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Imagination and the Incarnation

In a recent syndicated column for Catholic newspapers, Father Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., recalls a story C.S. Lewis tells in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

The Anglican Lewis is now remembered as a great Christian writer, one who inspired many Roman Catholics over the years, too. But as a young man he was blocked from committing to the faith because he could not imagine how the great events of Jesus’ life and resurrection could have happened.

But his Catholic friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, the trilogy now transferred to the big screen (see The Lord of the Rings Films: Splinters of the True Light), kept challenging him. The two would have dinner together, walk the streets of Oxford for hours and debate faith and religion.

Tolkien told Lewis, “Your inability to picture for yourself the mysteries of Jesus’ life is a failure of imagination on your part.” The intellectually honest Lewis was stung by the criticism, but realized its truth.

Not long afterward, however, Lewis did convert to Christianity. The night he knelt down to acknowledge his faith, he was not joyful or enthusiastic but “the most reluctant convert in the history of Christendom.”

But using our imaginations to contemplate what Jesus’ coming to earth really means for us should make us the most joyful and enthusiastic people on earth.

Jesus Knows Us From the Inside Out

Many others besides Lewis, both in and out of the Church, have trouble imagining an event like the Incarnation.

It’s not surprising they should. It’s preposterous. That the God who made the stars and the atoms should come down to earth and take upon himself human flesh, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7)! That the God of glory would be born of migrant parents in a Bethlehem stable shared with animals!

That the Son of God would grow to manhood not clothed in silks but work with his hands, as a carpenter! That the God who smote down the Egyptians in the Red Sea would spend his time gently preaching and slowly gathering followers, one of whom would betray him! That Jesus would meet a shameful, ignominious death on a cross—all to effect our salvation! Truly, this is the work of someone with great love and even greater imagination.

But these are the facts of our faith. If we’ve not become completely jaded, they should challenge any imagination. As Psalm 95, which is recited daily in the Divine Office, challenges us, “Oh, that today you would hear his voice; Do not harden your hearts” (7b-8a).

We need to visualize those events of Jesus’ life, especially the Incarnation. That Jesus came down to earth 2,000 years ago is truly astounding, but he did it because he loves us. That Jesus loves us even when we are mired in sin is breathtaking. Long before teenagers co-opted the word, we rightly called it “awesome”!

I’ve heard that the first thing Catholic parents in India whisper into an ear of their newborn child is, “God loves you.” What a wonderful way to begin life! If we could just live as if we really could imagine that, what a different world it would be.

Jesus believes in humans and our abilities; he knows us from the inside out. He knows because he was one of us. He knows our potential and hopes we will reach it. He believes we can change; he knows his death brought transforming power to us.

The power and the shock of the Incarnation so inspired St. Francis of Assisi that he wanted to restage the event at Greccio. St. Francis’ meditation on Jesus’ incarnation fired his imagination and fueled all that he did.

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

If our God has faith in us, can we have any less?

Psychologists tell us our lives are constrained by self-fulfilling prophecies. If a girl doesn’t realize she can walk, she won’t. If a boy has always been told he’s a bad kid, he may well grow up to be a criminal. If a woman doesn’t think she can ever live without alcohol, little can convince her to give up her alcoholic lifestyle. If a husband and wife aren’t getting along but won’t seek counseling because they can’t imagine their marriage getting any better, it’s likely to end in divorce.

Racial conflicts in our cities persist because it’s hard to imagine life from the skin of another. Martin Luther King, Jr., appealed to the imagination when he said, “I have a dream” of seeing our country without its sharp black/white, social and economic divide.

Cancer and diseases like multiple sclerosis will be eliminated only by researchers who think they can do it.

Even our global conflicts are often the product of what we expect will happen, our failure to imagine any other way the situation can be than the way it is. There’s always going to be war in the Middle East if peaceful coexistence among Jews, Muslims and Christians cannot even be imagined.

Change Begins With Dreams

Imagination is not just empty dreaming, but any change must start with a dream. Imagination allows us to view more sides of an issue, to get other vantage points, to create new possibilities.

“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” (John 3:16). Who could have imagined that?

But since the Incarnation has happened, let us put our imaginations to work to transform our selves, our families, our world—this world that “God so loved,” this world that God entered not too long ago.—B.B.

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