Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Ineffable, the Incomprehensible Incarnation

Christmas Day Mass 2017

I often look for clues and signs of stupefaction on the facial expressions of Catholics whenever I dangle before them the theologically loaded and unwieldly term of “Incarnation.” The majority would have incomprehension written all over their faces but most would be too embarrassed to seek clarification for fear of being labelled “stupid.”  “Incarnation,” is that some kind of “carnation” like as in a flower? “Incarnation”, isn’t that the same as reincarnation? In fact, reincarnation makes more sense than incarnation. Or better still within the Malaysian context, isn’t “incarnation” the evaporated sweetened milk that we Malaysians like to add to our favourite beverage. If you think that “incarnation” is a strange word to our ears, wait till you understand its meaning! In Latin, it literally means “in the flesh”, here referring to God taking on human flesh. This is what we Christians celebrate at every Christmas and what we hear in the gospel every Christmas morning.

The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, the most theologically profound of the four gospels, introduces us to the “Word,” or in the original Greek, the eternal “Logos”. What St John says here stands in sharp contrast to the philosophers and commoners of his time. The concept of “Logos” was a familiar term among Greek philosophers. For them, the Logos was an eternal, impersonal Principle. It was equivalent to wisdom, to right living. Something like the Eastern “Tao” or “chi”. The Greeks thought of their gods as far removed and aloof. They had no concern for simple humanity. Yet St John declares that the Logos is not impersonal but personal. He is not far removed but intimate.

What does St John’s prologue have to say about this strange and mysterious “Word”? First, the first verse tells us that the Word is both God and coexistent with God. “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Word was next identified as the originator of light and life. “Through him all things came to be … all that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of men, a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.” Third, the Divine Word was presented as being in the world yet unknown by its creatures. “He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him.” The Greek philosophers would have no problem with these first three points. But nothing would prepare them for what John is about to spring on them and us.

St John’s Prologue reaches its climax when it is announced that the Logos fully participated in the realm of creation by becoming one of its creatures. “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory.” The eternal Logos who was with God, who is God, and who created the world, who gave it life and light, became flesh. The Word became flesh. The Word became human flesh, walked our hard earth, and shared our joys and sorrows. This was not only incomprehensible to the Greeks but scandalous and blasphemous to the Jews. It was on Mount Sinai that God spoke to Moses and revealed Himself through His word on two stone tablets. Now, St John informs us, God’s Word, His self-expression has become flesh. It was no longer etched in stone. God’s Word, given to Moses on stone, has now become a human person.

This cardinal doctrine of our Christian faith is what we call the “Incarnation”: the Creator became a part of His creation by taking on human flesh. God the Son became a human being without relinquishing His deity. The doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ was both 100% God and 100% human at the same time. Such teaching transcends human understanding. It is not enough that the Incarnation is a strange word to our ears. More than that, it is offensive to our reason, that God should become man, and that God and man can be brought together so intimately, that the two are but one Person yet that one Person remains fully God and fully human.

The Incarnation is incomprehensible not because we can never imagine a man becoming a god. Many religions actually claim this. Right from the time of our first parents, we who have been made in the image of God, desire to be “like God,” knowing good and evil. In wanting to be “like God” we set ourselves up as competitors with God. We want to reach up over our heads, to exalt ourselves, to be autonomous of His will, to be gods in our own right. We want to be the centre of things, the object of worship, to assert ourselves over God and climb on the backs of others. There is no humility on our part to acknowledge that we are mere mortals and creatures. There is no inherent desire in us to become servants, nothing in us that would tie the towel around our waist and stoop down to wash feet, to become nothing for the sake of another. We have no trouble pretending and behaving like gods.

But the incomprehensible is that God choses to become like man. What?! But this is what God has done in Jesus Christ. He has reached down to us, to be with us who continually strive to be like Him. He reached down to us and became the least among us. He came without our invitation, without preparation, without our decision, without our welcome. He was sent by the Father, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. This is entirely God’s doing, and apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role, we can take no credit for this. Through the Incarnation, God has brought honour to our dishonoured humanity. The ultimate honour that God can bestow, to take up our human nature and become one of us. He didn’t simply take possession of a man, as the devil sometimes does. God dignifies our flesh and blood by wearing it as his own.

Most religions seek to know how we as humans can get in touch with God. Yet Christianity claims that God came to us. God chose to reveal Himself to us, God chose to relate to us, God chose to speak to us, and finally God chose to die for us as a human, the only way in which we could finally comprehend His message for us. That is why Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate revelation. The Jewish Scriptures are clear that no human can see God face-to-face and live. To see God would be tantamount to signing one’s death certificate. But in Jesus Christ, we have seen God. Looking at Jesus equals seeing God. We have not only seen Him and His glory, but have seen Him and lived to tell the story. Our encounter with Him has brought us the gift of eternal life instead of death.

To celebrate Christmas without acknowledging this Truth would be an atrocity. Christmas is not just the Christmas tree, the carolling, the presents, and the ornaments. It is about Lord Jesus Christ, “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” As we come to that last article of faith when we recite the Creed after this, the Church invites to kneel. That would not be demanding too much from us considering that the Lord stooped down on Christmas day, the Word leapt down from the heavens, and on the night before He died, knelt down to wash our feet. This is the Incarnation! This is what Christmas is all about. If our celebration of the Christ birth does not reflect these, Christmas becomes a traditional festivity with little substance. Remember, we are what we celebrate. If our celebration therefore is empty of Christ, we are empty of Christ. So, as we gather around the crib to sing our favourite carols, let us never forget that here lies one who is not just a great teacher or prophet, a moral example or leader. He is and always will be the Son of God, yet robed in the flesh, complete in both his divinity and in his humanity. Come let us Adore Him!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.