It’s a charming to consider that Jesus, like any son, carried the physical characteristics of his mother as well as some of her —and Joseph’s—mannerisms. The Incarnation is so wonderfully human, encouraging us to approach Him without fear. As we consider the beauty of the Nativity scene, it is profitable to ponder the meaning of the Incarnation for us and our families.
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The Incarnation defines all of human history. Jesus, born of Mary, reconciles God and Man in his Person and He takes all of humanity to Himself. When we are baptized into his Body, we are given the status of “sons in the Son.” We are in Christ and Christ is within us. Hence, from heaven, Mary gazes on us with the same love with which she gazed upon her Child in the manger. The Incarnation is the reconciliation of God and man and is the cause of our Christmas joy.
But if we are not careful, the Incarnation is easily misunderstood and misrepresented.
We may be secretly tempted to expect perfection in ourselves and others when we think of the Incarnation, the union of God and man. When a man and woman fall in love and marry, and do “everything right” as Catholics, they may feel entitled to a perfect marriage with perfect love. Even the children might be expected to be perfect, obedient, never needing discipline, but only in need of kindly direction. Similarly, our priests are expected to be perfect, with the implication that the Incarnation —God walking with us—should protect us from bad homilies and impatient and rude clergymen.
Reality, of course, quickly dashes these naïve expectations. We need not look beyond our immediate experiences. A marriage “made in heaven” is an illusion. Children can be aggressive in their misbehavior even at a very early age. And even little children know enough to criticize the homilies of priests on the drive home. So the pendulum swings in the direction of disappointment and discouragement.
As a consequence, in a season like Christmas with all its beauty and splendor, we might find ourselves forlorn at the lack of perfection in our society, in our families, in the Church —in us. When we gaze at the tender Nativity scene with all its humility and innocence, we may be embarrassed to feel a touch of melancholy, even bitterness. But such melancholy, along with our impatient demand for perfection, is misplaced and unreasonable. Expecting perfection this side of eternity because God walks with us is—not to put too fine a point on it —merely sentimental rubbish.
The holiness of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did not free them from the trials in life. Driven by fear for their lives from the murderous Herod, they escaped to Egypt. Mary and Joseph knew the anxiety of missing a child when Jesus was lost in the Temple. Jesus wept when He received the news that his friend Lazarus had died. Jesus was justly angry with the intransigence of the Pharisees and the abuse of the Temple. The ultimate horror was Calvary, where a sword of sorrow pierced the heart of Our Lady. Holiness does not mean one is immune from persecution and suffering, and negative emotions. But in suffering, we begin to see the real reason for the Incarnation.
There would be no need for a Savior if the world were perfect. Despite the best efforts of our modern social engineers —from the tyranny of socialism to the illusory salvation by the free market alone—we and our society will never be perfect. So we continue to suffer in flawed marriages, from eccentric and annoying (and sometimes truly evil) clergymen, with bad neighbors and our own profound if secret personal failures. If we were without sin there would be no need for the Incarnation.
On the other hand, the expectation of perfection in this life can easily result in another deformity: a malicious refusal to see imperfection and evil. We may be tempted to presume that Jesus is ready to reconfigure his life to our sinful ways, to accept us for “who we are.” Evelyn Waugh wrote nearly a century ago:
It is better to be narrow-minded—than to have no mind, to hold limited and rigid principles than none at all. That is the danger which faces so many people today—to have no considered opinions on any subject, to put up with what is wasteful and harmful with the excuse that there is ‘good in everything’—which in most cases means inability to distinguish between good and bad. [Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939]
Expecting Jesus to change his sacred design for virtuous living because we refuse to see evil in how we live is not only disrespectful, it is blasphemous. Jesus came into the world to show us the way to eternal life and to give us confidence in pursuing his way. He has given us an overall template or game plan for a life of virtue and happiness with his grace, with heaven as our final destiny. He challenges us to be perfect as his father in heaven is perfect (Mt 5:48). But He knows it will take a lifetime and into eternity for us to attain perfection. The fact of the Incarnation ultimately challenges us to struggle—with his grace—to reconfigure our lives to his Way.
And so Jesus, the Word made flesh, accompanies us throughout life with his sacraments, with his sacred “game plan.” We are born into and reconfigured in his grace by Baptism. Despite our repeated failures, He repairs and restores us time and again in the Sacrament of Penance. He feeds us and heals us in Holy Communion. He strengthens and enlightens us with the graces of Confirmation. He helps us govern our families and our Church in Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders. Finally, He prepares us for our final encounter with suffering and death with the Anointing of the Sick, Extreme Unction. All of this involves a magnificent and dramatic interplay between his tender graces and our (often resistant) free will.
At the moment, in this life, we are the problem. But we are not without hope because the Word was made flesh and will be forever the solution. If we courageously walk with Him with faith, true holiness and perfection will be ours for eternity.
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