The Incarnation a Profound Cosmic Event

The two greatest feasts in the Christian calendar, Christmas and Easter draw us each year to contemplate afresh the profound mystery of the Incarnation which is the root and source of our faith. God made man, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel - God among us, are words familiar to us from childhood so familiar that they can easily cease to impact on us or are so beyond our comprehension that we give up on them.

Through reading recently, “Hymn of the Universe” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a short book, part discourse and part prayer, my understanding and appreciation of this awesome mystery has been deepened and invigorated. I thought it would be good to share some of my reflections with those who may be interested.

My reading has caused me to look with fresh eyes at the opening verses of St John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the begin-ning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him not even one thing came into being that has come into being." (John 1:1-3)

In the light of our new understanding of the origins of the universe and the processes of evolution gained from scientific advances in physics, astronomy and cosmology over the last century, contemplating these verses provides a whole new insight into the this fundamental mystery of our faith. Christ, it would appear has been active and intimately involved in the creation and evolution of the universe from its first moment of existence.

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit, scientist, philosopher, and mystic firmly believed that God, the Word, the Christ not only spoke those words “Let there be light” that started that creative process that scientist s call the Big Bang but was and is and remains the fire, the energy, the power that sustains its ongoing evolution. He writes:

The prodigious expanses of time (13.7 billion years) which preceded the first Christmas was not empty of Christ: they were imbued with the influx of his power.... When Christ first appeared before men in the arms of Mary he had already stirred up the world
‘Hymn of the Universe pp 76-77

 The passion of Teilhard’s prayer the product of his scientific work and mystic experience is inspiring and affirming in our climate of secularism and atheism.

For me, my God, all joy and all achievement, the very purpose of my being and all my love of life, all depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe... I have no desire, I have no ability, to proclaim anything except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter; I can preach only the mystery of your flesh, you the Soul shining forth through all that surrounds us.
‘Hymn of the Universe pp 36

Verses from the poem by JM Plunkett immediately spring to mind.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice - and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

Teilhard’s words impel me to ponder more deeply this fundamental mystery of our faith. My understanding of the Incarnation, from my early schooling and from current homilies in Lent and Advent centres on the ‘Fall and Redemption’ of human kind. ‘Condign Satisfaction we were taught: God has been offended, only someone of equal status could make amends; no human could do so. Therefore, God becomes man, the victim for our sins, is crucified for our sakes, rose from the dead and ascended back to heaven preparing the way for us.

I am finding it increasingly difficult to hold that the principle reason that God became Man - the Word was made Flesh was to die for our sins, to be the sacrificial victim that would redeem us, buy us back from the power of the devil, the prince of darkness. This doctrine, many find, is at once consoling yet problematic. I find it problematic.

Scriptures old and new particularly the Gospel teachings of Jesus proclaim a God rich in mercy and compassion - certainly not a self righteous God demanding retribution. Then of course we remember that the Incarnation is a mystery. Mysteries are concepts we humans can never hope to fully fathom, that cannot be conclusively defined, something about which we may have insights and glimmers of understanding through prayer, reading and teachings, something that attracts us and keeps us searching in the power of the Holy Spirit for deeper understanding.

The first chapter of Genesis ends with the words: 'God saw all he had made and indeed it was very good.' We need to look again at what went wrong. From scientific studies we learn that human kind evolved very gradually in many areas of the world millions of years ago. Teilhard says they came silently into the world and their presence was first detected by palaeontologists like himself, through fossils, skeletal remains and the early tools they had made. It was through these tools that they were able to deuce that thought had evolved into the world.

Teilhard de Chardin maintains that the whole process of evolution was directed towards the advent of humankind and with humankind - thought. The birth of the human was gigantic leap forward in the evolutionary process. 'Since the birth of thought man has been the leading shoot of the tree of life.'

He describes our planet as “a living being, a colossal, biological super-system.” Self awareness, reflection and numinousness created a new layer around the planet which he called the noosphere. In this sphere all matter is spiritualised and eternalised.

We humans are the numinous, thinking, self aware, reflective, decision making organ of this system. It would appear that God has entrusted to us responsibility for the ongoing development of the world, to make decisions in harmony with the Creator’s design for wholesome evolution towards union with the Trinity. Deep within us, but not necessarily recognised as such, is implanted a strong attraction to and a deep yearning for that loving unity.

This gift of free will, the freedom to make decisions is both wonderful and dangerous as the history of our race reveals. I think the maturation process of the individual is a good model for the development of the human species. When we were born into this world, like all mammals, we were totally self absorbed, totally needy, totally dependent on those around us to satisfy our needs. As we grew and our minds developed we became aware of others as separate from us.

Gradually, we learned that others had needs of their own and rights of their own. Slowly and not without struggle and pain, we learned - to a degree - to acknowledge and respect the needs and rights of others. There are factors which increase or slow down this proc-ess. The more an individual experiences love and examples of loving the faster that individual learns to love. The less exposure to love the slower progress in loving will be.This maturing process, this learning and the response it requires from us is the source of our, life–long struggle with selfishness and is at the heart of what we call virtue and sin.

If this is true for the individual it is true for the human species as a whole. In the context of 13.7 billion years the human race is very young and very immature.
We know that everything God made is good. As human persons we continue to grow in conscious awareness, discovering the gifts of reflection, discernment and the power to choose. At some stage in our early life we came to a moment when with full knowledge and awareness we chose to do what we knew to be wrong. We committed our personal original sin.
I think this is also the story of the human race. Each altruistic or loving choice contributes to the growth of the kingdom of God on earth. Each selfish choice creates the culture or environment of sin, the kingdom of darkness.

Across the centuries these two cultures have developed and deepened and we are all immersed in the struggle the pull or attraction of both. I wonder if the human race is not so much a fallen race as an incomplete race. Our evolutionary journey is as yet incomplete. Is it incomplete because it requires the full cooperation of the human species for this phase of evolution? Is it yet incomplete because it requires the ingredient of self-giving love? I believe so.

When the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus. He called himself the “The Light of the World.”, “The Way, the Truth and the Life.” He came as a catalyst to fire us with love and energise us in loving, to call us to repentance and to offer forgiveness and love. He received sinners and outcasts with love, compassion and respect. He taught ceaselessly the values of the Kingdom of heaven and left us a wonderful legacy of inspiration, example and teachings on the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Jesus died because of our sins. When we consider the circumstances leading to his death we note that the spiritual leaders of the time were threatened by him. His life was a reproach to them. He spoke the truth and they hated him for it. They were jealous, proud, arrogant men, afraid of losing power and control. They were too proud to listen to an itinerant preacher. He had no status. Likewise we note that his followers, those who witnessed his miracles, and heard his teaching were too cowardly to stand up for him. They were afraid of the consequences, kept quiet, played it safe, did not want to lose face with their colleagues or with higher authority.
Looking into my own heart I can find all these weakness, vices and failures. They are all part of the environment of sin, humankind has built up across the centuries. I can truly say Christ died because of my sins because of my contribution to the climate of sinfulness. Yet I am not despondent because Christ is infinitely compassionate, understands our weaknesses and forgives our sins as soon as we turn to him in repentance.

I truly believe that the kingdom of God on earth is much, much, stronger than the kingdom of darkness. There is so much more love in our world than ever comes to light. I think of the generous responses of people of all ages, all faiths and non to the many disasters and areas of need in our world. This is love. When I call to mind all the wonderful, prayerful people I have known and imagine the multitudes of others unknown to me, to say nothing of all the saints and martyrs my heart sings:

‘Glory to God, Glory to you Source of Life, Living Word and Holy Spirit.'

The Word was made Flesh and through his life, death, resurrection and ascension signals our ultimate destiny. In the meantime he sends us the Holy Spirit and again in the words of Teilhard de Chardin:

 “the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter;”

and surely the greatest of these prolongations must be his presence in the Eucharist through which we are strengthen and nourished.
 Camilla Hunt rsm