Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 9, 2009
Jesus Christ: Word of God Made Flesh
Archbishop Smith's talk to the first session of Nothing More Beautiful
"There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel; there is nothing more beautiful than to know Jesus Christ and to tell others of our friendship with him." Welcome to our second year of Nothing More Beautiful.
The heart of the Christian life is a transformative encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. This year, the second of our journey, we shall open our hearts and minds, indeed our entire lives, to the beauty and mystery of Jesus Christ and seek to encounter him anew.
Last year we prepared for this by exploring the mystery of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God and called to a new life in Christ. As we said at the very start, "Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life." Who am I? Where do I belong? Where am I going? What does my life mean?
We have seen some dimensions of the question; now, with joy, we turn to the answer: Jesus Christ. Who is he? What has he accomplished? Why does the Church announce with such boldness that he, and only he, is the answer to the question that is every human life? What difference does Jesus make to me?
Indeed, what difference does he make to all of humanity and to human history? These questions signal something of what we shall explore this year in Nothing More Beautiful.
Tonight we begin by reflecting upon the wonder of the Incarnation, the Son of God becoming a human being, one of us. As St. John puts it famously in the Prologue to his Gospel, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
When we speak of this mystery, we are touching upon the central and distinguishing feature of the Christian religion (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 463). At the heart of our faith is the wonder of God becoming a human being. We proclaim our belief in this mystery every time we profess our faith together. Recall the words from the Nicene Creed:
"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man."
At those last words we typically make a small bow, or kneel during their recitation at the Mass of Christmas; liturgical gestures which express the bowing of our hearts before this great mystery of God "bowing" down and becoming one of us. The word "incarnation" is from the Latin verb "incarnare" which means, literally, to enflesh, to embody. It expresses the truth that the Son of God took to himself our human nature.
The great question that spontaneously arises within the heart and mind as we ponder the mystery of the Incarnation is "Why? Why did God become a human being?" Answering this question is the focus of our reflections this evening.
WHY HAS GOD BECOME ONE WITH US IN CHRIST?
The short answer to the question is given in the Creed itself: "for us and for our salvation." Two fundamental motives are indicated here. God has become one of us in Christ "for us." Second, he has sent his Son to assume our human nature "for our salvation."
Our reflection this evening will unfold on the basis of these two foundational reasons for the Incarnation.
First, I will consider what it means to say the Son of God came from heaven "for us" and then, what is meant by "for our salvation." Reflection upon the "for us" will be based on the Prologue to the Gospel of John, and consideration of the "for our salvation" will take as its starting point the first chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians.
The most sublime expression of the mystery of the Incarnation given in Scripture is found in the Gospel of St. John, in what is referred to as the Prologue to his Gospel. Let's listen to it now.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . .
"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, 'This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me."')
"From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1.1-5, 9-18.).
Here St. John is speaking of One who was in existence before the dawn of creation, who was with God, who actually is God. This One has come to dwell among us, in order to reveal the Father, to make us children of God and to be light in our darkness. This he has done "for us."
When we say, "for us," we mean "for our sake." This immediately takes us back to the very first session of Nothing More Beautiful, when we spoke of what it means to be created "in the image and likeness of God."
At that time, we said that this phrase expresses the wonderful truth that, among all that God had fashioned, the human being is the only creature that God willed "for its own sake." We were created by God for the sole purpose of a relationship of covenant love with him.
Having created us "for our own sake," now God comes to us in the Incarnation "for our own sake," "for us." In other words, the Incarnation is, first and foremost, a mystery of love, God's love for us. Moved by his love, God comes in the Incarnation to reveal himself to us, to make himself known to us and invite a response of answering love.
One who loves wants to be known by the beloved and will therefore make himself known. One who loves longs to give himself to the beloved and desires a response of love in return. This is what God is doing in the Incarnation, through the One whom St. John calls the Word and the Son; the Word who was with God, who is God, and the Son, who is God, the only Son who is "close to the Father's heart."
To explore this further, let us now consider each of these titles in turn. To aid in understanding I will place each title very briefly against the backdrop of relevant Old Testament doctrine.
THE SON, WHO IS "CLOSE TO THE FATHER'S HEART"
In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Hebrews 1.1-2).
God's self-revelation in love happened gradually, in stages, throughout the course of history until he spoke to us perfectly and definitively in his Son. In the light of the mystery of Jesus Christ the Church has looked back over the writings of the Old Testament, and in a special way to those of the prophets, and discovered many moments in which God made himself known to his people, and has found there foreshadowings of what was being held in store for us in Christ.
They therefore give us important insights into the mystery of our Lord. For our purposes tonight I want to focus briefly on one prophecy, which was made by Moses and is recorded in the 18th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy.
"A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. . . . I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him" (Deuteronomy 18.15, 18).
"A PROPHET LIKE ME"
Pope Benedict explains the significance of this in the introductory remarks to his book Jesus of Nazareth (cf. pp. 1-8). Moses, he recalls, was unique among the prophets. That uniqueness consisted in the fact that he spoke personally with God, in very close intimacy. He was with God in the cloud on the top of Mount Sinai, and received the Ten Commandments directly from God.
No one in the history of the chosen people had dwelt in such intimacy with God. The Ten Commandments were honoured as the Word of God because they had been carried to the people by someone they knew had received them directly from God out of his own communion of friendship with the Almighty.
This close intimacy with God was the reason the people accepted and honoured Moses as the mediator of the revelation God willed to communicate to his people. But this intimacy enjoyed by Moses had its limits. When at one point Moses asked to see the face of God, God allowed him to see only his back (cf. Exodus 33.18-23).
God's revelation, then, was not yet complete. For this the people, the world, needed to wait for a prophet "like Moses" to bring this revelation to completion, someone to show the world the face of God.
With this as background consider again the words of St. John's Prologue, which speaks of the Son as "close to the Father's heart." He is "like Moses" insofar as he, too, will carry revelation to the people from the communion of the intimacy he enjoys with God.
However, he is infinitely unlike Moses, infinitely greater than Moses, because the intimacy he enjoys with the Father is that not of a friend but of a Son. He is not a creature standing before his Creator; he is the Son who shares the same divine nature as the Father. He and his Father are each God. The Son pre-exists Moses, he pre-exists all of creation, dwelling in the bosom of the Father.
This communion is affirmed by Jesus himself when he says that he and the Father are one (cf. John 10.30), and that to see him is to see the Father (cf. John 14.9). From this communion he speaks what he receives from the Father and makes it known to us (cf. John 17.8).
He comes to us and speaks the Father's word so that we might be drawn into the very unity that he enjoys with the Father (cf. John 17.11, 22-23). Jesus is the Son sent from the Father not only to reveal the Father but also to draw us to union with himself, the only Son, so that, in him, we might become the sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
THE WORD MADE FLESH
Now, let's turn to the second title, the "Word made flesh." The familiar Latin rendering is Verbum caro factum est.
In 1994 I made a trip to the Holy Land. Part of that journey was a visit to Nazareth, the birthplace of Mary and the town where Jesus grew up. This is the place where the angel Gabriel visited Mary and announced that she was to be the mother of the Saviour.
Keep in mind that when Mary gave her assent to this call from God, Jesus was conceived within her womb by the Holy Spirit. Over what Tradition indicates was the ancient home of Mary a large and beautiful basilica has been built. It is called the Church of the Annunciation.
I can still remember going down beneath the great Church to a small grotto, identified as Mary's ancient home. In the middle of the grotto is a small altar with an inscription carved in stone attached to the front of it. When I read it, I felt as if my heart stopped. It was quoting the Gospel of John, verbum caro factum est, the Word was made flesh, but it did so with a twist: Verbum caro hic factum est: the Word was made flesh here.
This was the place where it all began. This was the location where God entered history and changed it forever. This was where God entered human history, that is to say, my history and yours, the history of every human being, by becoming one like us in every way except sin.
The two important words here are, obviously, "Word" and "flesh". Behind John's use of the term "Word" is the ancient biblical doctrine of God's Word as both power and light (Cf. R. Schnackenburg, Jesus in the Gospels: A Biblical Christology, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995: 283-294).
The Word of God is a creative power. Through the Word, John says, all things came into being. In the background here is the first creation account of the Book of Genesis. Again and again Genesis repeats the phrasing: "And God said, . . . and it was . . .".
God speaks his Word, and something happens: creation comes into being. Jesus is this Word incarnate. This is why his words were infused with such power. When Jesus spoke, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, the lame could walk, the mute could speak, sins were forgiven and even the dead were raised to life.
In the Old Testament, God's Word is also light for God's people. This particular tradition appears often in the Psalms, such as in Psalm 119: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119.105).
Hence we hear Jesus say of himself: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (John 8.12). In his Prologue St. John is proclaiming that this Word, the all-powerful and enlightening Word of God, has become "flesh."
This use of this word - "flesh" - underscores that the Word of God has assumed the full reality of our human nature. He has truly become flesh and blood. He does not just appear to be human. He has assumed to himself the full reality of our human nature, complete with its weakness and limits, like us in all things but sin.
We know from what was said a minute ago that Jesus, as Son, speaks to us from his communion with the Father. Now we realize that, because he is the Word made flesh, he also speaks to us from his communion with human nature.
He knows the Father's will because he is the only Son, close to the Father's heart, and he knows us from inside out. He has lived our human life fully. From this mysterious union of divine Word and human nature arises the penetrating insight that Jesus exhibited into the lives of the people he met.
Think, for example, of his encounters with the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark, and in the Gospel of John with Nathaniel or the Samaritan woman. Meeting them and seeing them was enough for Jesus to know them fully. Jesus knows exactly what to say to us, to our condition, in order to enlighten our lives and lead us home to the Father.
"FOR OUR SALVATION"
This leads us to the second reason for the Incarnation. The Son of God became man "for our salvation." In order to bring us home to the Father, Jesus had to save us from the sin that caused the separation from God in the first place.
So now let us consider what we mean by salvation and how God has accomplished it in virtue of the Incarnation.
Salvation is described beautifully in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In the opening chapter of this epistle St. Paul announces the mystery of God's saving plan revealed in Christ. It is the mystery, he says, of reconciliation, of gathering all things into one, one with God and with one another, in Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 1.3-10). The Son of God has become one of us in order to save us by reconciliation.
Allow me to share with you a little story of something that happened to me a number of years ago. I have often used this event as an analogy for what God is doing in and for the world by sending us Jesus.
One day I was alone in a large church, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. All of a sudden I heard the voice of a little girl crying out "Daddy! Daddy!" I looked up and saw three little girls running into the church. They ranged in age from seven to about three, and they were looking for their Daddy.
I happened to know their father, who did some work at the Church. He had brought his daughters with him that day and somehow they had become separated from him. They were pretty frightened and were on the verge of tears. They needed to find their Daddy.
So I took them by the hand and led them to the office nearby where their father was working. I still remember the look on their faces when they found their father again. All the fear vanished. They were reunited with their Daddy and all was well again.
In the act of sin, humanity had become separated from God and could not find the way back. The result was fear, sadness and loss of direction. Jesus is the one who has come to us and taken us by the hand to lead us back to the Father and restore the human race to joy and hope. He has done this in virtue of the Incarnation.
In Jesus, God and humanity say, "yes" to one another. To God's offer of love, Adam and Eve had said no, causing the separation. Now, God's "yes" to us, which he had never withdrawn, is spoken to the world anew by Jesus the Son, the Word, and it meets a perfect human "yes" in the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh.
God's acceptance of this "yes" was signalled by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which cancelled the effects of the "no" spoken by our first parents. This means that, in Jesus Christ, the longed for and divinely willed reconciliation, the restoration of unity between God and the human race, has been accomplished.
Jesus is himself God and man reconciled. He is, in himself, the new and everlasting covenant. Therefore, he is the one and only mediator between God and the human race. As St. Paul would say in 2 Corinthians, all of God's promises find their "yes" in Christ, and the Amen that humanity is called to give to the plan of God finds expression in the "yes" of Christ to the Father (cf. 2 Corinthians 1.19-20).
What this means for us and the world is that, if we wish to live in union with God and thus with one another, if we wish salvation, it can only happen by the grace of union with Jesus Christ. When we live from this grace, we become the sons and daughters of God our Father. Jesus is the one and only Son of God. When we live in union with him, we become by adoption what he is by nature and we taste salvation.
To conclude, let us return to what was said at the beginning of this evening's reflections and, indeed, at the initiation last year of Nothing More Beautiful: Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.
Through meditation upon the mystery of the Incarnation, we understand why this is so.
As Son and Word, he is the perfect revelation of the truth concerning God. As Word made flesh, the Son of God incarnate, he is the perfect revelation of the full truth of the human being.
In Jesus we see revealed the inexpressible love of God for each and every human being. In him is made manifest the plan of God to save us and draw us to himself in a communion of love. This love bestows our dignity and enlightens our destiny.
The perfect response of Jesus the man to this love, to the Father's saving will, unveils the very essence of human life and how this life is fully lived. All of our natural questions about life, its meaning and purpose find their perfect answer in Jesus Christ (cf. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).
But, of course, Jesus is more than an answer to a question. He is our light and our life, because he, and only he, is the Word made flesh, "for us and for our salvation."
Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus saves us! No one else can. This is why we need Jesus Christ. This is why the world needs him. And this is why there is absolutely nothing more beautiful than knowing him and telling others of our friendship with him.
Richard W. Smith
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.