The meaning and mystery of the Incarnation, the taking on of flesh by the Son of God, can be thought about, prayed about, read about and deeply embraced. Yet there is always more richness, insight and grace to take from it.
I can easily recall numerous experiences that shed special light on the Incarnation and its implications for my life and indeed, for everyone’s life. I’m sure all Christians can. Though there have been many experiences in my life, three come to mind immediately as I am writing this column.
The first is an experience in a confessional when I was a college seminarian. I received the sacrament from my regular confessor who was also my spiritual director at that time. Up until this particular experience, my confessor had heard my confessions in a classroom in what was then-Cathedral College on Washington and Atlantic avenues in Downtown Brooklyn.
The experience I am recalling was the first time my director heard my confession in the tiny Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The chapel was so small that from the kneeler, which was next to my confessor’s chair, I could almost reach out and touch the tabernacle. I recall my confessor’s first words even though they were uttered about 65 years ago.
He said, “I don’t think it is an accident that we are celebrating the sacrament of confession so close to the Blessed Sacrament.”
He then went on to state how he thought this was a special grace. Just the fact that I recall it says how much the experience meant to me and how real the Incarnate God was for me at that moment.
Two other experiences I recall have to do with reading books. The first one happened in Advent 1954. I was in the third year of college and first year in the major seminary reading Don Abbot Marmion’s “Christ in His Mysteries” in chapel. Marmion’s reflections on the profound truth that what we call sanctifying grace refers to the amazing truth that when we are in the state of grace, we share God’s life, provided a eureka moment for me.
A Share in God’s Life
Though I had gone through Catholic grammar school and high school and two years in a minor seminary, this truth was news to me. I was so in awe that I went to see one of my professors to ask if I had misread the text. That God lives within us transforming our human lives into a share in God’s life was almost incredible to me. God becoming human enabled us to share God’s life.
Another book that had a similar impact on me was Roman Guardini’s “The Church and the Catholic and The Spirit of the Liturgy.” I was stunned but also excited to learn that when the sacred liturgy takes place, Christ is praying to His Father and we participate in that prayer.
For example, when I celebrate Mass, I am not the main celebrant, the Risen Christ is. Members of the congregation participate in Christ offering Himself. The liturgical prayer is perfect because it is the Risen Christ’s prayer and He is perfect. We, because of our baptism, can join Christ in His offering of self. Our private prayers of course are important, but liturgical prayer – praying with and through Christ – is special.
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” emphasizes that the Incarnation sheds light on how we should relate to God, other human persons and other creatures. He writes the following:
“In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: ‘All things have been created through him and for him.’ (Col 1:16). The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) reveals Christ’s creative work as the Divine Word (Logos). But then, unexpectedly, the prologue goes on to say that this same Word ‘became flesh’ (Jn 1:14) One Person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross. From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the Incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy.” (No. 90, pp. 67-68)
As I come the end of this column, I’m thinking of that early experience in confession, and also the impact that the books by Marmion and Guardini had on me. I plan to offer Mass tomorrow for my confessor whose faith so inspired me, and also for Marmion, Guardini and Pope Francis. I imagine many of us can recall special people in our lives who helped us relate to Christ. I suspect that Pope Francis is such a person for millions of people.
The vision of Christ and creation that the Holy Father presents is exciting and inspiring. But it’s not just the Holy Father’s ideas that inspire us. The man inspires us.
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).