December 29, 2005

Why Did Jesus Come to Dwell
Among Us?

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.



A Franciscan perspective on the Incarnation
Created in Christ’s image
Franciscans and the “primacy of Christ”
A final meditation


Four days ago, we celebrated the great mystery of Jesus’ birth—the divine Word becoming flesh among us. Some 2,000 years ago, God entered the family of creation as a human being. We cannot overestimate the profound impact of this event on the core of our being. Because of this event, our destiny and that of God’s son are merged together.

Starting with St. Francis in the early 13th century, Franciscans have developed a special view and a special spirituality regarding this mystery of Christ’s birth.

With the help of this newly composed introduction, my “Christmas musings” continue now with excerpts drawn from my book Lights: Revelations of God’s Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

A Franciscan perspective on the Incarnation

A key point of the Franciscan view that is often surprising to some is this: The Word of God did not become a creature, a human being, because Adam and Eve sinned. Rather, the divine Word became flesh because from all eternity God wanted Christ to be creation’s most perfect work, the model and crown of creation and of humanity—the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining. The Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned!

The foremost champion of these views—after St. Paul, whose writings first introduced them—was the Franciscan friar Blessed John Duns Scotus. Scotus was born in Scotland in 1266, educated at England’s Oxford University and ordained a Franciscan priest in 1291. He taught theology at the University of Paris, died at 42, and was buried in Cologne, Germany, in 1308. Though the approach of John Duns Scotus differs from that of standard Catholic theology, it has never been labeled unacceptable by the Church. And Franciscans, over the centuries, have generally imbibed Scotus’s way of looking at Christ.

If anything, Scotus’s viewpoint has gained prominence in recent times. It has been adopted by such notable Catholic thinkers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet; Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer; and Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest-anthropologist. “Christ is not an afterthought in the divine plan,” writes de Chardin. “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things.”

According to Scotus, God’s first intention—from all eternity—was that human nature be glorified by being united to the divine Word. And this was to happen regardless of the first humans’ innocence or sinfulness. To say that the Incarnation of Christ was an afterthought of God, dependent on Adam’s fall, would be to base the rich Christian theology of incarnation on sin! Theologians could come up with something better than that, and Duns Scotus did.

Of course, given humanity’s sin, the way Christ eventually came was in the form of a Savior whose great act of love and self-surrender set us free. In Scotus’s view, however, the God-man would have entered creation and human history under any circumstances as the perfect model of the human being fully alive. It was not Adam who provided the blueprint or pattern that God used in shaping the humanity of Christ. It was the other way around, insists Scotus: Christ was the model in God’s mind according to which Adam and Eve, as as well as the rest of the human race, were created.

Created in Christ’s image

Francis of Assisi, whose vision always centered on Christ, provided a foundation upon which the later Franciscan vision or school of thought would be built. “Be conscious, O human being,” Francis writes in his Admonitions, “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.”

But the Letters of St. Paul already contained a basis for seeing Christ as the summit and pattern for all of creation. Paul tells the Ephesians:

“[God] chose us in Christ
before the world was made
to be holy and faultless before him in love.…
Such was his purpose and good pleasure,
to the praise of the glory of his grace,
his free gift to us in the Beloved…”
(1:4, 5, 6, New Jerusalem Bible).

Then, in Ephesians 1:10 (New Jerusalem Bible), comes Paul’s magnificent description of God’s plan:

…when the times had run their course:
that he would being everything together under Christ, as head
everything in the heavens and everything on earth.

In Colossians we read Paul’s most celebrated passage about what many call the “primacy of Christ”—his having first place and being the central focus in God’s plan for creation: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible...all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:15-17).

Franciscans and the “primacy of Christ”

Most Franciscans, I believe, have in one way or another embraced this vision. Whether conscious of it or not, they tend to see all created things as pieces of a beautiful puzzle that only make sense when fitted into the larger framework—the image of Christ.

I have found in the writings of Pope John Paul II some hints that his thinking resonated well with the “primacy of Christ” doctrine and other elements of St. Paul’s vision of creation. He certainly sees Christ as the primary key to understanding the universe and as the model and measure against which human beings can assess their own meaning, value and success. In short, Christ is the one who sheds light on our meaning and the destiny of the universe.

In his encyclical Redeemer of the Human Race Pope John Paul II proclaims: “Jesus is the center of the universe and of history” (#1). Later he adds, “Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals human beings to themselves’” and “if we wish to understand ourselves thoroughly,…we must draw near to Christ.…In Christ and through Christ, human persons have acquired full awareness of their dignity, of the heights to which they are raised, of the surpassing worth of their humanity, and of the meaning of existence” (#10, 11).

(From Lights: Revelations of God’s Goodness; see chapter entitled “Christ, the Head of Creation”)

A final meditation

“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).

Jesus, Word of God and Birthday Child, we are eternally destined to be bound with you in this created world—in this network of flesh. As the Incarnate Word and Risen Lord, you are always inviting us to union with you: “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev 3:20).

“Yes, Lord Jesus,” we respond. “Come in. Stay with us always! Amen.”

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