There is nothing new under the sun. True enough when the pessimistic author of Ecclesiastes penned the phrase, and true enough today. Except for one thing: the Incarnation, the Christian claim that God became man in Jesus Christ.
The Incarnation really is something new. Prior to the conception of Jesus, God was not a human being. With the conception of Jesus, God was and remains for all time a human being. The claim is staggering, but it is precisely the sort of unexpected thing that one should expect from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a God of scandal and particularity, a God at work on the margins of a marginal people.
To the eyes of the raw historian, Israel was a small nation caught at the crossroads between many major world empires, a small pawn in the imperial games of kings. But if the Old Testament is our lens for ancient history, ancient Israel looms larger than she was. Christians believe the Creator’s purposes run right through her, the whole story narrowing (as C. S. Lewis says) “until at last it comes down to a little point, as small as the point of a spear—a Jewish girl at her prayers.”
And that girl bore God in a baby—helpless, immobile, vulnerable. Pope Benedict captured the radicality of the Incarnation in his Christmas homily at midnight Mass:
Again and again the beauty of this Gospel touches our hearts: a beauty that is the splendor of truth. Again and again it astonishes us that God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms. It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you, and that you are trying to assert yourself in the face of my grandeur. So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.
The claim of the Incarnation is so staggering that it beggars belief, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that invites acceptance by virtue of its singularity. With Tertullian we might say credo quia absurdum—I believe it precisely because it is absurd.
But does the Incarnation abide? Is God still with us today? The longstanding Christian answer is that God is with us not only in our hearts, or in the person of the Holy Spirit, but in the Eucharist. In the same homily Benedict encouraged Christians to “ask the Lord to grant that we may overcome our limits, our world, to help us to encounter him, especially at the moment when he places himself into our hands and into our heart in the Holy Eucharist.” Indeed, the Incarnation is the ground of all sacraments, the sacrament par excellence.
It seems odd that God would go through the trouble of joining the human race in Jesus just to withdraw to heaven at the ascension. The question concerns whether Christians are to regard the Incarnation as a historical fact of the past or a reality made present in our own time as well.
For my own part, theologies that see important events of salvation history driving to the moment of the cross alone have always seemed a little thin. Is the whole point of Mary merely the use of her hips to get Jesus born into the world so that he could grow up to die on the cross? Is the whole point of the Incarnation to get God into the world so that his assumed flesh could die on the cross? Is the whole point of the resurrection to prove that Jesus was right after all, that the crucifixion was more than a murder after all? It is as if such moments have no lasting significance, that they’re mere means to an end.
But every element of the Son of God’s existence—from pre-existence, his role in creation, his presence among Israel, through the Incarnation, his obedient life, his sacrificial death, to his resurrection, ascension, and glorious return—has its own salvific significance, its own particular role to play in our salvation.
We shouldn’t swallow the camel of the Incarnation while straining out the gnat of Christ’s presence in (or, if you prefer, as) the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. The former grounds the latter, and it is no accident that the gospel that presents the most profound reflection on the Incarnation, the Gospel of John, also presents the most sublime narrative meditation on the significance of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. If God can make himself present in the conception of a baby, Jesus can make himself present in the confection of the sacrament.
While we celebrate God’s saving actions in the past and look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, may we Christians encounter Christ in the present, remembering in the words of the poet John Betjeman “that God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine.”
Leroy Huizenga is Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord: Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI
John Betjeman, “Christmas”
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