Rethinking the Incarnation
What Jesus’ presence among us truly means
Seven-year-old Bobby came running into the house yelling, “Mommy I’m gonna be an actor!” Gasping for breath, he went on: “My teacher wants me to be the innkeeper.” Seeing Bobby’s excitement, his mother said: “How wonderful! I’m happy to hear my little Bobby is going to be an actor. What’s the play?”
“It’s about Jesus being born at Christmas,” he hurriedly added. “I’m gonna be the innkeeper.”
His mother asked him, “Do you have any words to say as the innkeeper?”
“It’s easy Mommy, really easy,” he responded, sitting at the kitchen table. “I just tell Mary and Joseph when they come that there’s no room at this inn for you.” Pausing for a minute, he added, “And then they go away.”
During the following weeks, Bobby practiced his lines religiously. “There’s no room at this inn for you,” he said repeatedly. Bobby was anxious that he might forget them or forget where he was to stand on stage. He wanted to get everything exactly right. After all, this was his debut as an actor, and everybody would be watching him.
The big day arrived. It was a week before Christmas Day. The Christmas trees were all lighted in the school and around town. Christmas carols were heard everywhere people went. Bobby’s parents, other students’ parents, relatives, friends and all the students from the entire grade school were in the auditorium waiting for the play to begin.
The curtain went up, and the show began. Everything was going smoothly; Mary and Joseph were searching frantically looking for a place to stay. No place was found for them. Bobby’s big moment was approaching. He watched Mary and Joseph as they struggled walking across the stage toward his inn. They looked tired. Joseph was holding on to Mary as they walked toward Bobby. With an exhausted look on her face, Mary looked deeply into Bobby’s eyes as Joseph asked: “Is there any room at your inn for us? My wife, Mary, is about to have our first child. We are excited, but Mary is so tired; she can barely stand.” Bobby kept staring at Mary. And then, taking a deep breath, Bobby said his line: “No, there’s no room at this inn for you.” Saddened, Joseph turned away, putting his arm around Mary’s shoulders. Slowly they walked away.
Bobby, suddenly swept up in the story, started to whimper. After a few seconds, he began to cry. Running after Mary and Joseph, he startled the audience by yelling, “Yes! There’s room for you. Please come back. Stay with me.” Running up to Joseph and Mary, Bobby hugged them. Spontaneously the audience stood up and applauded. It was not the ending everyone expected, but it certainly was one all seemed to want.
God’s Perfect Gift
What Bobby did is exactly what God the Father hoped for when he sent his son to be born on that first Christmas morn. He wanted his son to be an inviting presence. The Father wanted Jesus to be accepted, embraced and loved exactly the way Bobby did when he heard the reality of his words. When face to face with God’s love, everyone loves back.
Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection enabled God to write a different sort of ending for our lives — just as Bobby did. Through Jesus’ birth, God removed forever his banishment of Adam and Eve and their descendants from their garden home and offered a summons to return home. As Bobby changed the language that night, so did God. Jesus, his son, “dwells among us” following a new script. Jesus, the Messiah, reconciles us with his Father after our disobedience. It is this wonderful difference that is at the heart of our well-known Christmas story. As we hear in John’s Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).
Having Jesus born among us is God’s astonishing gift. From Jesus’ miraculous birth, God’s face, hidden since the closing of Eden’s gates, now stands in full view for all to see. Gazing upon Jesus’ presence, we see God the Father, and much more. Through his healing and preaching, Jesus showed his father’s heart, his deepest thoughts and his endless compassion. Through Jesus’ lengthy conversations with the marginalized and outcast, we clearly grasp God’s heartfelt mercy, his fatherly kindness and tenderness. When Jesus “pitched his tent among us” God held nothing back, displaying unashamedly the depth of love he has for each of us and the cost God is willing to endure to have his children return home.
As we can see from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection, God the Father spared nothing to show us what he is truly like. The depth of God’s love is beautifully seen when God the Father changed humanity’s destiny through the birth of his son, Jesus Christ. In his Gospel, John writes: “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (1:18). His presence gives all Adam and Eve’s descendants the gift of a happier future.
When adorers kneel before Christmas crèches everywhere, they hear Jesus’ words, whispering, “Whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Mt 10:40). In the school play, Bobby displays how to receive Jesus when he comes: He simply makes room. When Christians do the same, God is filled with delight, because he sent his son to accompany them in the same way God accompanied Adam and Eve on their daily strolls in the cool garden evenings.
God wanted his closeness and affection, shown to Adam and Eve, to be evidence of his commitment to them. However, they still choose the serpent’s suggestion to eat that fruit and betray God. Pained, God banished them, hiding his face from them. However, Jesus’ birth reversed that ending.
Laying the Foundation
God’s son plays a central role in reconciling God with all his children, and this time it was to be lasting. But before this reconciliation happens, God provides a preparation. God establishes a people, a nation, and he chooses Abraham and Sarah to be its founders.
By choosing this elderly couple beyond childbearing age to populate this new nation, God surprises everyone, because he often writes with crooked lines. God asks Abraham and Sarah for faith and trust. When they responded affirmatively, their offspring brought about God’s people. Jesus, his son, the future Messiah, would be born from this legacy.
For his son’s dwelling among us, God asks the same faith and trust that he asked from Abraham and Sarah. He asks that it be lived with the same faithfulness shown in the commitment of Abraham and Sarah. Meanwhile, God keeps his face hidden, sending instead emissaries and spokespersons to teach, prepare, lead and set up covenants with his laws and commandments. Though hidden from their sight, God constantly remains their God, and they his people.
God truly is their faithful God. Through all his people’s wanderings, God always calls them back. Then the moment arrives when a voice crying in the wilderness heralds the coming of the Messiah. To everyone’s disbelief, lasting even until today, this Messiah, born of Mary, is God’s son, his chosen light to reconcile all God’s people.
Saying ‘Yes’ to God
God chose Mary, an unknown young woman of humble origins from an obscure part of the world, to be his son’s mother. Mary, known to God for her simplicity, her obedience to her parents and her love for her faith, is engaged to a carpenter named Joseph, an ordinary, simple but devout man. While asleep, Joseph learns about Mary’s pregnancy and God’s plan. He wakes from that dream and says “yes,” making room in his life for Mary and her son.
Like Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Mary had the qualities God wanted: strong faith and trust in God’s promises. For God, Joseph and Mary were the perfect couple. Mary said “yes,” and in this “yes,” she gave her body to be his body, and Joseph, through his “yes,” gave his life to safeguard God’s child.
Through Jesus’ birth, God’s face once again appears in creation. As God accompanied Adam and Eve, Jesus will accompany their descendants, healing the breach, forgiving sins and restoring humanity’s original heritage. Indeed, God is sincere in wanting a different ending for his creation.
A Man of the People
While Jesus is not born in a blaze of glory, but rather wrapped in a blanket of humility, God wants him recognized through eyes of faith as his son. Though a tiny child resting in a manger of straw, surrounded by simple shepherds, God wants the world to believe he is the fulfillment of God’s long-awaited promise. Yet, when three Wise Men appear on the scene looking for the king of the Jews, no one else knows or has even heard of his birth. The promised Messiah, born at last, remains invisible to those without faith and trust. From Jesus’ first breath, God wants everyone to recognize this child as their redeemer, bringing enormous implications for everyone.
But God writes salvation history with crooked lines. After they were visited by the Magi, Mary, Joseph and Jesus faced their first danger. King Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children of Jesus’ age. They had to flee. These three refugees traveled to Egypt, where they found safety and a home in exile. Jesus is forced to live among foreigners for many years before moving on to Nazareth, where he grows up. Astonishing as these first few years are, God’s plan remains on course.
|The First Nativity|
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi wished to
prepare for the incarnation of Christ
by imitating the crib he had seen during
a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. In a cave in
Greccio, Italy, he recreated the Nativity
of Our Lord, placing a baby upon hay in
a manger. An ox and donkey stood nearby,
and word of the scene spread, causing
townspeople to come carrying candles
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi wished to prepare for the incarnation of Christ by imitating the crib he had seen during a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. In a cave in Greccio, Italy, he recreated the Nativity of Our Lord, placing a baby upon hay in a manger. An ox and donkey stood nearby, and word of the scene spread, causing townspeople to come carrying candles and torches.
Despite the complex circumstances that brought Jesus among us, God urges everyone to see in his son’s outstretched arms on the cross the direction needed for their new life. From his early years, Jesus shows the humility and meekness his Father wants him to model in his ministry by tending not to the rich and powerful but to the poor and broken.
Wherever Jesus meets the marginalized, whether the woman at the well, the man born blind or Matthew the future apostle, Jesus knows what they need, and he is willing to help them. When a newly married couple feels embarrassment because the wine is running out at their wedding party, Jesus turns water into wine. Jesus’ service needs neither a size nor place; it is for anyone open to receiving it.
Jesus encourages his followers to show kindness and reverence to everyone. Christians do this when they generously do small acts as well as the difficult ones encountered in daily life. Since Jesus is born for everyone, and he sends his disciples to continue this service to “the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ mission continues.
Besides the gift of his death and resurrection, Jesus gives his mother to assist his followers. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:26-27).
Jesus and Mary gave their bodies to do God’s will, and Jesus asks his disciples to do the same. Jesus wants his followers to build God’s kingdom where they live and with whom they live. Trustworthiness and faithfulness learned from Mary, Joseph and Jesus is the durable bond to emulate.
Jesus came to this earth with an abundance to give. When he told his listeners to share their lives with others, Jesus did it first. His followers today are asked to do the same. He coaxes all who listen with these paraphrased directives: Don’t build barns to hide your gifts, share them; and, the measure you choose to give to others is the measure I choose to give to you.
The Christmas story we celebrate today is still the same wonderful tale of a loving God who pursues his beloved people through his continual presence. Like Bobby the innkeeper, God created a different ending to insure everyone’s salvation. He did not stop to count the cost, because the goal was too important.
St Francis de Sales wrote: “The last chapter of those Jesus saved is already written. What is needed now is for everyone to write the chapter of this present moment, and every present moment that follows.”
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The Christmas story is a time to rejoice and be grateful for the generous gift of Jesus. We show our appreciation best for Jesus’ presence when acting with Bobby’s fearless courage to make room for Jesus in our personal lives and help others to open their hearts and do the same. Jesus’ Father still wants everyone who has not made such room to make room for his only Son as we celebrate yet another Christmas morn.
“For to which of the angels did God ever say: ‘You are my son; this day I have begotten you’? Or again: ‘I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me’? And again, when he leads the firstborn into the world, he says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship him’” (Heb 1:5-6).
FATHER RICHARD R. DE LILLIO, OSFS, D. Min., is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and a recently retired associate professor of homiletics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.