the Incarnation Changed Everything
by Jack Wintz,
Great Jubilee Year is finally upon us. We are celebrating the 2,000th
anniversary of what Christians believe to be the most important birth
in history: that of Jesus Christ.
The Jubilee Year
begins on Christmas Eve 1999 and concludes January 6, 2001, the feast
of the Epiphany. We are privileged to be alive for the 2,000th anniversary
of the Incarnation—that breathtaking point in the world’s history
when the divine Word became flesh and began dwelling among us.
of Christ signaled incredibly good news: God immensely loved the world
he created and wanted all to come to healing, salvation and the fullness
of life. "God so loved the world," proclaims the Gospel of John, "that
he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not
perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into
the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved
through him" (3:16-17).
eminent Scripture scholar, the late Father Raymond Brown, observes
With John the Evangelist: That You May Have Life, the Gospel
of John does not stress the future coming of Jesus nearly as much
as the other Gospels do. John prefers to accent, rather, the supreme
importance of Christ’s first coming—the Incarnation itself.
Brown writes, "the Son will come back from heaven, but more important
for our understanding of him (and God) is that he came from heaven
in the first place." According to Brown, John’s is the only Gospel
in which "Jesus himself speaks about his previous life with God" and
which emphasizes his coming as the Word made flesh.
of the New Testament," Brown adds, "God’s supreme act of love is embodied
in Jesus’ self-giving on the cross. Incarnation brings into the picture
an earlier act of love: the divine self-giving in becoming one of
us....Indeed some theologians have so appreciated the intensity of
the love in the Incarnation that they have wondered whether that alone
might not have saved the world even if Jesus was never crucified."
Francis and the Incarnation
If ever a saint was smitten by the incredible love revealed
in the Incarnation, it was St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). St.
Francis was repeatedly moved to tears when he thought of God’s limitless
love and total self-emptying as revealed in the birth of Christ.
This mystery of God’s humility and love in entering
the world of humanity and of every other creature motivated Francis
to celebrate the feast of Christmas in an extraordinary way. In the
year 1223, for example, he staged a dramatic rendition of the birth
of Christ. He wanted to showcase God’s great love and the "humility
of the Incarnation," according to friar Thomas of Celano, his disciple
Near the little Italian town of Greccio, Francis had
a manger set up and requested that there be plenty of straw and an
ox and an ass brought in. The people of the neighborhood came, illuminating
the night with their candles and torches.
There, as Celano put it, "Poverty was exalted, humility
was commended and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem....The
saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with
love and filled with a wonderful happiness....He spoke charming words
about the nativity of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem."
Incarnation affects all creatures
had other strong convictions about Christmas. He believed the feast
should be enjoyed by all of creation, not just by humans. Side
by side with the human creatures, all other created beings should
join in the celebration of Christmas. He wanted the emperor to tell
all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so
that the birds and animals would have plenty to eat. Even stable walls
should be rubbed with food and the beasts given a festive meal on
had a deep sense that because of the Incarnation everything was changed.
God’s entrance into the family of creation sent shock waves through
the entire cosmos. Because all creatures—minerals, plants, animals—were
touched by the divine, they now possessed a new dignity and an elevated
was named the patron saint of ecologists in 1979 because of his great
respect for all of creation. This love of creation flowed in large
part from his profound understanding of the Incarnation and of the
Creator’s all-inclusive love.
If we believe
that the birth of Christ affirmed and elevated the dignity of all
men and women, as well as the world of creation in general, should
we not embrace a spirituality (a style of serving God) that corresponds
to this vision?
spirituality includes a reverence and love toward all people and all
creatures. And surely, it is not a spirituality of flight from the
world, as if the world were evil and something to be rejected. On
the contrary, we know that St. Francis showed great respect and affection
for each human being and for every creature, addressing all as "brother
and sister"—as family.
the world of creation further by writing the "Canticle of the Creatures,"
which invites all creatures—"Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon," water,
fire, wind, earth, plants and flowers—to praise God. He wished to
worship God as an integral part of the symphony of creation.
Francis’ advice is not to run away from creatures, but to draw close
to them—to incorporate them into our prayerful journey to God. According
to the Franciscan mystic and theologian St. Bonaventure, St. Francis
saw creatures as "a ladder" by which we climb to the God of love.
As Bonaventure puts it, "Francis saw God’s Beauty imprinted in every
creature, and the saint followed his divine Beloved everywhere, making
from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace God
who is utterly desirable."
goal of creation
the Middle Ages on, when the followers of St. Francis tried to answer
the question, "Why did the Word become flesh?" their answer often
took a surprising twist. In the view of many Franciscan thinkers,
the Word of God did not become a creature, a human being, simply as
a remedy for the sin of Adam and Eve. Rather, the divine Word became
flesh because from all eternity God wanted Christ to be creation’s
most perfect work. God wanted Christ to become the model and crown
of creation and of all humanity—and the final goal toward which all
creation is straining.
according to this viewpoint, the Word would have been incarnated in
Jesus Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned!
to our own times, the Jesuit priest-anthropologist Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin (1881-1955) and others have embraced the same viewpoint.
"Christ is not an afterthought in the divine plan," writes Chardin.
"He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of all things."
is by no means novel. One can find in the writings of St. Paul the
insight that Christ was intended by God from all eternity as the crown
and goal of creation, and not simply as "a last-minute cure" to offset
the sin of Adam.
we read Paul’s most celebrated passage about Christ’s central place
in creation according to God’s plan before the world began: "He is
the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For
in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible
and the invisible...all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians
things point to Christ
really adopt this teaching of St. Paul that from all eternity God
intended Christ to be the crown of creation, the perfect model of
humanity and the glorious destination toward which all creation is
striving, then what does this mean for us as we enter the third millennium?
that every human being finds, only in Christ, his or her fullest meaning.
As Pope John Paul II points out in his encyclical Redeemer of the
Human Race, Jesus is the key to understanding the meaning of human
life. Christ, he asserts, "fully reveals human beings to themselves."
It is in and through Christ, the pope says, that humans acquire "full
awareness of their dignity" and "of the meaning of existence." Thanks
to the Incarnation, we come to see our own body and humanity, and
that of our sisters and brothers, as something embraced by God himself.
this, Jesus is the key to the meaning of the whole universe. As St.
Paul told the Ephesians, God’s plan is to "sum up all things in Christ,
in heaven and on earth" (1:10). The countless and scattered elements
of our universe are thus like pieces of a wonderful puzzle that only
make sense when fitted together in the image of Christ.
Scripture scholar Stephen Doyle puts it, "There is nothing in this
world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ...The singing of the
birds and the tinkling of the rain and the roar of the ocean all have
one thing to say: ‘We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ!’"
do we apply this vision of all things culminating in Christ
to the role of Mary of Nazareth, his mother? Surely, her role is pivotal.
She is the sublime entry point of the Word into the human family and
the family of creation. Mary’s generous response to God imitates God’s
own self-emptying love. Totally open to God, she says yes to the Creator’s
plan of having the Word become flesh and the most perfect work of
creation—and indeed the Savior of the World!
As we meander
through this world, especially in times of doubt we are tempted to
ask what lies just beyond the face of reality. A blank void? Or just
some distant, disinterested god? The mystery of the Incarnation suggests
something very different, namely, a God who cares for us intimately
and totally. Seen in its fullest scope, the story of the Incarnation
reaches its most dramatic chapter in the suffering, death and resurrection
of Christ. There God’s ultimate gift of total love reveals itself
the risen and glorious Christ, who gave his life for us without reserve,
remains intertwined with the universe he entered 2,000 years ago.
I believe that the Irish poet, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916), had
an intuition of this and expressed it magnificently in the following
poem. He saw Christ’s unconditional love behind every feature of the
Wintz, a Franciscan priest, is editor of St. Anthony Messenger
and Catholic Update. His book Lights:
Reflections of God’s Goodness was published by St. Anthony
Messenger Press in 1995.
Sister Macrina Scott
Some time in December, Sister Macrina Scott and
the members of her household will assemble the Christmas crib
they put together each year. But for her the celebration of
Jesus’ birth won’t be quite the same this year.
It’s not essentially different, she knows, "but
this Christmas means more." The 2,000th birthday of Jesus represents
"such an extra moment, a greater celebration," says the Franciscan
Sister of Marycrest in Denver, who has directed the archdiocese’s
Catholic Biblical School for the past 17 years.
"The Incarnation is the center of everything,"
says Sister Macrina. "The fact is that God became one of us
and entered into our life," she told Millennium Monthly.
"Jesus entered into all of this. He saw the trees, ate the food,
experienced everything that is part of being human other than
sin. Jesus had his feet on this earth!"
Her thoughts turn from modern-day cribs that remind
us of Jesus’ birth to the one in which the newborn baby was
placed in a cave in ancient Palestine. At that time a crib was
commonly a trough that held food or water for animals. For Sister
Macrina the biblical account becomes a reminder that "from the
beginning, Jesus wants to be food for us."
As a scholar whose life work has been "opening
up the Scripture to Catholic people," Sister Macrina finds in
her students "really good people" for whom "God’s Word comes
to life. The Word speaks to them." As a leader of many groups
of Holy Land pilgrims over the years she has witnessed time
and again the power of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, and
been enriched. Even a carefree swim in the Sea of Galilee becomes
for her a lesson in the meaning of Jesus’ birth when a fish
brushes up against her leg, reminding her that the creature
is "a descendant of a fish that lived in Jesus’ time."
For Sister Macrina, the Great Jubilee Year before
us brings with it "a special grace." At 67, she hopes she has
"many good years ahead." But she is aware that Jesus wasn’t
privileged to see as many years as she and her peers have. "But
we carry on his life," she says. "We complete what he didn’t
get to do. We live the life of Jesus into our 60's, 70's, 80's
and beyond. We continue to live for him."*
by Judy Ball
would you do to help create 1,000 years of peace—at home, at
work, in your neighborhood? Sisters United News (S.U.N.), Greater
Cincinnati Region, and St. Anthony Messenger Press are inviting
people to take an active part in building world peace at the
dawn of a new millennium. The goal is to encourage 1,000 years
of peacemaking activities—equaling 8,766,000 hours—by the end
of the year 2000.
December 1, 1999, St. Anthony Messenger Press will begin taking
time pledges for peacemaking activities on its Web site, www.AmericanCatholic.org.
Pledges will also be accepted by postal mail (Sisters United
News, c/o Sister Mary Garke, 100 E. 8th Street, Cincinnati,
OH 45202). "We believe world peace begins at home," said Sister
of Charity Mary Bookser, chairwoman of the Cincinnati region
S.U.N. "The hours one person spends praying for peace or
volunteering for a worthy cause can contribute to a better,
more peaceful world."
peacemaking possibilities, she suggested, might include letting
go of a grudge, recycling, inviting a lonely neighbor to dinner,
working for legislation designed to reduce violence. Participants
will assign the hourly value to their peacemaking activities
and report them via mail or the Internet.*