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How the Incarnation Changed Everything
by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

The 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.

‘Divine self-giving’

The birth 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).

As the eminent Scripture scholar, the late Father Raymond Brown, observes in A Retreat 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.

"True," 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.

"For most 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."

St. 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 and biographer.

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."

The Incarnation affects all creatures

St. Francis 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 that day.

St. Francis 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 meaning.

St. Francis 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?

Such a 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.

He honored 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.

Thus St. 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."

Christ—the goal of creation

From 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.

Indeed, according to this viewpoint, the Word would have been incarnated in Jesus Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned!

Closer 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."

This perspective 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.

In Colossians 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 1:15-17).

All things point to Christ

If we 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?

It means 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.

Beyond 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.

As Franciscan 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!’"

And how 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 most powerfully.

Certainly, 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 universe.

I See His Blood Upon the Rose

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
*

Jack 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



 
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Creating Peace

What 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.

Beginning 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."

Other 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.*

 

 
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