Renaming the Feast

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us..

On the 25th of March, we observed the solemn feast of the Annunciation.

Somehow, for as long as I can remember, I have only thought of this date as the feast of the of the Incarnation.  (Please blame my language teachers for my being picky about words.)

Certainly, observing the feast as Annunciation is of great importance. The Gospel for Mass on that day is taken from Luke and recounts the stunning appearance of the angel Gabriel to the young and holy maiden Mary. He does indeed make an announcement to her, hence Annunciation. What he announces is that she will conceive and bear a son who will be called Son of the Most High. The church has consistently taught that Mary’s “Yes” was required, though clearly Gabriel did not ask a question but made a statement to which she consented. And we thank God that she did.

Yet, we bow during the Creed as we assent to the Word made flesh, and not to the announcement. And though both occur at practically the same moment, there is a difference.

So what’s the issue?

Simply that it seems to me that the event is more important than the announcement of it. Just as being at a winning game is better than reading about it later. And what is the Event?

The Incarnation is as astonishing an event as the Resurrection. Naming the feast Incarnation  emphasizes how deep is God’s love, that He would join the human race and become one of us in the flesh.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God is always described as working side by side with his people, present with them through hardships: hunger, foreign domination, slavery, floods, and all manner of evils as well as successes. But never is God seen or heard except under cover, so to speak, as in a cloud or in a soft whispering sound. Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus was born humanly into the world as the son of Mary and Son of God so that we could witness him with our own eyes and ears.

The enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a phenomenal event and a deep mystery. We can easily understand God’s enduring spiritual presence with the chosen people, but that he should become one of us? That he would live like us? Be tired like us? Work at a job like us? Deal with difficult people like us? Be rejected like us? Indeed. Like us in all ways except sin.

St. Athanasius (d. 373 AD) is famously quoted for having given us the reason for the Incarnation: “God became man so that man might become god.”  Another astounding statement! We are told, however, that whereas Jesus is God by nature, we are enabled to become “god” or “god-like” by participation. By our relationship to God through Jesus our Brother and with the grace-filled help of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God.

By his example Jesus taught us how to be reborn in the spirit as children of God and as God’s image here on earth. He refers to God as our Father — his and mine and yours. His teachings and example show us how we can enter the Kingdom of God — partially now, fully in the next life. Christ tells us to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. He constantly strives to quiet our fears and guilty feelings about not being good enough to be called God’s children, when this is exactly why God made us in the first place.

With all due respect, I feel bound to put the fact of the Incarnation in first place over Gabriel’s Announcement. John’s first letter emphasizes the reality of God’s Son becoming human and our status as God’s children. As I gave John the first word in this meditation, I also give him the last. (1 John 1:1; 3:2)

“The Word was made flesh.
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life. …
 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

Hymn to the Word Incarnate, by Gabriel Fauré
Poem by Jean Racine, trans. RPK

O Word, equal to the Almighty, our only hope,
Eternal day of both Earth and Heaven;
We break the silence of this peaceful night:
Divine Saviour, cast your gaze on us!

Spread over us the fire of your mighty grace
So that all Hell might flee, hearing your voice.
Awaken the sleep of this languishing soul
Which so easily forgets your laws!

O Christ, be kind to your faithful people
Now gathered to bless you.
Welcome the hymns we offer to your immortal glory,
And may they return to us, filled with your grace!

The Word Was Made Flesh

Rejoice!

 

I’ve been struggling to write about the first sentence of John’s Gospel. I started by pointing out how extraordinarily different it is from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about Jesus’ human origins – wonderful, of course. Matthew lists the genealogy so we know that Jesus was indeed descended from King David. Mark recounts the very start of Jesus’ earthly mission as he’s baptized. And of course Luke gives us the most familiar narrative of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But John, that Eagle, soars over these “merely” earthy origins, bypassing them to place Jesus in the very center of the Trinity, creating and enlightening the universe before time!

As I was trying to write  this, the academician in me crept out. It went in different directions – all related to Jesus’ amazing beginning – which was not really a beginning because it was outside of time. Because we, on the other hand, are very much creatures of time. I had opened the proverbial can of worms. How does one wrap one’s head around something that is absolutely impossible to experience? All words fail.

Then I realized: no, one Word does not fail.

           In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

I heard that Word repeated in John’s sentence, and I heard it like a bell ringing three times, once for each person in the Trinity!

 Now I knew I was in trouble, because how do we understand the Trinity? A great mind such as Augustine’s tried to comprehend this inscrutable doctrine. And if God, as Trinity, is so impossible to understand, why do we so insist on it, in our Creed, in our Christian faith?

 Then came the answer: through the Word, the very Wisdom of God. Seeing us in this dark place and time, having pity on us, this great and inscrutable God humbled himself to become human. And the Word was made flesh . . .

 As if this were not enough, the Word, now humanized (so to speak), this Word dwelt among us. Lived with us. Felt like us. Learned as we learn. Hurt as we hurt. Enjoyed as we enjoy. Spoke with words of forgiveness, mercy and unconditional love! The Word spoke the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Son was sent, not as royal ambassador, but as a servant to teach us, to meet evil forces head on for us, to know rejection and exclusion, to welcome us and let each of us know how lovable we are. Who else would do this, but an infinitely loving God?

 And again, as if this were not enough, St. Paul tells us (in his letter to the Colossians) that the mystery of God’s love, hidden for ages, is now ready to be revealed, because Jesus Christ has taught it to us. He lives not only with us but in us. The mystery is little by little revealed in us as the indwelling Christ teaches us to love as he, God, loves.

 Though John tells us the brutally sad truth that his own did not accept him, he does not leave us without hope.

To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

How lovely that we truly have reason to rejoice on this Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday! Let this be our joyful and continuing Advent prayer:   Thanks be to God for the Incarnate Word.
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Click on the arrow below to hear Fauré’s choral work, Cantique – To the Word Incarnate