header icons

A Meditation on the Incarnation

Reflection on the Good News announced by the angel on that Holy Night when Jesus was born brings to us an awareness of the profound beauty and reality of the Incarnation, but also the contrast of the harsher reality of the world of that time, as well as that of our own time in history. After centuries of preparation as recounted in the Scriptures, the Lord Jesus came as a baby into a world of persons and families awaiting his coming, but even then filled with suffering, wars, and oppressions.

Fritz Eichenberg’s Christmas picture on this page shows, in addition to the Christmas star and the charming animals in the stable with the baby Jesus, a burning city in the background and a soldier’s helmet in the forefront. Much of Fritz Eichenberg’s art was created for Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker and, like this picture, depicts God’s presence in history in the midst of war, poverty, and persecution.

Entering into the mystery of the Incarnation can help us go beyond the commercials, the distractions, and the individualism of the Christmas season that threaten to overwhelm us. Reflecting on the Lord’s coming to our earth in human flesh in the midst of tragedies, cruelties, wars, oppressions, terrible journeys, and chaos can bring us to a very different perspective from consumerism.

What a difference an appreciation of this mystery can also make in how we look on our own role in human history and the history of salvation, no matter how small our role may seem. We cannot save our world alone or even as a small group. It is the Lord who does that. But we can pray that our efforts be transformed and transfigured by the Lord as we seek to follow that Christmas star.

The example of Jesus’ coming as a small child, of his birth in a poor stable may give us a clue. Our role may not be well known anywhere. Very likely it may be humble, but it may also be prophetic and it may be joyful, in spite of cruel realities.

Speaking about the condition of the world at the time when Jesus was born, Saint Oscar Romero said in one of his sermons, “The history of Jesus’ time is amazingly like our own. There were political groups just as there are today. Some were in favor of empire, others were against it.”

Archbishop Romero went on to say, “I wish, dear fellow Christians, that we would assimilate this news so as to make it our way of life, our proclamation, our confidence, our security. How I wish that we would be inspired, not by the pessimism, sadness, psychosis, and fear all around us, but by the angel’s confident message: “I bring you good news.”

We could add, we wish we would not be seduced by lures of power, possessions, or fame, especially at the time of the coming of God.

Sometimes we are so far from recognizing and focusing on God’s presence in our lives and in our world that as C. S. Lewis wrote, “The joys of Heaven would be for the most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.”

The Magnificat

The response of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the exciting news of the coming birth that she shares with her cousin Elizabeth during the Visitation is the Magnificat. This prayer is recited every day during the Divine Office and prayed by people around the world. Read in its entirety, the Magnificat is striking in its commentary. It is a hymn not only about the greatness of the Incarnation and Mary’s acceptance of her role in it, but about the dignity of the poor and humble and about not making idols of wealth, power, luxury, and money.

Before being executed by the Nazis, the German Dietrich Bonheoffer preached these words about the Magnificat in a sermon during Advent:

“This song of Mary’s is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary. (From   Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson, from  Zondervan 2005.

Mary’s prophetic message can help us understand God’s project and our possible role in it. Here is the prayer:

“My soul magnifies the Lord

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;

For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;

Because He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name;

And His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him.

He has shown might with His arm,

He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.

He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy

Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever” (Luke 1).

Our Lady has continued her advocacy for exalting the lowly and filling the hungry with good things over the centuries, as she did when she appeared as Our Lady of Guadalupe. As Mark Zwick said some years ago, “Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to build up the Kingdom by reminding poor people that they are worthy of an apparition.” She appeared during the time of the conquistadors, a time of such terrible repression and lack of respect for human dignity that the Franciscan Bishop Zumárraga of Mexico wrote to the King of Spain to tell him that the situation was insupportable, that only a miracle of God could save the situation and the earth.  The missionaries prayed for a miracle. Shortly thereafter Mary appeared as an indigenous woman, Our Lady of Guadalupe, affirming the dignity of an oppressed people – and the world was changed.

The Shadow of the Cross at the Nativity

When the baby Jesus was presented in the temple and Simeon pronounced him a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for the people of Israel, he also predicted the cross, that a sword would pierce Jesus’ mother’s heart.

If we remember that the shadow of the cross and thus the prefiguring of the Pascal mystery were present from the beginning, we can better understand the implications of the Incarnation for ourselves and our world and the mystery of the poor.

Jesus’ Incarnation continues today among the poor, who suffer many crosses. As He told us in Matthew 25:31ff., what we do for the poor, for the sick, for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner, we do for Him.

Hopefully, the Incarnation continues also in his followers. As Saint Oscar Romero said, “To the extent that we seek out the history of salvation, we also become incarnate in the history of our people.”

Pope Francis said, “We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 195)

May we attempt to center our lives on the Good News of Christ Jesus and bring the beauty and joy of the Gospel to our world and especially to the poor and the sick and the lame, so that we will not have so far to go when the time comes for the “acquired taste” for the Kingdom.


Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4.