THE BISHOP'S CROZIER: Contemplating the Incarnation
By Bishop James R. Golka
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father. -John 1:14
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Mass readings shift from the ministry of St. John the Baptist to the narrative of the birth of Jesus. This coming weekend we “prepare for landing” and brace ourselves for the amazing and scandalizing birth of Our Lord.
Why is Jesus’ birth “scandalizing?” If we consider everything involved in Jesus’ nativity and the truth that God became man, it is wonderfully disturbing. First of all, the God who made the entire universe and everything therein chose to be born not in a maternity ward or even a cheap motel but in a place where animals live. His first crib was a trough (manger). There was no gender reveal party, no baby shower, Facebook posts, not even postnatal checkups. God came into human existence without fanfare or recognition. From humble beginnings, Jesus would spend his life reaching out to those similarly overlooked and dismissed by the world. By making himself poor and obscure, Jesus shows a real solidarity with others who are also poor and obscure. First as an embryo, then gestating throughout Mary’s pregnancy, he points to the dignity of the unborn. Later, when he says, “Whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did to me,” we see just how closely Jesus identified with those who suffer and who are “least.” Rather than adopt the logic of the world that wealth, success, health, prosperity, and comfort are necessary for a “good life,” we can see that God is intimately close to us especially when these things are missing. God’s solidarity with humanity is so amazing because he does not just say “I’ll be there for you if you need me” but actually becomes present to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. He is in solidarity with us in our “least” moments. Even if we sin, he does not “cancel” us or pack up and go home. He has committed himself and once having taken our flesh is never without it again. Jesus literally has “skin in the game.”
The other scandal of the Incarnation of the Son of God is what theologians call the scandal of particularity. Meaning, by God acting in human history, he acts in a very specific way, in a specific time and a specific place. And not in some other way or time or place. Why is Israel chosen over every other nation? Why Jacob and not Esau? Why Mary and not someone else? Why Bethlehem and not Rome? Or Jerusalem? Why was (is) God so selective? C.S. Lewis described it as “undemocratic, to the highest degree.” But that is just the point. God’s work of salvation is not a response to human effort. It is completely God’s initiative. And while we may be uncomfortable with selective particularities, because they indicate exclusivity, there is something about this when it comes to the Incarnation of the Son of God that we just cannot ignore. Jesus is the Savior — not Buddha, not Mohammad, not a guru, a president, or a CEO. Jesus is the one and only Savior. And “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) In other words, heaven is eternal communion with God and there is no eternal communion with God apart from Jesus Christ. Yet he became so gentle and meek that we might not be afraid to approach him.
These two elements, the solidarity of Jesus with the least, and the necessity of Jesus for salvation must be kept together. Otherwise, we might be tempted toward an isolated elitism on the one hand, or a diluted universalism on the other. The tension helps reveal the true mystery of Christmas. The Christ-child assumes in himself the poverty of humanity with its inability to save itself. God has undoubtedly come to our aid, not with an abstraction or an I.O.U., but actually. We need help. And Jesus is what that help looks like.
In these last days of our Advent preparation for Christmas, we should spend some time praying with the words of St. John of the Cross, “God has said so much about so many things through his Word that nothing more is needed, since that which he revealed partially in the past through the prophets, he has now revealed completely by giving us the All, which is his Son.”
Please know of my love for you as your bishop and prayers as we celebrate the feast of the birth of our Savior!