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The Incarnation of Jesus


Photos by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.





Jubilee 2000 is all about Jesus. Who was he? What do his life, death and resurrection mean? A Franciscan biblical scholar explores the Incarnation and offers practical ways to celebrate it.

By Stephen Doyle, O.F.M.


Paul's Ongoing Conversion

 Jesus: The First and the Last

 Paul's Ideas Reinforced Today

 Restoring All Things in Christ

 Lord of All

Francis of Assisi and the Incarnation

Five Practical Ways to Celebrate the Great Jubilee


Poised on the brink of the third millennium, many people around the world have visions of New Year’s Eve extravaganzas dancing in their heads. After all, midnight December 31, 1999, is the symbolic moment that kicks off not only a new year and a new century but a new millennium as well. What a great time for a party!

But December 31 is not the big date in the mind of the Christian community and the Church. “That’s not the way we’re thinking,” the pope and Church leaders seemed to say when they decided on a quite different timetable for the celebration of the Great Jubilee year. The Jubilee year, set by Pope John Paul II, begins Christmas Eve 1999 and concludes January 6, 2001, the Feast of the Epiphany.

In short, the focal point of the Christian observance is decidedly religious. The primary reason why Christians are marking the arrival of the year 2000 is to celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus Christ—that awesome point in human history when the Word became flesh. That’s why Christmas Eve is the more meaningful starting point.

To explore the significance of this momentous event was the task given me by St. Anthony Messenger. Though no human can presume to do this adequately, I will try my best to share my reflections on the meaning of the Incarnation as I have come to see it. I do this as a student of the Scriptures, an enthusiast of St. Paul and a Franciscan.

All Christians know the standard, chronological way we tell the story of human salvation. The basic time sequence is this: 1) Creation, 2) the fall of the human race and 3) the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

In looking at the life of St. Paul, we find that at the beginning of his conversion he accepts that same chronological sequence. Later on in his life, however, Paul gives a revolutionary twist to this sequence as he comes to a deeper understanding of the Incarnation. But it will take a while for his thought to blossom.

Paul’s first experience of Jesus Christ, the Savior, of course, was on the road to Damascus. Paul was so overwhelmed by this encounter with the risen Christ and his sudden conversion that he was really not able, at that point, to fathom completely the identity of Christ or the mystery of the Incarnation. He would try to do that later.

Paul's Ongoing Conversion

In the days and early years after his conversion, Paul’s view of Jesus was like that of anyone who has just been rescued from disaster. He was overpowered with a feeling of blessed relief and gratitude for the one “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

Paul’s experience was something like this: If you were drowning and someone attempted to save you, would you pause and ask your rescuer for credentials such as: Who are you? Are you qualified to save me? What is your background and purpose? If you were drowning and put a halt to the rescue attempt with such questions—sorry, my friend—the next step would probably be the notification of your next of kin!

So it was with Paul. He could only raise those more profound questions about his encounter with Jesus after he found sufficient time for reflection. Paul eventually found that leisure time when he was behind bars.

From prison in Rome he writes to the Philippians, for example, about his struggle to grow spiritually—to replace a lesser spirituality with a greater. Early on, Paul had self-consciously sought spiritual perfection by a meticulous obedience to rules and commandments. Eventually he was able to let go of his preoccupation with details of the law and turn his full attention to knowing Christ and Christ’s love.

As he confided to the Philippians, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness [i.e., holiness] of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ...” (Philippians 3:7-9).

Paul uses the word know not like a historian who wants to have facts and figures and biographical details at his fingertips. Paul wants to know the inner reality of Jesus. What makes him tick? Paul is not so much interested in the date of Jesus’ coming, for example, as in the deepest meaning and purpose of his coming.

And that meaning did not result from a better understanding of dates according to standard, human, chronological reckoning. The deeper meaning came more from Paul’s searching into God’s way of looking at things. And Paul is convinced that God gave him, “the least of all the saints,” the amazing grace “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:8-9).

For Paul, therefore, imprisonment was not an occasion for feeling sorry that his travels for Jesus were interrupted. Rather, it was in jail that the light came. There he was given the opportunity to deepen his understanding of the true role and identity of Jesus in the eternal plan of the Father, and to share that vision by letter with the Churches.

Ephesus was one of those Churches. And one of the truths Paul shared with them was that creation was not really the first step in the story of our salvation. Something very important came before that in God’s plan. Paul writes that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).

This is the focal point of the mystery hidden from all eternity: Before creation, before our first parents, before sin, even before Abraham, our father in faith, the Word made Flesh takes first place in God’s plan. He is not simply an afterthought or last-minute rescue plan in God’s mind because Adam and Eve sinned. Rather, Christ is the focal point, the center of gravity, the heart of the Father’s plan from all eternity. He is not a footnote to history.

The Second Vatican Council advises us to think the same way: “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart, and the answer to all its yearnings” (The Church Today, #45).

That is incredible, but what boggles the mind even more is that before the Father decided to create the world, he thought of you and of me, and our relationship to his Son, Jesus. We did not just happen. God chose us and we have been given a place in his plan, that we may be “holy and blameless” in Jesus (Ephesians 1:4).

Jesus: The First and the Last

How is it that Jesus who was first in God’s mind showed up last in the familiar timeline of salvation: Creation, fall, Incarnation? The concept is really not that hard to understand. The plan or blueprint of something always comes first, even though its realization comes last.

For example, if you are planning a trip to the Holy Land, the first thing on your mind is the Holy Land. But the last step in the process is the same—your arrival in the Holy Land. After deciding on that destination, you get a guidebook, contact a travel agent, pack your bags, get to the airport, board the plane and finally, at the end of the process, achieve the first thing that was on your mind: your visit to the Holy Land. The first thing envisioned is the last thing accomplished.

This mosaic of Mary and Jesus is in the sixth-century Church of Santa Sophia, Istanbul And so it was with Jesus: He was first in the plan of the Father but only enters history at its final tage—the fullness of time. We refer to this vision of Christ as the absolute primacy and predestination of Christ. In other words, Christ holds first place (primacy) in the mind of God and is the predestined goal of creation.

Paul's Ideas Reinforced Today

Vatican II echoes Paul’s theme in the passage cited above, calling Christ the focal point of human history in The Church Today. The very first line of Pope John Paul’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, reads: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history.”

Going back a few decades, Cardinal Pacelli, later Pius XII, wrote: “God, before all things, cast his eyes upon him who was to be their head and king. Eternally, the material world appeared to him as the palace of Christ, our head...”(L’Osservatore Romano, December 8, 1937).

Such views are certainly more in tune with Paul’s vision than with the chronological view that Christ who came after Adam came because of Adam. In Paul’s mature theology in Ephesians and Colossians, he doesn’t give the impression that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, arrived upon the scene because of Adam. Jesus, not Adam, is the focal point of the plan of God. We do not thank Adam for the coming of Jesus, for the Incarnation already was primary and central to the plan of God. God predestined Jesus from all eternity. That is the absolute primacy and predestination of Christ.

This theological view has been the consistent view of Franciscans since the Middle Ages, championed especially by John Duns Scotus (1266-1308). In Scotus’s view, the Word of God did not become flesh because Adam and Eve sinned, but because from all eternity God wanted Christ to be creation’s most perfect work, the model and crown of creation and humanity—the glorious destination toward which all creation is straining. In his view, the divine Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man and woman had never sinned.

Another point made by Scotus and the Franciscans is this: It was not Adam who was the pattern or blueprint that God used in shaping Christ. It was the other way around. Christ was the model in God’s mind from which Adam and Eve and the whole human race were created.

Many of the Fathers, particularly of the Eastern Church, as well as brilliant theologians like the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), the bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) and, closer to our own time, Karl Rahner, S.J., all built their theology and spirituality on a similar way of thinking. Rahner states it succinctly: “God’s design for the incarnation of the Logos is an absolute one, and made by him prior to any human, free decision [like that of Adam and Eve] which could have been the motive.”

Restoring All Things in Christ

In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, he speaks about God’s “plan for the fullness of time” in which God wants “to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). The phrase, “to gather up all things in [Christ],” is a rather free translation of Paul’s Greek, which means to bring to a head again, to put something back where it belongs, to restore.

When we restore a piece of furniture, we put it back in the condition it was in when it left the hands of its maker. We return it to the way the maker wanted it to be—to the original blueprint, so to speak. Paul intentionally chose this word, restoration, knowing that the way God intended things to be, centered in Christ, had gone awry and needed to be restored.

Christ would have come under any conditions, but given the sin of Adam, the way he actually came was as the redeemer of the universe—a universe that was made for himself. Just as the rebellion of our first parents had its repercussions on all of creation, so does the coming of Jesus initiate the process of restoration not only of humanity, but also of all of creation to himself.

The various and far-flung parts of creation only make sense when they come together in Christ. It helps to look at all created things as if they are scattered pieces of a beautiful picture puzzle. It’s only when the pieces are put back in their proper places that they form the original image of Christ, thus displaying their true beauty and meaning.

Lord of All

St. Paul seems to be dealing with a similar point in his Letter to the Colossians when he speaks of Christ as “the image of the invisible God,” teaching that “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).

You may be one of the many people who wonder: What is all this talk about thrones, dominions, rulers and powers? To understand these strange beings or forces, we need to pause for a moment and remember that the communities of Ephesus and Colossae in Asia Minor did not come to Christianity from a religious vacuum. The inhabitants of this region shared very strong beliefs about who was in charge of this world. It was the age of specialization, and they believed that between themselves and the divinity there were all sorts of intermediaries called thrones, dominions, rulers or powers. Each of these spiritual powers had its own proper area of expertise and sphere of influence.

The role of religion, in the view of the local people, was to recognize this system, and to keep each celestial being happy, satisfied and off their backs. When Paul introduced the gospel to this region and taught that Jesus is our mediator with the Father, the people accepted that as good news. But they wanted to know just where Christ fit into their system. Just what was Jesus’ area of specialization?

With a magnificent proclamation of the role of Christ, Paul lets them know just what Jesus is in charge of. He is Lord of all things. Everything! The cosmos! The universe! The past! The future! Every person, place or thing, real or imagined! Jesus does not fit into their system, he is the system! “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)!

According to Paul, there never was, is or will be any reality that was not created for the sake of Jesus Christ. St. Francis de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God spells out this vision quite beautifully: “Almighty God, in his eternal plan and design for all that he would create, first of all intended and willed that which he loved the most: our Savior. And then he planned for the creation of other creatures in the proper order for which they were necessary for the service, honor and glory of that beloved Son, Jesus Christ.”

In Paul’s view of creation, therefore, there is nothing in this world that makes sense apart from Jesus Christ. Every creature in some way points to Christ. Indeed, if the singing of the birds and the humming of the insects could be formed into a chorus and if the rustling breeze and tinkling rain could have a voice and the roar of the ocean could be put into words, they would all have one thing to say: “We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

Francis of Assisi and the Incarnation

Intuitively, Francis of Assisi shared a similar vision. He saw the whole family of creation somehow profoundly related to Christ. And when the Word of God entered history at the Incarnation and dwelt among us, St. Francis saw this as a cause for celebration among all creatures.

When we consider the way Francis celebrated the feast of Christmas, we see that he tried to include other creatures in the celebration. One Christmas near the Italian village of Greccio in 1223, Francis organized a midnight Mass to reenact the scene of the first Christmas. Thus his plan included not only the people of the region, but other creatures as well. He wanted an ox and an ass to be there and straw, too, just as at Bethlehem. And his Christmas celebration took place not in a chapel but in Mother Earth itself—in a cave.

St. Francis’ biographers go even further. We are told that Francis wanted to extend the celebration of Christmas Day to all creatures.

The saint wanted the emperor to issue an instruction telling people to scatter grain along the roads so that the birds and other creatures had plenty to eat. They should also rub the stable walls with meat so that the beasts could eat well. All creatures were deeply affected by Jesus entering creation and should be part of the celebration.

Francis’ sense that all creatures were somehow interconnected in Christ is also among the reasons he could rhapsodize about “Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” His Canticle of the Creatures, in which he praised the Creator through Brother Sun and Sister Moon and all the creatures, is not poetic overstatement. It is the practical expression of his theological and spiritual vision. It is no coincidence that Francis is the patron saint of ecology. He who perceived this world as Mother Earth recognized that it is the home of him whom he loved: Jesus Christ. Care and concern for creation is care and concern for Jesus’ own home.

Five Practical Ways to Celebrate the Great Jubilee

How can you and I carry this rich vision of the Incarnation and of Jesus Christ into the new millennium? I hope the following points for a practical spirituality might provide a helpful start—and a good way to celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus Christ.

1. Treat the earth with reverence. To pollute this earth is to defile Christ’s home. To touch creation with love—as Jesus did—is to restore it to him. No occupation or vocation is unclean or without dignity as long as we seek to serve this world and the human family with Christlike care. Whether you are a gardener or a trash collector, a technician or a street sweeper, a parent or a priest, your work performed with love has great goodness and significance.

2. See the sacraments echoing all creation’s sacredness. Some spiritual writers see the sacraments only as a cure for a fallen world and a failed humanity. St. Paul reminds us, however, that all creatures were made through Christ and for Christ and find rich meaning in him. When Christ entered creation at the Incarnation, the whole created world was powerfully blessed. As part of our created world, the sacraments are a foretaste of the fullness of time when Jesus Christ will be all in all.

In the water of Baptism, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist and in the oil of Anointing, we celebrate the goodness of creation and the wholeness that is ours in Christ.

3. Embrace your humanity. Our humanity is modeled on that of Christ. If the divine Word embraced that humanity, so must we. St. Francis saw Jesus as the pattern and blueprint of our own human dignity and worth. “Be conscious, O human being,” he once said, “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.”

4. Keep Jesus central. The popular Christian tradition of reverently praying the Angelus is a wonderful way of keeping ourselves mindful of the most pivotal event of human history—the Incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” As we celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of this historic event, we do well to take a good look at restoring this tradition—or at least of recapturing the spirit behind it.

5. Look to Jesus’ mother. God’s plan for a universe completely centered on Christ found its first fulfillment in Mary. By her immaculate conception, she was already being prepared to be his first home in this world. By her total Yes to the angel’s message, she became a sign of perfect conformity to God’s plan.

Mary of Nazareth is the Mother of God and our mother. She guides and cares for us, showing us the way to become fully restored in her Son.

Stephen Doyle, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest and biblical scholar who lives at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts. Formerly a university and seminary professor, he now directs pilgrimages in Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land. The Bible version used in this article is the New Revised Standard, Catholic Edition.



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