I recently found a snapshot from Christmas of 1990. It was a photo of the altar at St. Jerome Church in El Cerrito. In front of the altar sat a 12-year-old schoolgirl from St. Jerome School, dressed in a blue shawl, holding a baby. She was the Virgin Mary. Beside her stood a 12-year-old schoolboy, holding a walking stick, with a beard attached to his face. He was St. Joseph. The baby that “Mary” was holding was my own two-month old son, Paul Fischer. Since Paul’s older brothers were enrolled in St. Jerome School, Paul had been enlisted to play the role of the Christ-child.
Scenes like these are enacted in churches and schools throughout the world, and are part of our celebration of Christmas. In that season, we have much to celebrate. The birth of Christ marks the incarnation of God’s Word. The Gospel of John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” At Christmas we celebrate the moment in history when God’s Word became tangible in Jesus of Nazareth. So we celebrate it by re-enacting it. We dress our kids as Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child. We take them to St. Nicholas – to “Santa Claus” – and we buy them gifts (so long as they are not naughty but nice). We decorate trees with ornaments and lights and plan festive meals. We sing carols and light the Advent Wreath. It is truly a “most wonderful time of the year.”
This morning I invite you to think about the Advent Season that is almost upon us. Let us bring to mind what we know so well about the coming of Christ. I ask you to put aside, for the next hour, any anxieties you might have about writing Christmas cards and shopping. Janet Breuner and Clare Bevis have allowed me to recall with you what we Christians believe about the incarnation. My presentation will rely on the theology of the German Jesuit, Karl Rahner, whose works have had a great impact on me. But I hope that this will not seem too abstract. I’m not going to speculate about whether the Magi were astrologers, or about where in Egypt the Holy Family had to flee. Instead I want to meditate with you about familiar things, namely, how God took on our human nature, and what it means to speak of the divine Word as one who shared our humanity.
The Holy Family and the Christ Child
Looking at that photo of my son Paul from 1990, I think about the beautiful message that we shared with the schoolchildren of St. Jerome’s. We were reminding them of the importance and dignity of motherhood. We were holding up St. Joseph as a model of paternal care. We were making tangibly clear the utter helplessness of the newborn Jesus. Faith moved us to do so. It was the faith that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Word had become flesh, that God had united the divine Word with a human nature, and that the infant Jesus was one with his heavenly Father – a capacity that every newborn infant shares. My son Paul is now a 20-year-old college sophomore and, although he occasionally irritates his mother and me, we try to believe that he really does have a capacity for union with God. So let’s say a few words about the incarnation of the Word and about the union of God’s Word with Jesus.
Our reflection on the incarnation begins with Mary, the mother of Jesus. We know that Jesus was born in the normal human way, having been nourished by an umbilical cord and supported by amniotic fluid, after a nine-month gestation. The Church teaches that Mary was a virgin and remained one, even after giving birth. This is not a statement about the biological possibility of virgin birth, but emphasizes Mary’s uniqueness and excellence. After Jesus’ birth and the sojourn in Egypt to escape Herod the Great (as related by St. Matthew), we know nothing about his childhood. We have to assume that Mary and Joseph nurtured him, raised him, and taught him language and the traditions of the Hebrew people, just like any other human couple. St. Luke tells us that, when he was twelve, he visited Jerusalem with his parents and was separated from them. They found him in the Temple, speaking with its teachers. Upon returning to Nazareth, we read, he grew in wisdom. The stories about Mary and Jesus testify to his full humanity, to the completeness of his human nature. Thanks to the motherhood of Mary, we are not celebrating a merely spiritual encounter between God and humanity, but incarnation, that is, a union of two natures.
Mary is the Mother of God, but the Church insists that the child she bore and nurtured was fully human. This may be more difficult for men to imagine than for women, who so intimately share their life with their children. The hopes and dreams of mothers for their babies are not abstract ideals, but are rooted in flesh-and-blood realities. Mothers dedicate themselves to realizing them. As St. Luke said about Mary’s hopes, she treasured them in her heart. And in Advent and Christmas, we celebrate the achievement of a magnificent hope. It is the hope, not just of Mary, but of all people – the hope for a union of divinity and humanity. In Mary’s human child, God’s Word became flesh. We can say that God has expressed divinity in the human nature of Jesus Christ. By God’s choice, our human nature has become the fitting receptacle for the divine Word. The birth of Jesus marked the culmination of God’s creation. In Jesus, humanity reached its goal of union with God.
Mark’s Gospel starts with these words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus Christ is God’s “only-begotten” Son. He was absolutely unique. But the New Testament tells us that we too are God’s children. It speaks of all of us as the “children of God.” How are we Christians to understand the relation between Jesus, our brother, and us? The Church teaches that he is one divine person, the Word of God, with two natures, human and divine. The gospel reflects this in many ways. St. Luke affirmed that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit, that angels sang “glory to God in the highest,” and that Simeon could depart in peace because he had seen both the salvation promised to the Jews and a light to the gentiles. All of this reflects the teaching that Jesus Christ is truly the Word made flesh. God has come to dwell among us, choosing our human nature as God’s own. That is the great mystery of Christmas that we prepare for in Advent.
Potential Misconceptions about the Incarnation
The problem, however, is that we can easily lose sight of the very meaning of the feast we celebrate. Christmas is a great occasion for family unity. It is a time when family members reconnect, roast the goose, bake the turkey, sing carols, and affirm their love for one another by giving and receiving gifts. These Christmas customs are the focus of our attention, and rightly so. Abstract concepts of theology are not for everyone, and a person who insists on abstractions at Christmas may dampen a joyous celebration. But in the time that we have together, let us reflect on what we believe.
We can start by identifying what might be called misconceptions about Christmas. The commonest one is that God, who became flesh in Jesus Christ, was not really human. He only appeared to share our human nature. Why do I call this a “common” misconception, when we all profess that Mary had a baby? It is common because the Bible says many things about Jesus that no one would say about an ordinary human baby. St. Luke attests that this baby was conceived of the Holy Spirit and announced by an angel of the Lord. The Benedictus tells us that John the Baptist, the new-born son of Elizabeth, would eventually be called the prophet of Jesus, that is, the prophet of the Most High. Angels sang at his birth, shepherds worshiped, and a star led the Magi to his birthplace. All of these Biblical assertions can lead to the misconception that the baby Jesus was God in a human disguise – that he only seemed human.
This misconception is seemingly validated by passages in the New Testament and in Christian art. We read in the Letter to the Philippians, for example, that Jesus Christ did not count his equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, and became a servant (2:7). From this point of view, the birth of Jesus was an act of divine condescension. God condescended to appear as a human being. The misconception that Jesus was God in a human disguise is also illustrated in the icons of the Christ child, sitting on Mary’s lap, holding a royal orb. He appears, even in infancy, to be a heavenly king. So if it is a common misconception that the human nature of Jesus was merely the “livery” or “outward appearance” of God, there may be ample grounds for it.
The history of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection can also appear to substantiate the misconception that his human nature was merely an instrument by which God expressed the divine Word. The miracles of Jesus, his expiatory death, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven, all can lead people to a false conclusion that God merely appeared to have a human nature.
Unfortunately, the false conclusion is a common one. Many understand the incarnation of the Word as an event wholly removed from our human nature and daily lives. Many people mistakenly regard the birth of Jesus as the eruption into human history of an exclusively divine being who acted on our behalf without fundamentally changing us. He was a supernatural wonder-worker who healed people and performed miracles. Many superficially understand his death on the cross as a way of satisfying the anger of his heavenly Father. From this point of view, his resurrection and ascension mark the point at which, having completed his divine intervention, he returned to heaven.
The True Union of Human and Divine
Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was not a mere visitor from heaven. In the year 451, the Council of Chalcedon grappled with this problem. It affirmed that he was a single person with two natures, human and divine. We have to see this in connection with the origins of humanity. The Book of Genesis tells us that human beings were created according to the image and likeness of God. From the very beginning of the human family, we can say, humanity has reflected something of God’s very being. To be sure, our first parents defaced this divine image by sin. Guilt and estrangement from God have marred the divine image in us. Despite that, however, God has remained committed to our salvation (1 Tim. 2:4). With the birth of Jesus, God united the divine Word to our human nature. In Jesus, a man like us reached the goal of human nature as created in the divine image and likeness, namely, perfect union with God. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.
The formula of the Council of Chalcedon – that Jesus Christ is “one divine person with two natures” – is a striking one. On the surface, it seems to affirm what I have called the “basic misconception” about Jesus – namely, that he was exclusively divine and did not share our human nature. Two of the Church’s teachings help us to correct this mistaken opinion. One is about the human soul of Jesus. The term “soul” refers to our human essence, to what remains constant, despite the many changes in our body as we age. Chalcedon affirmed that Jesus was a true man, consisting of soul and body. The ancient Fathers were responding to the argument that, because Jesus was really a divine person, God’s Word must have taken over a human body. In reply to this error, the Church taught that his human body was animated by a rational (and not just an animal) soul. Scripture attributes these words to Jesus: “My soul is sorrowful even unto death” (Mt. 26:38). Jesus’ humanity remained a constant feature, and was not merely an outward appearance.
A second basic teaching of the Church that illuminates the divine person with two natures is the teaching about his divine and human will. Jesus Christ was not merely the instrument of God, whose divine will had completely absorbed the human. He was not merely an instrument of God’s Word without a will of his own. Instead, the Church affirms that the human and divine natures in Christ each possess their own will. This teaching emerged in the seventh century, in controversies with those who wrongly spoke of an exclusively divine nature in Christ. Catholics say that he had a truly human will. This corresponds to the teaching that the union of Christ’s human nature with the divine Word was in fact a grace. Union with divinity is God’s gift to the created nature of Christ. Christ’s human will, like our will, is free. But he subordinated his human will to the will of the Father, and taught us to pray “thy will be done.” He had to accept the mission given him by the Father.
In short, the formula that Jesus Christ is one divine person with two natures does not mean that a divine person had taken over the human soul of Jesus or taken over his human will. On the contrary, he was truly God and truly man: one with God in his very being, one with us according to his human nature.
Leading Our Families to a Deeper Appreciation
You may have noticed in this presentation some phrases to describe the meaning of the incarnation that sounded unusual:
- With the incarnation, humanity achieved in Jesus the goal set for it by God, namely, union with divinity.
- The incarnation means, I said, that God has taken our human nature as God’s own nature.
- God’s offer to unite the divine Word with human nature was a grace that Jesus accepted according to his free will.
You might wonder why I said things this way, rather than in a more traditional way. I could have said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” I could have said that the incarnation happened via a “hypostatic union” of God’s Word with human nature. I could have said that Jesus Christ not only bore the image and likeness of God, as we do, but was God’s only-begotten Son. As Christians, we know and revere these phrases.
The Church also sanctions, however, the more unusual phrases that I have used. They are no less orthodox than the phrases with which we are more familiar. The unusual phrases highlight aspects of our tradition that are often overlooked or obscured:
- Union with God is the goal for which our human nature had been created.
- Our human nature became God’s own when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
- Just as Jesus freely accepted the grace of union with God, so too we are challenged to receive God’s Word.
We say this because God made us in the divine image and likeness. Our human nature was created with a capacity for receiving God’s Word. In the words of the nativity stories, we are able to hear the divine Word made flesh. We can not only “hear” this Word, but also allow it into our hearts, to obey it, and to be transformed by it. It has affected all of human history. It can change us as well.
Our assertions about Jesus Christ are the heart of our faith. Faith does not mean simply that we believe that God did something on our behalf. No, it also means that God is at work in our lives. God is speaking to us, at every moment, a divine Word. It means that we too must accept God’s Word, just as Jesus did. It means that we understand our own lives as created in God’s image and destined for union with God.
Ultimately, Christian faith invites us to become partners with God by strengthening the divine image and likeness in ourselves. Women are in a unique position to understand this partnership. Many of you have dedicated yourselves to the caring professions, strengthening the institutions of business, healthcare, education, and service. Many of you have invested your lives in family members and spouses, nurturing the relationships that sustain our lives with one another. And many of you are mothers. Like Mary, you have given yourselves to bringing new life into the world, recreating humanity in God’s image and likeness, pouring yourself out so that a new generation can assume the responsibilities of adult life. In all of these ways, women are the partners of God, opening themselves to God’s Word, so that they can re-echo that Word in the world.
Our human capacity for hearing God’s Word and making it our own is unique. This feast of our Lord’s incarnation is the feast of God’s Word made flesh in each one of us. That is what we celebrate at Christmas. The shepherds heard the angelic message: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” They brought this message to Mary and Joseph, with the infant lying in the manger. “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” So should we, because that is the way God made us – capable of reflecting in our hearts on the message of the gospel.