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The Incarnation:
God's Gift of Love

by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

The shadow of the cross covers our Christmas crib. During Advent and Christmas, we prepare for and then celebrate God's coming into the world. Still, most of us probably do not ask why God became flesh. If we did, our answers would likely sound something like this: "Jesus came to redeem us." Or more strongly: "Jesus came to die for our sins." Such convictions are found in the Scriptures and expressed in our liturgy. The shadow of the cross is present, even if not the center of our attention during these seasons.

There is, however, an alternative view about why God became human, expressed both in the Scriptures and in the Christian tradition. Though less well known, this perspective which emphasizes God's overflowing love offers more light than shadow. This article presents some of the key insights of the different perspective and suggests some implications not only for our celebration of Christmas but also for our everyday relationship with God.

Creation for Incarnation

First, let's return to the shadow of the cross. Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus make up the foundation of Christianity, the Christian community has long reflected on their significance for our lives. What was the purpose of Jesus' life? Or simply, why Jesus?

The answer most frequently handed on in everyday religion emphasizes redemption. This view returns to the creation story and sees in Adam and Eve's sin a fundamental alienation from God, a separation so profound that God must intervene to overcome it. The Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is considered God's action to right this original wrong.

How did this view develop? Just as we do when we face tragedy, especially innocent suffering, so the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of his horrible death. They asked: Why? They sought insight from their Jewish practices like Temple sacrifices and from their Scriptures. Certain rites and passages (the suffering servant in Isaiah, psalms of lament, wisdom literature on the suffering righteous person) seemed to fit the terrible end of Jesus' life and so offered an answer to the why question. Understandably, these powerful images colored the entire story, including the meaning of Jesus' birth and life.

Throughout the centuries, Christian theology and piety have developed these interpretations of Jesus' execution. At times God has even been described as demanding Jesus' suffering and death as a means of atonement—to satisfy and appease an angry God.

An interpretation that highlights the Incarnation stands beside this dominant view with its emphasis on sin. The alternate view is also expressed in Scripture and tradition. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the Word made flesh has remained something of a "minority report," rarely gaining the same recognition and influence as the atonement view.

What, briefly, is the heart of this alternate interpretation? It holds that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation, God's sharing of life and love in an unique and definitive way. God becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God's first thought, the original design for all creation. The purpose of Jesus' life is the fulfillment of God's eternal longing to become human.

For many of us who have lived a lifetime with the atonement view, it may be hard at first to hear the minority report. Yet it may offer some wonderful surprises for our relationship with God. From this perspective, God is appreciated with a different emphasis. God is not an angry or vindictive God, demanding the suffering and death of Jesus as a payment for past sin. God is, instead, a gracious God, sharing divine life and love in creation and in the Incarnation (like parents sharing their love in the life of a new child). Evidently, such a view can dramatically change our image of God, our celebration of Christmas, our day-by-day prayer.

In order to appreciate this emphasis more fully, let's take the time and effort to look at several of its most important expressions in Scripture and tradition. This brief review will also remind us that the focus on the Incarnation is not just a new fad or some recent "feel good" theology. Its roots go back to the very beginning of Christianity.

He Pitched His Tent Among Us

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.... And the Word became flesh...." The Prologue of John's gospel (1:1-18) gives us this magnificent vision, proclaiming that all creation came to be in the Word, God's self-expression who became flesh, Jesus.

John's meditation on God's supreme act of love in the Incarnation (also see 3:16) has led some theologians to consider that this event alone was sufficient to save the world. Indeed, John's gospel does not see Jesus' death as a ransom (unlike the Synoptic gospels, for example, Mark 10:45), nor does it use the language of sacrifice or atonement. There is instead emphasis on friendship, intimacy, mutuality, service, faithful love—revealing God's desire and gift for the full flourishing of humanity, or in other words, salvation (see the Farewell Address, John 13:1—17:26). Jesus' crucifixion (usually described as being "lifted up") is part of his "hour" of glorification, which also includes his resurrection and ascension. For John, this hour is not sacrifice but epiphany, the manifestation of God.

We may impose sacrificial imagery on John's gospel because in our hearts and minds we blend together the four gospels, even though they give us very different portraits of Jesus. If we pay attention to John's emphasis on the Incarnation and on the truth of God revealed in Jesus, we discover part of the foundation of our alternate answer to "Why Jesus?" For John, what is at the heart of reality is a God who wants to share divine life.

A Plan for the Fullness of Time

Another part of the foundation comes from the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians. These two letters, written in the tradition of Paul in the latter part of the first century, also offer a cosmic vision from the beginning of time to final fulfillment. They express remarkable beliefs: that Christ is the image of the invisible God, that God chose believers before the foundation of the world, that the goal of God's plan was the coming of Christ, that all things not only find their origin in Christ but are now held together in him and will be fulfilled in God through Christ (see Col 1:15-20 and Eph 1:3-14).

Like John's prologue, the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians connect with and express the Jewish wisdom tradition (see, for example, Prov 8, Wis 7 and 9). Wisdom was present with God from the beginning; everything was created in and through Wisdom. Unlike John's gospel, these two letters include as well Paul's theology of the cross, with its imagery of ransom and sacrifice.

Ephesians and Colossians offer a magnificent vision of God's plan and initiative, revealed and fulfilled in Christ. This plan of salvation, an expression of God's wisdom, is eternal and not just an afterthought to sin. The letters acknowledge sin and sacrifice, but emphasize God's overflowing love from before creation until final fulfillment of the universe.

Great scholars within the Christian community have continued to build on and develop these Scriptural themes. Three people who played a very important role in that process during the fourth century were St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus (called "the Cappadocians").

A key concept in their teaching about how the Trinity is both one and three is "perichoresis," a term conveying dynamic and creative energy, eternal movement, mutuality and interrelatedness, a divine dance. The three divine persons are what they are by relation to one another. Moreover, this interrelatedness of the triune God is not self-contained but is poured out in creation, Incarnation, and final fulfillment. God is overflowing love, leading humanity and all creation into the divine dance of God's life.

Hundreds of years later, Franciscan John Duns Scotus (died in 1308) boldly proclaimed and defended the primacy of the Incarnation. He argued that God's supreme work, the Incarnation, had to be first and foremost in God's mind. It could not be dependent on or occasioned by any action of humans, especially sin.

Early in the twentieth century, Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin confronted the reality of evolution and realized the need for a new way to speak of the mystery of God. Basing his thought on Colossians and Ephesians, he saw Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the very beginning and goal of the evolutionary process (see also Rev 22:13).

God's Self-Communication

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner developed a profound response to the questions and challenges of the late twentieth century. Rahner always stressed that God is holy and incomprehensible mystery. We have come to know the Trinitarian God (but never fully) in and through God's wonderful deeds in the world and in history. The very heart of this revelation, Rahner proclaimed, is God's self-communication: God's overflowing love leading to Jesus and so first to creation and grace and ultimately to beatific vision. God's free decision to communicate divine life can be viewed as the reason for the world. God's self-communication also occurs in the depths of our being. Rahner understood the human person as spirit in the world, a finite being with an infinite capacity. If we are to satisfy our deepest human yearnings, we need grace. For Rahner, grace is God's self-gift, God's personal fulfillment of our natural openness, offered freely to all persons, transforming the core of human life.

God's love is also the real basis of the world's hope. God's self-communication as beatific vision will be the final fulfillment of all history and peoples. Then, indeed, God will be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28).

What Difference Does It Make?

For almost 2,000 years, believers have found hope and light in recognizing the primacy of the Incarnation. God's overflowing love wants to embody itself in and for others. Jesus is the first thought, not an afterthought. Does this remarkable belief make any difference in our lives?

Absolutely, especially for those of us whose faith has been shaped by images of atonement and expiation. First, the creation-for-Incarnation perspective highlights the rich meaning of Jesus. He is not Plan B, sent simply to make up for sin. As Duns Scotus emphasized so well, God's masterpiece must result from something much greater and more positive (God's desire to share life and love). If some shadow of the cross remains over the crib, it comes from the fact of Jesus' execution, a fact that does not express the full meaning and purpose of his life. There is more light than shadow: Jesus is the culmination of God's self-gift to the world.

Second, the focus on the Word made flesh helps us to appreciate the depth of our humanness and the importance of our actions. Rahner's marvelous musings on our life in a world of grace give us renewed understanding of the biblical phrase, "created in God's image"—along with many implications for how we treat all our sisters and brothers in the human family. Teilhard's cosmic vision inspires us to see and take our part in the great evolutionary process, in a particular way (along with Francis of Assisi) in our care for the earth.

Third and most important, our "minority report" offers us a new and transformed image of God. Many people have had an intuitive sense that the dominant perspective of God demanding the suffering and death of the Son as atonement somehow missed the mark. Indeed, Rahner gently says that the idea of a sacrifice of blood offered to God may have been current at the time of Jesus, but is of little help today. Rahner offers other interpretations of how Jesus saves us, emphasizing that God's saving will for all people was fully realized in Jesus through the response of his whole life.

The emphasis on Jesus as the first thought can free us from violent images of God and allow us to focus on God's overflowing love. This love is the very life of the Trinity and spills over into creation, grace, Incarnation, and final flourishing and fulfillment. What a difference this makes for our relationship with God! We are invited into this divine dance. Life and love, not suffering and death, become the core of our spirituality and our morality. Our prayer—and right now our celebration of Advent and Christmas—allows our spirits to soar in the light rather than crouch in the shadow.

"In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh." Alleluia!

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is a professor at Xavier University. He is an award-winning contributor to Scripture From Scratch and Catholic Update, and is the author of the best-selling Conscience in Conflict (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Next: First Corinthians (by Mary Ann Getty)


Praying with Scriptures  

It may take time and effort to let go of the dominant atonement perspective. Paying special attention to God's overflowing love and desire for our flourishing, prayerfully read John 1:1-18 and John 13:1-17:26. Cherish the surprise, joy and hope.



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