Around this time of year many people’s thoughts turn to Christmas, if only to breathe a sigh of relief that five months still remain between them and figuring out what to get for Aunt Martha. Stores have “Christmas in July” sales to drum up business, and at this time of year my daughter, when she was younger, would always beg to be allowed to play Christmas carols. It’s been 7 months since the Big Day, and in the summer heat many hearts look back, remembering the joy that accompanies the celebration of the “miracle of Christmas.”
As we all know, the “miracle of Christmas” is supposedly the birth of the God-man. Close, but no cigar. The “miracle of Christmas” actually took place 9 months prior, at the Annunciation, for when Mary gave her “yes” to God, the Incarnation began. The so-called “miracle of Christmas” is the Incarnation.
Catholics dwell on the Incarnation (literally, the “enfleshment”) all year round. But why? With every recitation of the Nicene Creed we recall the moment when “for us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became Man.” In the Apostles’ Creed we do mention His birth, but only for the purpose of highlighting the fact that His mother was a virgin. That Jesus was born was no great surprise – He grew inside the womb of His mother for 9 months; birth is the expected outcome. It was His Incarnation that deserved to make headlines. As an Evangelical I was steeped in the life of Christ, His sacrifice on the Cross, His triumph o’er the grave and His soon-coming again (heavy emphasis on that last part). The Incarnation was a theological concept that I was familiar with, but it really didn’t play any kind of role in my daily Christian scheme of things. Yes, the second Person of the Trinity became a Man – how else could He have offered up His Life on the Cross to save me? End of story.
As a Catholic, I now realize that the answer to the question of the Incarnation is not just “Jesus became a Man so He could die on the Cross to save me.” Not by a long shot. The Incarnation is the beginning of the story of my redemption, the middle of the story, and the ongoing, never-ending story to which I as an Evangelical never gave a second thought. The theology of the Incarnation is the underpinning of all things Christian.
Take the story of the Good Samaritan, for example, a story exceedingly familiar to Evangelicals. We preached on it and taught it to our children. I could have recited it in my sleep. A man was travelling and got mugged. As he lay by the side of the road expiring, a priest came along. The priest knew, of course, that it was important for him to help his fellow man. He also knew that by touching the poor wretch that he would be rendered ritually unclean. He passed by. A Levite also came along and neglected to render assistance for the same reason. A non-Jew, a heretic, that is to say, a Samaritan, then came along and did what the priest and the Levite should have done, putting the man on his donkey and transporting him to safety at a nearby inn. He even paid for the man’s care, promising to recompense the innkeeper for any expenditures he incurred. The story teaches us that our “neighbor” is anyone in need. End of story.
But one day, as a Catholic, I was confronted with St. Augustine’s take on this story, beginning with the words, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant.”
Whoa – that’s a different way of looking at it!
Yet from an Incarnational point of view, that’s a very appropriate way of looking at it. For here we find the rationale for the Catholic emphasis on the Incarnation as it relates to Jesus’ odd statement:
Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.
As an Evangelical, that was something of a stumper for me. What did Jesus mean by that? Obviously, Jesus didn’t mean that He saw the Father being born in a manger, preaching the Gospel to men, eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing blind Bartimaeus…. Yet, what did He mean? And did it have any implications for the way I lived my life?
St. Augustine got it. He approached the story of the Good Samaritan not from my Evangelical “go out and help your neighbor – Jesus said so” understanding of the parable, but from the Incarnational “here’s why you are helping your neighbor” point of view – because “Adam himself is meant.”
According to St. Augustine, an alternate reading of the parable begins with God, Who comes upon fallen man lying by the side of the road. He binds man’s wounds, takes him to the Inn (which symbolizes the Church) and instructs those who work there to take care of this man, promising to compensate them for their expenditures when He returns. And it is in light of that Incarnational reading that we understand why we love our neighbor – because God loved us first, and as His body we do what He is doing.
And how could we not? For as Augustine explains in another context:
All men are one man in Christ, and the unity of Christians constitutes but one man. Let us rejoice and give thanks. Not only are we to become Christians, but we are to become Christ. My brothers, do you understand the grace of God that is given us? Wonder, rejoice, for we are Christ! If He is the Head, and we are the members, then together He and we are the whole man.
Jesus became Man so that man might become a part of His body. As a part of His body, you love as He loves, and lovingly do the works that He does, even as He does the works that His Father does. Jesus’ eyes are always seeking the lost, and His ears listening for their cries that His feet might hasten to where they have fallen, His hands raising them from the dirt and His arms embracing them, His shoulders bearing them until they grow strong enough to walk on their own. Got that? That’s you and me – His eyes, His ears, His feet, His hands, His arms, His shoulders. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “You are not your own!” There is simply no other way to be a member of the Body. The judgment stories that Jesus tells emphasize this fact: there will be people who flaunt their faith (“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord!'”) and even their miracles (“Did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?”) Yet Jesus fails to recognize those who are clearly not members of His body, doing what He is doing. Waving in His face His supposed “Lordship” in their lives and the miracles they have worked in His Name but independent of Him is to no avail – “I don’t know who you are!” is His answer to them.
So my Evangelical understanding that I had to love God above all things and my neighbor as myself was correct – as far as it went. But lacking an Incarnational insight into the situation, I did not understand that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that I, a creature of flesh, could be made a member of His body, and as a member I can do nothing of myself; I can only do what He is doing.
Through me, Jesus would tenderly raise the dying man from the side of the road and carry him to the Inn where he could be brought back to life. That the Second Person of the Trinity was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became Man is far from being the mere flashpoint of the ongoing, never-ending story of my life as a partaker of the divine nature. The Incarnation means more than I ever could have guessed, for it is the key that unlocks the mystery of all those “works” that we Protestants avoided like the plague, the works upon which the Church insists, the works on which the churches in the book of Revelation are judged (Rev 2:2, 2:9, 2:13, 2:19, 3:1, 3:8, 3:15), the works which distinguish the sheep from the goats (Mt 25:33), the works by which a man is justified (James 2:24).
To paraphrase St. Augustine, what could be a better sign of how much God loves us than the Son of God deigning to share our nature? At Christmas we celebrate just one small (but glorious!) glimpse into what the Father is doing through the Incarnation of His beloved Son. And it is something to CELEBRATE, in December or even in July.
On the memorial of St. James the Greater
Deo omnis gloria!