“For while all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course, your almighty word leap down from heaven from your royal throne.” This passage, from the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Wisdom, brimming with mystery of the Incarnation, is wonderfully expressive of the infinite stillness that hovered over Christ’s birth. For the greatest things are accomplished in silence—not in the noise and display of superficial outward events, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice. Spiritual conception happens when the heart is made alive by love, and the free will stirs to action. The silent forces are the strong forces. The stillest event of all is the one that came from the remoteness beyond the noise of any other intrusion—from God. Luke reports:
“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,…and when the angel had come her, he said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women.’ When she had heard him she was troubled at this word, and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be.
“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found grace with God. Behold, you shall conceive in your womb and shall bring forth a son; and you shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end’
“But Mary said to the angel, ‘How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”
“And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God,”
“But Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
How quietly everything occurred is clear from the following: as it became evident that Mary was expectant, Joseph, to whom she was promised, wanted to nullify the betrothal, for he thought she had been unfaithful to him; he is praised for planning “to put her away privately” so as not to expose her to scandal, for she was certainly very dear to him (Matt. 1:19). What has happened is so impenetrably deep that Mary cannot speak of it even to her future husband, and God himself must inform him.
Underlying depths that with sufficient reverence we can at least begin to fathom, the unfathomable depth of God, for it is to him that the verses from the Book of Wisdom refer.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God;
God is being described. With him is someone else, someone called “the Word”; he is the expression of the meaning and fullness of God, the First Person, Speaker of the Word. This Second Person is also God, “was God,” yet there is only one God. Further, the Second Person “came” into his own: into the world which he had created. Let us consider carefully what this means: the everlasting infinite Creator not only reigns over or in the world but, at a specific “moment” crossed an unimaginable borderline and personally entered into history—he, the inaccessibly remote one!
How can we best picture God’s relation to the world? By imagining him as one who, having created the world, lived somewhere ‘up there,’ endlessly remote and blissfully sufficient unto himself, content to allow creation to roll automatically along its once established course! Or is he to be considered as something in the world, the world’s own original cause, a creative Power present in all things, which are just the material of his essence? The first conception isolates him in heavenly unapproachability. The second would make him the essence of all that is. And the incarnation? Was there once a man so completely in the extraordinary grip of the divine idea, so inflamed by divine love, that it could be said of him: God Himself speaks in him? Or perhaps: God is expressed in all things, all people, but in one particular person that expression was so powerful and clear that it may he said: in him God appeared bodily on earth. It is immediately evident that neither interpretation is founded in Holy Scripture.
Revelation’s account of the Incarnation and the relation of God to the world is something fundamentally different. According to the Bible, God entered into time in a specific way, acting on a personal decision made in complete freedom. The free, eternal God has no destiny which is a matter for mortals living in history. What is meant is that God entered into history, thus taking destiny upon himself.
However, this journey of God from the everlasting into the transitory, this stride across the border into history, is something no human intellect can completely grasp. The mind might even oppose the apparently fortuitous, human aspect of this interpretation with its own ‘purer’ idea of godliness; yet precisely here lies hidden the kernel of Christianity. Before such an unheard of thought the intellect bogs down. Here’s a clue that can help one’s understanding better than any measure of bare reason: “But love does such things!” These words can come to the rescue again and again when the mind stopped short at some intellectual impasse. Not that they explain anything to the intellect; they arouse the heart, enabling it to feel its way into the secrecy of God. The mystery is not understood, but it does move nearer, and the danger of “scandal” disappears.
None of the great things in human life springs from the intellect; every one of them comes forth out of the heart and its love. If even human love has its own reasoning, understandable only to the heart that is open to it, how much truer must this be of God’s love! When it is the depth and power of God that stirs, is there anything of which love is incapable? The beauty of it is so overwhelming that to all who do not accept love as an absolute point of departure, its manifestations must seem the most senseless folly.
Time unrolls further. Joseph, instructed by God, takes his promised bride to him. How deep that instruction must have gone to decide this sober man! How must he have felt before he realized that God had laid hand on his future wife, and that the life she had conceived was of the Holy Spirit! In that realization awoke the great and blissful mystery of Christian chastity (Matt. 1:19-25). Luke continues: “And Joseph also went from Galilee out of the town of Nazareth into Judea to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem—because he was of the house and family of David—to register, together with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And it came to pass while they were there, that the days for her to be delivered were fulfilled. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
What we have just attempted to grasp in the obscurity of divine action now presents itself to us in visible form. At first a child like any other, it cries, is hungry, sleeps and yet is “the Word…become flesh.” It cannot be said that God “inhabits” this infant, however gloriously; or that heaven has set its seal upon him, so that he must pursue it, suffer for it in a manner sublimely excelling all other contact between God and man; this child is God in essence and being.
If an inner protest should arise here, give it room. It is not good to suppress anything; if we try to, it only goes underground, becomes toxic, and reappears later in far more obnoxious form. Does anyone object to the whole idea of God-become-man? Is he willing to accept the Incarnation only as a profound and beautiful story, never as literal truth? If doubt can establish a foothold anywhere in our faith, it is here. Then we must be patient and reverent, approaching this central mystery of Christianity with calm, expectant, prayerful attention; one day its sense will be revealed to us. In the meantime, let us remember the directive “But love does such things!”
WHO THE BABY IN BETHLEHEM WAS
The young creature in the stall of Bethlehem was a human being with human brain and limbs and heart and soul. And it was God. Its life was to make known and display the will of the Father: to proclaim the sacred tidings, to stir mankind with the power of God, to establish the Covenant, and shoulder the sin of the world, expiating it with love and leading mankind through the destruction of sacrifice and the victory of the resurrection into the new existence of grace. In this accomplishment alone lay Jesus’ self-perfection: fulfillment of mission and personal fulfillment were one. The Resurrected himself points out: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things before entering in his glory?” (Luke 24:26). It was as if Jesus’ self-realization meant that his human being “took possession” of the divine being he had always essentially been. Jesus did not “experience” God; he was God. He never at any moment “became “God; he was God from the start. His life was only the process by which the natural divinity came into its own. His task was to place divine reality and power squarely in the realm of human consciousness and will; to reflect the holy purity in his relation to all things, and to contain infinite love and divinity’s boundless fullness in his heart of flesh and blood. The Lord’s life might also be called a continuous penetration, infiltration of self, a hoisting of his being to ever higher levels of self-containment. For him, self-conquest is seizure of his own superabundance. All external speech, struggle, action is simultaneously an unbroken advance of the man Jesus Christ into his own divinity. The thought is certainly inadequate. It does not pretend to be perfect theological argument but only a stimulus when we reflect on the frail child in the crib and on all that stirs behind its small forehead.
The public life of the Lord lasted at the utmost a brief three years. But precisely for this reason, how significant the preceding thirty years in which he did not teach, did not struggle, did not work miracles. There is almost nothing in Jesus’ life which attracts the reverent imagination more than the remarkably enormous silence of these thirty years. Once something of the enormity behind it breaks through we get a more profound insight into the nature of our Lord. At the incident in the temple when the twelve-year-old is for the first time allowed to accompany Mary and Joseph on the customary annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his parents start for home believing the child to be with the group of relatives also making the pilgrimage, but the boy has stayed behind. At last he is definitely missed, and three days of anguished searching follow, first among the relatives, then in Jerusalem. When the boy is finally found in the temple, he answers astonishment with astonishment: “How is it that you did not know that I must me about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:41-49). Jesus enters the temple, and something in him seems to rise and grip him. His mother, Joseph, and traveling companions are utterly forgotten! His reply to Mary’s shaken questioning best reveals how remote from theirs is the world in which he stands even then.
Nevertheless, he obediently returns to Nazareth with his parents to grow with the years “in wisdom and grace before God and man.”