by James C. Kennedy
Photo by Ron Rack
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
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.
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.
Redemption, then, is basically understood as a "buying back."
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 events at the 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 atonementto satisfy
and appease an angry God. In many forms of theology, popular
piety and religious practice, the purpose of Jesus' life
is directly linked to original sin and all human sinfulness.
Without sin, there would have been no need for the Incarnation.
Creation for Incarnation
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 a 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 to be through him, and without him nothing came to be....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 loverevealing
God's desire and gift for the full flourishing of humanity,
or in other words, salvation (see the Farewell Address,
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
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.
Like John's Prologue, the Letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians connect with and express the Jewish wisdom tradition (see, for example, Proverbs 8, Wisdom 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 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.
A Dance of Love
Throughout the centuries, the Christian community has carried
on a dialogue with the Scriptures and the community's experience,
always searching for understanding and appropriate ways
to express its beliefs. Naturally, individual theologians
and Church Councils made use of the philosophies and other
insights of their age.
During the first centuries of Christianity's existence, questions about Jesus and the Trinity raised special interest. How can we speak of this human being who is also God? How can we speak of one God who is Father, Son and Spirit? (What many of us now simply accept as part of our Creed had to be hammered out over many years.)
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. Because they lived in Cappadocia (an area of present-day Turkey), these three saints are simply called the Cappadocians. For many of us in the West, their thought is not well known.
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. The three divine persons are what
they are by relation to one another. Some scholars like
to use the image of dance to describe this term. In this
divine dance there is an eternal movement of reciprocal
giving and receiving, expressing the essence and unity of
God. 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
A Franciscan View
Hundreds of years later, in the Middle Ages, the question about Jesus was expressed very explicitly: Would the Son of God have become incarnate if humanity had not sinned? The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) answered in the negative, viewing the Incarnation as a remedy for sin.
Another great philosopher and theologian, Franciscan John Duns Scotus (1266-1308),
disagreed with Thomas's emphasis on sin. Indeed, Duns Scotus
boldly proclaimed and defended the primacy of the Incarnation.
He based his view on the Scriptures and early theologians
and on logic. He argued, for example, 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.
Even more than logic, Duns Scotus emphasized divine love.
God is love and created all life in order to communicate
to creatures the fullness of divine love. The Incarnate
Word is the foundation of the creative plan of God, the
very reason for the existence of all creation. This emphasis
on Christ as the center and cornerstone of all creation
has become an essential dimension of Franciscan life and
Alpha and Omega
New and different questions emerged in the 20th century. Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin confronted the reality of evolution and realized the need for a new way to speak of the mystery of God.
As a paleontologist, Teilhard studied fossils and other clues of our ancient past. As a believer, he returned to the foundations in Colossians and Ephesians and built on the long tradition that proclaimed Christ as the reason for the entire order of creation. He saw Christ as the Alpha, the very beginning of the evolutionary process, in whom all things were created (Colossians 1:15).
Teilhard especially looked to the future. From the scientific perspective, he saw that there had to be a point which governs the whole of evolution, a power of attraction which provides evolution's intrinsic drive and orientation. From the faith perspective, he saw that the glorified Christ is the Omega, the final point in whom all things will be gathered up (Ephesians 1:10). Teilhard realized that the two perspectives focused on the same reality: Christ, the very soul of evolution, the Omega point in whom everything will be unified by and in love.
Teilhard struggled to heal the deep tension between science and religion that led so many to turn away from belief in God. He offered to the modern world a positive worldview, uniting evolution and human efforts with the presence and action of Christ, all the while acknowledging the dark reality of evil.
The 20th century continued to raise serious questions and challenges to faith and religion. Numerous wars and other horrors led to pessimism and cynicism, doubt and denial. Relying on his extensive knowledge of the Christian tradition and of contemporary philosophies, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) developed a profound response to these questions and challenges.
Rahner always stressed that God is a 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
Like Teilhard, Rahner affirmed the presence of God in the whole world. All
human experience offers the possibility of encounter with
God. 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 Corinthians 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 perspective of creation-for-Incarnation
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
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 a new and transformed image of God. Many people suspect
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 perfect response of his whole life.
Other contemporary scholars, including Walter Wink, are
more direct. He states that the early disciples simply were
unable to sustain Jesus' vision of the compassionate and
nonviolent reign of God. Overwhelmed by Jesus' horrible
death and searching for some meaning, the disciples slipped
back into an older religious conviction that believed violence
The emphasis on Jesus as the first thought can free us
from those images 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
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 prayerand right now our celebration
of Advent and Christmasallows our spirits to soar in the
light rather than crouch in the shadow.
"In the beginning was the Word...and the Word became flesh."
A condensed version of this article is being published
From Scratch (N1201), a monthly newsletter from St.
Anthony Messenger Press. Reprints are $1 each (please send
self-addressed envelope); quantity rates are available.
Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is a professor of theology
at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has taught
for 23 years. His published works include a revised edition
in Conflict, available from St. Anthony Messenger