually—to replace a lesser spirituality
with a greater. Early on, Paul had self-consciously sought spiritual
perfection by a meticulous obedience to rules and commandments.
Eventually he was able to let go of his preoccupation with details
of the law and turn his full attention to knowing Christ and
As he confided to the Philippians, “Yet whatever gains I had,
these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More
than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing
value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered
the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order
that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness
[i.e., holiness] of my own that comes from the law, but one
that comes through faith in Christ...” (Philippians 3:7-9).
Paul uses the word know not like a historian who wants
to have facts and figures and biographical details at his fingertips.
Paul wants to know the inner reality of Jesus. What makes him
tick? Paul is not so much interested in the date of Jesus’ coming,
for example, as in the deepest meaning and purpose of his coming.
And that meaning did not result from a better understanding
of dates according to standard, human, chronological reckoning.
The deeper meaning came more from Paul’s searching into God’s
way of looking at things. And Paul is convinced that God gave
him, “the least of all the saints,” the amazing grace “to make
everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages
in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:8-9).
For Paul, therefore, imprisonment was not an occasion for feeling
sorry that his travels for Jesus were interrupted. Rather, it
was in jail that the light came. There he was given the opportunity
to deepen his understanding of the true role and identity of
Jesus in the eternal plan of the Father, and to share that vision
by letter with the Churches.
Ephesus was one of those Churches. And one of the truths Paul
shared with them was that creation was not really the first
step in the story of our salvation. Something very important
came before that in God’s plan. Paul writes that God “chose
us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and
blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).
This is the focal point of the mystery hidden from all eternity:
Before creation, before our first parents, before sin, even
before Abraham, our father in faith, the Word made Flesh takes
first place in God’s plan. He is not simply an afterthought
or last-minute rescue plan in God’s mind because Adam and Eve
sinned. Rather, Christ is the focal point, the center of gravity,
the heart of the Father’s plan from all eternity. He is not
a footnote to history.
The Second Vatican Council advises us to think the same way:
“The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the
longings of history and civilization, the center of the human
race, the joy of every heart, and the answer to all its yearnings”
(The Church Today, #45).
That is incredible, but what boggles the mind even more is
that before the Father decided to create the world, he
thought of you and of me, and our relationship to his Son, Jesus.
We did not just happen. God chose us and we have been given
a place in his plan, that we may be “holy and blameless” in
Jesus (Ephesians 1:4).
The First and the Last
How is it that Jesus who was first in God’s mind showed up
last in the familiar timeline of salvation: Creation, fall,
Incarnation? The concept is really not that hard to understand.
The plan or blueprint of something always comes first, even
though its realization comes last.
For example, if you are planning a trip to the Holy Land, the
first thing on your mind is the Holy Land. But the last step
in the process is the same—your arrival in the Holy Land. After
deciding on that destination, you get a guidebook, contact a
travel agent, pack your bags, get to the airport, board the
plane and finally, at the end of the process, achieve the first
thing that was on your mind: your visit to the Holy Land. The
first thing envisioned is the last thing accomplished.
And so it was with Jesus: He was first in the plan of the Father
but only enters history at its final tage—the fullness of time.
We refer to this vision of Christ as the absolute primacy and
predestination of Christ. In other words, Christ holds first
place (primacy) in the mind of God and is the predestined goal
Ideas Reinforced Today
Vatican II echoes Paul’s theme in the passage cited above,
calling Christ the focal point of human history in The Church
Today. The very first line of Pope John Paul’s first encyclical,
Redemptor Hominis, reads: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus
Christ is the center of the universe and of history.”
Going back a few decades, Cardinal Pacelli, later Pius XII,
wrote: “God, before all things, cast his eyes upon him who was
to be their head and king. Eternally, the material world appeared
to him as the palace of Christ, our head...”(L’Osservatore
Romano, December 8, 1937).
Such views are certainly more in tune with Paul’s vision than
with the chronological view that Christ who came after
Adam came because of Adam. In Paul’s mature theology
in Ephesians and Colossians, he doesn’t give the impression
that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, arrived upon the scene because
of Adam. Jesus, not Adam, is the focal point of the plan of
God. We do not thank Adam for the coming of Jesus, for the Incarnation
already was primary and central to the plan of God. God predestined
Jesus from all eternity. That is the absolute primacy and predestination
This theological view has been the consistent view of Franciscans
since the Middle Ages, championed especially by John Duns Scotus
(1266-1308). In Scotus’s view, the Word of God did not become
flesh because Adam and Eve sinned, but because from all eternity
God wanted Christ to be creation’s most perfect work, the model
and crown of creation and humanity—the glorious destination
toward which all creation is straining. In his view, the divine
Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first
man and woman had never sinned.
Another point made by Scotus and the Franciscans is this: It
was not Adam who was the pattern or blueprint that God used
in shaping Christ. It was the other way around. Christ was the
model in God’s mind from which Adam and Eve and the whole human
race were created.
Many of the Fathers, particularly of the Eastern Church, as
well as brilliant theologians like the Spanish Jesuit Francisco
Suarez (1548-1617), the bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales
(1567-1622) and, closer to our own time, Karl Rahner, S.J.,
all built their theology and spirituality on a similar way of
thinking. Rahner states it succinctly: “God’s design for the
incarnation of the Logos is an absolute one, and made by him
prior to any human, free decision [like that of Adam and Eve]
which could have been the motive.”
All Things in Christ
In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, he speaks about God’s “plan
for the fullness of time” in which God wants “to gather up all
things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10).
The phrase, “to gather up all things in [Christ],” is a rather
free translation of Paul’s Greek, which means to bring to a
head again, to put something back where it belongs, to restore.
When we restore a piece of furniture, we put it back in the
condition it was in when it left the hands of its maker. We
return it to the way the maker wanted it to be—to the original
blueprint, so to speak. Paul intentionally chose this word,
restoration, knowing that the way God intended things
to be, centered in Christ, had gone awry and needed to be restored.
Christ would have come under any conditions, but given the
sin of Adam, the way he actually came was as the redeemer
of the universe—a universe that was made for himself. Just as
the rebellion of our first parents had its repercussions on
creation, so does the coming of Jesus initiate the process of
restoration not only of humanity, but also of all of creation
The various and far-flung parts of creation only make sense
when they come together in Christ. It helps to look at all created
things as if they are scattered pieces of a beautiful picture
puzzle. It’s only when the pieces are put back in their proper
places that they form the original image of Christ, thus displaying
their true beauty and meaning.
St. Paul seems to be dealing with a similar point in his Letter
to the Colossians when he speaks of Christ as “the image of
the invisible God,” teaching that “in him all things in heaven
and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether
thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been
created through him and for him. He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).
You may be one of the many people who wonder: What is all this
talk about thrones, dominions, rulers and powers? To understand
these strange beings or forces, we need to pause for a moment
and remember that the communities of Ephesus and Colossae in
Asia Minor did not come to Christianity from a religious vacuum.
The inhabitants of this region shared very strong beliefs about
who was in charge of this world. It was the age of specialization,
and they believed that between themselves and the divinity there
were all sorts of intermediaries called thrones, dominions,
rulers or powers. Each of these spiritual powers had its own
proper area of expertise and sphere of influence.
role of religion, in the view of the local people, was to recognize
this system, and to keep each celestial being happy, satisfied
and off their backs. When Paul introduced the gospel to this
region and taught that Jesus is our mediator with the Father,
the people accepted that as good news. But they
wanted to know just where Christ fit into their system. Just what
was Jesus’ area of specialization?
With a magnificent proclamation of the role of Christ, Paul
lets them know just what Jesus is in charge of. He is Lord of
all things. Everything! The cosmos! The universe! The past!
The future! Every person, place or thing, real or imagined!
Jesus does not fit into their system, he is the system! “In
him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)!
According to Paul, there never was, is or will be any reality
that was not created for the sake of Jesus Christ. St. Francis
de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God spells out
this vision quite beautifully: “Almighty God, in his eternal
plan and design for all that he would create, first of all intended
and willed that which he loved the most: our Savior. And then
he planned for the creation of other creatures in the proper
order for which they were necessary for the service, honor and
glory of that beloved Son, Jesus Christ.”
In Paul’s view of creation, therefore, there is nothing in
this world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ. Every creature
in some way points to Christ. Indeed, if the singing of the
birds and the humming of the insects could be formed into a
chorus and if the rustling breeze and tinkling rain could have
a voice and the roar of the ocean could be put into words, they
would all have one thing to say: “We were made for the sake
of Jesus Christ.”
of Assisi and the Incarnation
Intuitively, Francis of Assisi shared a similar vision. He
saw the whole family of creation somehow profoundly related
to Christ. And when the Word of God entered history at the Incarnation
and dwelt among us, St. Francis saw this as a cause for celebration
among all creatures.
When we consider the way Francis celebrated the feast of Christmas,
we see that he tried to include other creatures in the celebration.
One Christmas near the Italian village of Greccio in 1223, Francis
organized a midnight Mass to reenact the scene of the first
Christmas. Thus his plan included not only the people of the
region, but other creatures as well. He wanted an ox and an
ass to be there and straw, too, just as at Bethlehem. And his
Christmas celebration took place not in a chapel but in Mother
Earth itself—in a cave.
St. Francis’ biographers go even further. We are told that
Francis wanted to extend the celebration of Christmas Day to
The saint wanted the emperor to issue an instruction telling
people to scatter grain along the roads so that the birds and
other creatures had plenty to eat. They should also rub the
stable walls with meat so that the beasts could eat well. All
creatures were deeply affected by Jesus entering creation and
should be part of the celebration.
Francis’ sense that all creatures were somehow interconnected
in Christ is also among the reasons he could rhapsodize about
“Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” His Canticle of the Creatures,
in which he praised the Creator through Brother Sun and Sister
Moon and all the creatures, is not poetic overstatement. It
is the practical expression of his theological and spiritual
vision. It is no coincidence that Francis is the patron saint
of ecology. He who perceived this world as Mother Earth recognized
that it is the home of him whom he loved: Jesus Christ. Care
and concern for creation is care and concern for Jesus’ own
Practical Ways to Celebrate the Great Jubilee
How can you and I carry this rich vision of the Incarnation
and of Jesus Christ into the new millennium? I hope the following
points for a practical spirituality might provide a helpful
start—and a good way to celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus
1. Treat the earth with reverence. To pollute this earth
is to defile Christ’s home. To touch creation with love—as Jesus
did—is to restore it to him. No occupation or vocation is unclean
or without dignity as long as we seek to serve this world and
the human family with Christlike care. Whether you are a gardener
or a trash collector, a technician or a street sweeper, a parent
or a priest, your work performed with love has great goodness
2. See the sacraments echoing all creation’s sacredness.
Some spiritual writers see the sacraments only as a cure for
a fallen world and a failed humanity. St. Paul reminds us, however,
that all creatures were made through Christ and for Christ and
find rich meaning in him. When Christ entered creation at the
Incarnation, the whole created world was powerfully blessed.
As part of our created world, the sacraments are a foretaste
of the fullness of time when Jesus Christ will be all in all.
In the water of Baptism, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist
and in the oil of Anointing, we celebrate the goodness of creation
and the wholeness that is ours in Christ.
3. Embrace your humanity. Our humanity is modeled on
that of Christ. If the divine Word embraced that humanity, so
must we. St. Francis saw Jesus as the pattern and blueprint
of our own human dignity and worth. “Be conscious, O human being,”
he once said, “of the wondrous state in which the Lord God has
placed you, for he created you and formed you to the image of
his beloved Son.”
4. Keep Jesus central. The popular Christian tradition
of reverently praying the Angelus is a wonderful way of keeping
ourselves mindful of the most pivotal event of human history—the
Incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
As we celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of this historic event,
we do well to take a good look at restoring this tradition—or
at least of recapturing the spirit behind it.
5. Look to Jesus’ mother. God’s plan for a universe
completely centered on Christ found its first fulfillment in
Mary. By her immaculate conception, she was already being prepared
to be his first home in this world. By her total Yes to the
angel’s message, she became a sign of perfect conformity to
Mary of Nazareth is the Mother of God and our mother. She guides
and cares for us, showing us the way to become fully restored
in her Son.
Stephen Doyle, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest and biblical
scholar who lives at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts.
Formerly a university and seminary professor, he now directs
pilgrimages in Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land. The
Bible version used in this article is the New Revised Standard,