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December 8, 2005
Greetings and welcome to Faith Formation Update, a free monthly e-newsletter for catechetical leaders with a focus on parish catechesis beyond textbooks and classrooms. I'm Judith Dunlap. In each issue I offer a brief starter and my "Every Family" column. My co-worker and fellow religious educator Joan McKamey offers video resources and ideas in her "Seen and Heard" column. Our co-worker Chuck Blankenship suggests other faith formation resources for adults from St. Anthony Messenger Press in his column, "Sowing Sampler." Finally, we encourage YOU to share views and program ideas about this month's topic on our online bulletin board, "Faith Formation Forum." Blessings on your work!
—Judith Dunlap

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The Incarnation
What follows is a rather long, personal account of how I discovered the answer to the question, “Why did God want to become human?” If you would rather not read my narrative, you can find the answer by reading the Catholic Update by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J. It is titled, appropriately enough, “The Incarnation: Why God Wanted to Become Human.” (Click here to read the article.)
Three years, ago the Franciscans I work for sent me on a pilgrimage to Assisi. (They send 10 lay employees a year from their various ministries, parishes, etc. It is their way of sharing their charism.) The experience changed my life.
Before I left for Italy, I asked God to help me experience Jesus as Francis and Clare might have experienced him. And after two days in the city, I can only assume that’s what happened. While walking in the streets of Assisi, I experienced a sense of joy so profound that at times I found myself singing an “Alleluia.” The experience was different than ordinary happiness, because there was an intense sense of peace at its core. I felt like I was home. I received no great intellectual insights on the pilgrimage, just that extraordinary intuitive sense of joy.
After returning from the pilgrimage, I asked my spiritual director (a Franciscan theologian) to help me learn more about Jesus. And that was the beginning of my awakening to a theology of joy—an awakening that is changing my life.
Here’s what I’ve discovered so far, obviously abbreviated, in my own words and based on my life experiences.
I grew up with a theology of atonement. Jesus was sent by his father to die on the cross to save me from my sins. Indeed, the prevalent theology of the time taught that Jesus would not have come if Adam and Eve had not sinned. When I was growing up, this theology affected my image of God and myself.
At the age of six I knew I was a sinner (great self-image!!), and Jesus had to die on the cross because of my sins. I was certainly told God loved me, but on some unconscious level (later, conscious level) I couldn’t imagine any father loving someone who caused his son to die. Add to that the daily ego-busting happenings of growing up, and I found myself feeling less than lovable. I “mea culpa-ed” my way well into adulthood and even managed to translate the Rahner theology I learned in graduate school to meet the theology of atonement so deep in my spiritual roots.
Please understand I know atonement theology has some really true and important things to teach us. I am a sinner, and Jesus did come to save me. But that’s not the whole story. I have learned that there needs to be a balance of atonement theology with a theology of joy. That balance came for me with an introduction to the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus.
Duns Scotus lived 50 years after Aquinas (100 years after Francis). He taught that Jesus would have come even if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned. It was planned from all eternity that the goodness of the triune God would be shared and lived and loved beyond the Trinity itself. That was God’s plan.
It was always planned that Jesus would come to show us what humanness is all about, to share his humanness with us and, through that humanness and in that humanness, to share in divine life.
Jesus is the one in whom, through whom and for whom all things came into being. Jesus is the firstborn of all that lives and the firstborn of all that has died. Absolute primacy belongs to Jesus in everything and everyone (Col 1, Eph 1). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). We all know that was Jesus.
I also remembered learning about the prime mover in metaphysics. God doesn’t react—God acts. If Jesus only came because of Adam and Eve’s sin, wouldn’t that mean God was reacting to a creature’s action?
So here I am, and this is what I know: There is something so great in being human that Jesus was planned from before the beginning of time. And besides that, he saved me.
I have also learned a new understanding of being saved. Being saved does not just mean having my sins forgiven. Within God’s plan (the mystery of the triune God’s love) the people God created sinned. So when Jesus came he saved us: He saved us from sin, shared his life with us and brought us to union (with God, God’s people and all of creation).
Salvation is much bigger than “forgiveness of sin.” Salvation means fulfillment. It is the fulfillment of all of God’s plans for us and for all of creation. It is the bringing to completion of all creatures.
The Latin word salus means “healthy.” The adjective salvus means “whole.” To be saved is to be whole. Salvation offers us the chance to become who we were created to be, so that we can reclaim our place in God’s plan and become one with God and all that God created.
There are three parts to salvation: Part one is forgiveness of sin. Part two is accepting the newness of love and life Jesus offers us. (Here was my obstacle—one has to truly believe one is lovable to accept love.) Part three is when we come into unity with all that is. The kicker is this: Forgiveness of sin (part one) means nothing without parts two and three.
The trip to Assisi was a great blessing. The love of my family and my friends had convinced me over the years that I am lovable, but in Assisi I became certain of the fact. In the streets and plazas where Francis and Clare walked, I felt God’s love. And finally, thanks to the Franciscans in my life, I am finding the words to share why that is so important.
So, I’ll end where I began, with an invitation to read the Catholic Update written by Ken Overberg, S.J., “The Incarnation and Why God Wanted to Become Human.”
Postscript: The word dunce crept into the language in the 15th century as a way to ridicule those who believed the teachings of John Duns Scotus. That’s one way to curb a teaching.
Jesus’ Birthday
Consider having a birthday party for Jesus after December 25 but still during the Christmas season. It is a great way to bring families in the parish together. Ask every family to make a birthday cake to share—any kind of cake they want. Suggest the whole family get into the baking and/or decorating of the cake.
On the day of the party, plan some games for children adapted for the season. “Pin the ornament on the tree” comes to mind. You might even have some games for the adults. Have party hats and decorate the tables with crepe paper and balloons.
Refreshments would include birthday cake, of course, and ice cream on the side. Make sure you tell folks to wait for everyone to get a piece of cake before they begin eating.
Hand out birthday candles and have people put them on their pieces of cake. Make sure an adult at each table has a book of matches so the candles can all be lit at the same time. Give a very short talk about how Jesus’ birthday is also our birthday, because Jesus shared his life with us. Remind them that Jesus is still alive today in each of us. Have the adults light the candles, and ask everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” using these words: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to Jesus, happy birthday to us.” Tell them to blow out the candles when they are finished singing.
Finally, after they have eaten their cake, ask members of each family to spend some time talking about how they are the hands, feet, eyes, etc., of Jesus. (Click here to get a handout page from Together Time: Spirit with Us, an activity book from the God Is Calling family series.
Send everyone home with a balloon and a smile.
Electronic Media About the Incarnation
Each year as Christmas approaches, we have an opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation—that the divine Word took flesh and made his dwelling place among us. There is much joy to be experienced as a human, but there is much pain and suffering as well. The only reason behind the Incarnation that makes any sense to me is love, God’s kind of love. John states it so simply and clearly in that football-fan-made-famous verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (3:16).
Fr. Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is pretty good with the pen on this subject too. His article “How the Incarnation Changed Everything” is an eloquent reflection on the difference it makes to us that Christ became one of us. While this article is no longer available in print, it continues to be available to read as part of our abundant library of resources at A significant online collection of newsletter and magazine articles on a wide range of Catholic topics is available as part of our company’s evangelization effort. Simply type in the topic of your search under “Search for Articles” on our homepage. (If you’re looking for a product, type in your topic under “Search for Products” and you will be taken to our online catalog.)
It’s little wonder that Fr. Jack, a Franciscan friar, has a great appreciation for the Incarnation. After all, St. Francis himself was moved to tears “when he thought of God’s limitless love and total self-emptying as revealed in the birth of Christ.” The tradition of the Christmas crib, also called a crèche, manger or nativity scene, is credited to St. Francis of Assisi.
Share the story of the first Christmas crib and the rich meaning of this custom at an Advent gathering of families. Or encourage parish families and catechists to share this video in their homes and classrooms as they set up their crèches. Click here to view a video clip (RealMedia | Windows Media) from The First Christmas Crib: A Story of St. Francis of Assisi. Share the following ideas from the leader’s guide with parents and catechists.
Enrichment Ideas for Family or Class
  • In the spirit of St. Francis whose first Christmas crib showed Jesus’ humble beginning, discuss ways that your Christmas preparations and celebration might be simplified in order to better focus on the true meaning of the season.
  • The hay in the manger provided some comfort for the baby Jesus. Discuss and commit to bringing some comfort to the poor and/or homeless this Advent and Christmas. (e.g., donate blankets to a homeless shelter; collect coats, gloves and hats for an agency serving the poor; collect funds to help pay a poor family’s winter heating bill; donate food to and/or serve food at a soup kitchen, etc.)
  • Discuss what it means to provide a dwelling place for Jesus in your heart. Write “There is room for you in my heart, Jesus” on construction paper hearts, sign them and hang them on your Christmas tree.
  • Place an electric candle in a window of your home or classroom as a sign to Jesus that there is room for him there and in your hearts.
Have a blessed Advent and Christmas! May God’s peace be yours.

And the Word Was Made Flesh

For centuries people have been fascinated with questions about the mysterious person known as Jesus of Nazareth. Who is he? Why is he important? Popular culture tries to explain him, literary figures explore his influence and generations of believers proclaim his message. But how do we understand—and how are we affected by—this person we know as Jesus?
This coming year, St. Anthony Messenger Press will be exploring these and other questions in Jesus: A Historical Portrait, a new monthly newsletter. In an effort to help educators and pastoral ministers respond to the need for solid Catholic teaching about the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, St. Anthony Messenger Press will launch this 12-month exploration of the life and message of Jesus beginning in Lent 2006.
The author of this series is renowned Scripture scholar and author Fr. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., professor of New Testament at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fr. Harrington’s focus is on the most basic of all Christian doctrines, the identity of Jesus.
Fr. Harrington will lead readers through the world, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, using significant literary, historical and theological elements to help interpret what the Gospels and other sources tell us about Jesus.
Jesus: A Historical Portrait integrates biblical scholarship with Catholic teaching to equip readers with the tools they need to engage more fully with Scripture and grow in faith. Here’s an excellent opportunity for adult faith formation through the coming new year. Subscribe today!
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