In the post that began this series, I said that for faith to be real, each of us must be grasped by a compelling story. My story comes in three parts:
The previous post talked about God’s creating love. This post describes what “caring intervention” looks like: it looks like—and is—Christ’s Incarnation.
God’s creating love required explanation. Christ’s Incarnation requires very little: God became man.
God entered the world He created. If that is not a compelling story, I don’t know what is. But 2,000 years after the event, we sit in church and we say (or sing) words like these so casually: “God became man.” “God’s only begotten Son.” “The Son of God.” An hour later we turn to a friend and say just as mindlessly, “Watchin’ the game tonight?” That’s about how compelling the story of God’s caring intervention seems for too many of us.
Christ’s Incarnation and the events of His earthly life took place two millennia ago. By comparison, World War II happened only 70 years ago. Yet despite the recency of World War II, for anyone born since 1945 the war is simply history. We know the key dates and facts (or should). We may have some sense of how it affected the 20th-21st centuries.
Otherwise World War II is an abstract thing. The war is something we only know about. But as one definition of abstract says, we know about it “apart from concrete realities.” At most, we have a father’s or grandfather’s uniform, some photos, or his medals. But all of that is carefully preserved in a box that has little to do with our daily lives.
I’m convinced too often the Incarnation is just such an abstraction. We know a few dates and facts. We may truly understand—please God!—how it affects us today. But it stands apart from the concrete realities of our lives. Our knowledge of the Incarnation sits in a box called “going to church on Sunday,” along with other details we don’t think we really think much about on a daily basis.
Yet it was not so for the woman at the well: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done!” (John 4:29). It was not so for the man born blind: “One thing I know is that I was blind and now I see” (John 9:25). The Incarnation, for us, should be as miraculous as Christ’s knowledge seemed to the woman. It should be as miraculous for us as the blind man’s his healing.
As Robert Cardinal Sarah writes in God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith, “Christianity is Someone bursting into my life.” Christ’s Incarnation should be more startling than a Martian landing on earth.
The illustration is silly. Its point is not. Are we actually startled—even dismayed, or perhaps troubled, or thrilled—by the fact that God became man? Or is it just an abstraction? Did God really became man or is this just a dramatic way of describing His empathy for us? God becoming man would be quite a miracle, after all.
The Triune God entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ. That was a caring intervention! It confirms in the most powerful possible way, the first part of my compelling story: God’s creating love. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). And “in this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might have life through Him (1 John 4:9).
This love, demonstrated through the concrete reality of God’s caring intervention, affects every moment of our lives. Our response to that love and intervention will determine our circumstances in eternity.
This is why, in the liturgy, Catholic Christians repeat the words of the Nicene Creed—and we bow as we say them, in awe at God’s loving condescension:
For us men and for our salvation He [Jesus Christ] came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.¹
God’s caring intervention is among the reasons The Virgin Mary is held in such esteem by Catholic Christians. Her flesh robed the Incarnate Christ!² She is part of the compelling story of the intervention.
As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us.” There is that word again: abstraction; without concrete reality. In the words of poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Mary is “her who gave God’s infinity . . . infancy.”³
The Continuing Story
So what is my story, so far? God’s creating love. What is not God need not exist. Yet by His desire, we do.
As a result of God’s caring intervention, described in this present post—God became man; one of us. God could have remained aloof, outside His creation, but he didn’t. He intervened in the most personal way possible to set right what we put wrong.
How does this story end? I invite you to read on, click here, because Christ is still with us and will be until the end of the age, “the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20). He is with us, not abstractly, apart from concrete realities, but constantly present in The Eucharist—the source and summit of the Christian life.
² Even if we ignore her saying “Yes” to God (Luke 1:26-38), or her responsibility, with St. Joseph, to parent the Son of God, or her constancy of faith in suffering at her Son’s brutal crucifixion (John 19:25), Christ was given His flesh by Mary. The flesh He bears, even now, in Heaven—with His nail scarred hands and feet, and wounded side—was Mary’s. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, called Mary “the ‘holy earth’ from which Christ was formed as man” (Magnificat, August 5, 2016).
³ G.K. Chesterton was quoted in Magnificat, January 2015 issue (published in Yonkers, NY). His quotation is from explanatory text before the liturgy for The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, which is celebrated each January 1 as a reminder of Mary’s role.
Gerard Manley Hopkin’s thought is only a brief excerpt from his lovely and much longer poem, “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe.” Fr. Hopkins’ thought appears in the following context—which further emphasizes that one of the roles of Our Lord’s Mother is to prevent Christ’s Incarnation from ever seeming abstract to us:
. . . Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race . . .
To say more about The Blessed Virgin Mary is beyond the scope of this post, but it is a topic that, through misunderstandings, has needlessly divided Christians for far too long.