The beauty of the Incarnation
December 22, 2021
Archbishop George J. Lucas shares his thoughts on the incarnation of Jesus in history and what his taking on human form means for us today. He also shares a Christmas greeting to all in the video linked below.
Q. In this blessed season of Advent, the church reflects upon the great mystery of the Incarnation and God’s enfleshment in time. The mystery of the Incarnation is the history altering event of the conception and birth of God’s only Son. The word incarnation means taking flesh. The second person of the blessed Trinity took flesh in human history by the power of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of the Virgin Mary. It is a mystery of God’s presence among us in time and space. Can you speak about what that means for our salvation?
The Incarnation is one of the central mysteries in our faith. It has a beautiful meaning that’s familiar to all of us, and it’s what we celebrate during the Advent and Christmas season. The Incarnation is the way that God has decided to save us. It’s a really beautiful mystery that we celebrate, that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the son of God, took on human flesh. And he became not only our savior, but our brother in the human family. And, to think that God would want to be that close to us sinners is really the thing that makes this season so beautiful. We know that ultimately Jesus, who is really human as well as really divine, would sacrifice his humanity on the cross and, through the power of his death, and then ultimately his resurrection, the human body is now raised and glorified.
He has saved us from sin, but the saving mission of Jesus begins with his conception in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary and with his birth, which we celebrate at Christmas. It’s a big comedown we might say, to go from being the Son of God reigning at the right hand of the Father in heaven, to being born in the stable in Bethlehem. So that act of emptying himself and of expressing the love of God for us by making himself so small is already a powerful indication of how God loves us.
And that God, we might say, is really serious about our understanding that he does love us and wants us not to die in our sins, but to live through his son Jesus. I sometimes think at Christmas that we imagine that Jesus has come to be with us so that he could take us to be with him. Ultimately, it’s for our salvation, not simply for his being with us, which is great, but so that by entering into our humanity and transforming it by his life, death and resurrection, he can bring us to full life in him, when life in this world is over.
Q. When we look around the world and we see that Jesus’ birth, his ministry in teaching, his passion, death and resurrection – they have not yet brought peace on earth to men of good will as the angels announced. And as we sing in the Gloria, justice and mercy are lacking in the world, the Church, the new Israel, is not very joyful these days. Can you go into that?
It’s our experience in the year 2021, as we prepare to celebrate the feast of Christmas, that the realization of the redemption of the world is not totally our experience at this time. I think this is one of the reasons why the church invites us to celebrate Advent and Christmas year by year, so we don’t forget the plan of God. We fall short of our own ability to welcome Jesus and then to live as his followers, as his disciples. But God still doesn’t give up on us. We don’t understand exactly why there wasn’t just a definitive settling of things, of bringing everything to justice and mercy in the time of our Lord’s public ministry, the time of death and resurrection. But we do see as Jesus has established the Church to be a place for us to encounter him down through the ages that, in every generation, we’re invited into this mystery. We picture Jesus as being sent by his heavenly Father into the world.
So, he came among us as our savior with a mission, and not just stopping by to visit, but there was a real serious purpose for his coming – that he would enter into our humanity and redeem it from the inside and be a revelation of God’s love and care for us that we could see and understand because he spoke human language and he lived with a group of friends and he had a life very much like ours. It was different in cultural circumstances, but he had all of the human experience. And so, we are renewed in that expression of God’s love year by year, but in the plan of God, Jesus established the Church, founded on his apostles. We’re invited into an experience of his real presence in the life of the Church now in our time. And then Jesus shares his mission with us.
So, the fact that there’s not peace in the world, that we experience brokenness within ourselves or in our relationships, Jesus calls us to be transformed in and through him and through the power of his death and resurrection, through the sacraments of the Church particularly, so that we can be sent out to be instruments of his mercy, instruments of peace in the place where we find ourselves. It’s a great dignity that we experience at Christmas. The fact that the Son of God became man is a great indication of the dignity of humanity that God would enter into it so personally. And then the fact that Jesus would share his mission with us and give us some responsibility, always in cooperation with him, with the help of the Holy Spirit, for announcing and then bringing that mission about in our time.
Q. When you think about Advent and the Incarnation, you think about God getting as close to his people as possible. And on our Arch Omaha website, we use the headline, God came into the world, so he could be close to his people. Can you elaborate more on that?
We have the opportunity as Christians to experience the presence of Jesus in the Church. And it’s real. This is not just our imagination. The Holy Spirit helps us experience Jesus alive in his living body, the Church. The Lord has sent the Church, sent out into the world, and he wants as many people as possible to experience this truth of his closeness. The first disciples of Jesus spent so much time with him and they got to know him so well. And they witnessed his power as the Son of God that we could say he rubbed off on them. So, when they were sent into the world, they were trying to live as disciples of Jesus, not only as his followers, but as people who were conformed to him in a way, so that when people would meet the disciples of Jesus, it was as if they were meeting the Lord, and the Holy Spirit made that encounter possible.
We should think of ourselves that way. We first have to get to know the Lord and spend time with him. We do that in prayer and in other times of reflection – when we’re so close to him in the Eucharist especially – but then he sends us out and we hope that he’s rubbed off on us. And it would be great if the people that you and I encounter every day would come to some kind of a sense that they had encountered Jesus in meeting us.
Q. I think we’ve all heard the term, go and make disciples, because that was Jesus’ command. And that challenges us to take part in this mission of going forth. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out. But all of us are asked to obey his call, to go forth from our own comfort zone to reach those far removed and in need of the light of the Gospel. How do you think people can get out of that comfort zone in order to do that?
I think we have to first be convinced that this is really expected of us. Christmas can be sort of an emotional and sentimental time, which is OK because it’s a moment to experience the deep, personal love that God has for us. But our Catholic faith is really not just about enjoying a pleasant sentiment, but it’s about hearing from Jesus that invitation to come to him, but also to be sent out. So, we come to the crib at Christmas time and we remember again the humility of Jesus coming to live among us as part of the human family. But we don’t linger there too long. We really have to take up the responsibility that the coming of Jesus among us places on us to go out and to bring the light of the Gospel, the joy of Christmas, the promise of God’s mercy, to bring that to as many people as we can.
That can’t happen automatically. Our society is, in many ways, very secular and taken up with itself, not acknowledging the presence of God or the need for God very often, but we do need God. It’s not that the need is any less now than it ever was. What we do in return for the gift of the Savior at Christmas is to look for the opportunities that we have to talk about our faith in Jesus, and then to live as he would have us do for the benefit of our brothers and sisters.
Q. So you could say that the Incarnation is proof that God gets involved?
Yes, that’s a great way to describe it. God’s not just shouting at us from a distance nor is he turning his back on us because of our sins. We’ve given him, over many generations, lots of reasons to wash his hands of the human project altogether, but God’s not satisfied with the brokenness that we experience. He wants us to be clear about how much he loves us and how he wants to approach us with mercy. He doesn’t come among us to clobber us, but to befriend us, we might say, and then to lead us from darkness into light, through a relationship with his Son, who is our brother and our savior.
Q. So the Incarnation was God’s greatest act of mercy?
Jesus is the face of mercy, the personification of God’s mercy, you might say. So, when we experience the forgiveness of our heavenly Father, it’s not a transaction. We don’t try to make up for our sins so that he gives us mercy in return. He gives us this great gift of his son, Jesus, who lays down his life so that we can be forgiven and healed. We need to accept that mercy, and our repentance of our sins is sort of the acknowledgement that we need a savior.
The Lord hasn’t come simply to affirm us. Although his coming among us is a great gift of encouragement and hope, he desires to lead us from sin and the effect of sin, which ultimately is death to life in him, to eternal life. If there is one thing he asks of us in this Christmas season it’s that we just accept him as our savior, that we acknowledge our sins, which is the way of saying yes, that I want the Savior to be for me and I want Jesus in my life, and then he comes right in.
Q. I think one more thing that would be really good to talk about is mercy, and how it relates to the pandemic.
I could use more of God’s mercy. And I think we all could. I don’t say that lightly. Part of the fallout of the pandemic has been a divisiveness in our society and not only a lack of agreement about how to approach the pandemic and its effects, but almost contempt sometimes for those that don’t agree with us or would ask us to participate in some measures for the common good.
So, the mercy of God is a gift that we could use in abundance. I think it’s important as we celebrate the feast of Christmas and welcome the Savior in a new and more personal way into our lives, that we acknowledge that we need mercy, that we’re weighed by the effects of sin. And some of that is our own doing. Some of it is the human condition that’s broken by sin. That isn’t something we can cure by ourselves. We can’t buy or work our way out of it. It’s the action of God reaching down into our sinful humanity in this very personal way that makes forgiveness and healing possible for us. My prayer for myself, and for all of us at this Christmas time is that we will come to a deeper appreciation that this gift is meant for me and for you.
The Lord really desires to come into every aspect of our lives, He wants to be with us when we’re joyful, he wants to be with us when we’re struggling. The things that make us afraid or worried, Jesus isn’t afraid of those things. He comes with great tenderness, but also with great power to forgive and to heal.