Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Joy of the Incarnation

Among the major world religions, Christianity is unique for the very bold claim it makes that in Jesus Christ, God Himself took on the human condition in all its bodiliness and thus became like us in every way but sin; feeling pain, suffering, hurt, joy etc. Perhaps we now take this idea for granted or we become so accustomed to it that we hardly pause to consider what we assent to when we say in the Creed: Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est.

This accord was not easily reached, as the Church struggled for centuries to fathom the mystery of Christ, the Eternal Word made Flesh. The irruption of the Godhead into human existence was (and perhaps in some quarters still is) controversial and a dramatic site of such struggles between the Arians (who denied the divinity of Christ) and the Church was Ravenna. It was to this see, the imperial capital of the Ostrogoths, that St Peter Chrysologus, whose feast we commemorate today, was chosen as bishop in 424. As such, St Peter the 'Golden-worded', a renowned preacher, was significantly involved in defending the doctrine of Christ's incarnation (cf the Opening prayer for today's Mass).

From the Office of Readings, St Peter Chrysologus says:

"It was not from necessity but rather from power that Christ was born; it was the mystery of our religion, the salvation of mankind restored... Therefore the fact that the Creator is found in his creature, and that God is found in flesh, is an honour for the creature and not a humiliation for the Creator. Man why do you have such a low opinion of yourself, when you are so precious to God? Why do you so dishonour yourself when you are so honoured by God?"

These words of St Peter Chrysologus are significant, for they are an antidote to any who think Christianity to be a pessimistic or human-denying or even anti-world religion. On the contrary, because of the Christian belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we have a religion that brings hope and joy to humanity, proclaims the dignity of humankind - thanks to God's unfathomable love for us - and extols something never dreamt of:

"And so Christ is born, that being born he may renew our corrupt nature... he bears human nature lest man still fall. Man, whom he made an earthly creature, he now made a heavenly creature; one who was animated by a human spirit he quickens into a divine spirit. Thus he assumes him wholly into God so that he leaves nothing in him of sin, of death, of toil, of sorrow, of earth..."

What wondrous good news! What ineffable delight this brings to humankind riven by war, violence, disease, malice, selfishness, greed and evil; these are the facts of the human condition that we find ourselves in. Thus, such news of redemption surpasses even the joy of creation, of life for it speaks of the promise of something greater still, thanks to Christ. It speaks of a true participation and sharing in the divine life of our Triune God Himself. This is more than we deserve and more than any other religion can imagine. Other religions are annihilistic, pessimistic, trapped in the despair of human sinfulness, needful of a Redeemer. No wonder then that St Peter Chrysologous fought so hard to maintain and defend this truth; for the very destiny and joy of the human race was at stake.

And ever since this great doctrine was at last grasped (even if still by mere faith in the face of so great a mystery) the Church has celebrated the Incarnation in a myriad ways. In fact, the very existence of the Church speaks of Incarnation, for she is the living presence of Christ, His Body present throughout history in every place. The sacraments and sacramentals are possible because of the Incarnation, as God uses matter and words to convey His very Presence and grace, especially in the most holy Eucharist. Our Lady is honoured and the saints are venerated on account of Christ's Incarnation. The Church adopts a richly sensual Liturgy and artistic culture made possible because of the wonder of the Incarnation, which sanctifies all matter and figurative art as holy to the Lord, even as Christ was the 'icon' of the invisible God.

It is noteworthy that the 'Angelus' was recited twice a day, a tangible reminder of the Incarnation, as we paused from our daily work to marvel at this great gift. There is a similar pause of awestruck wonder in the Creed, at the words cited above. The Church knelt in adoration of the Incarnation, that event when God came down and dwelt among us. It is a great pity that this gesture is no longer mandated by the Liturgy and few clergy and people even perform the mandatory solemn bow during the recitation of the Creed.

Let today's feast day be a chance to pause and contemplate the wonder of the Incarnation, and to thank God for His great love and regard for us, that He would deign to take on human flesh and so deliver us from sin and re-fashion us in His likeness. And perhaps, as we consider this beautiful and affirming doctrine, we would kneel and adore Him, as the wise men did when they beheld the Child in the Virgin Mother's arms at Bethlehem (cf Mt 2:11).

The photos above depict Christ with the Virgin Mother enthroned among angels, from San Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna; and St Peter Chrysologus.


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