A Meditation on The Incarnation
For Advent & Christmas 2009
By The Website Team – Happy Christmas!
Readers of this website know that Advent is the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus. But how seriously do we take the yearly celebration of that momentous event? The liturgy focuses particularly on Mary, to whom the Second Vatican Council devoted an important chapter in its Constitution on The Church. Theologians place her at the centre of the life of the Church as the epitome of lay holiness.
But what of The Incarnation itself? Almost impossible to comprehend—the first Christmas was the time when Jesus, Son of God, part of the Godhead himself, born of Mary, became man. Incarnation is emphasized because of the state of poor understanding in which we find ourselves some two millennia later. An example comes from the diocese from which members of the team recently moved. As in many another dioceses, parishes are being merged because of the shortage of priests. Some well-informed parishioners from the two merging parishes asked the bishop that their newly merged parish be named “The Parish of the Incarnation”. Very biblical and reasonable you may think, but the bishop persuaded the group to think again. Most ordinary Catholics, he suggested would not know what Incarnation meant.
The season of Advent means little in the world today. Today’s world, well before Advent, prepares for a secular Winter Festival. Perhaps the most valuable part for most people is the gathering of the family. Even in the Christian Western half of the Church, Advent tends to be underplayed.
Have we lost our way?
All we like sheep have gone astray was one of the Advent, Christmas and Easter biblical texts to which Handel set his great oratorio Messiah. A remarkable book Jesus before Christianity by the senior Dominican Albert Nolan suggests that Christianity began losing its way when it began to ape the customs and power structure of Emperor Constantine. The book’s title alone is startling. Jesus before Christianity insists that you think back to the probable beginning of mankind some 40,000 years before the incarnation! But Fr. Nolan is also concerned with injustice and the de facto loss of much of Christ’s message. He is not alone in worrying about the effect of Christianity becoming the religion of The Roman Empire – or of any other human power structure.
Near the end of his life the great Austrian Cardinal Franz König lectured at a Tablet Open Day. His lecture was titled The Pull of God in a Godless Age. More than once, König spoke of his concern at the retention of so much of the attitude of the Roman empire within the Catholic Church. With the coming of the Council he welcomed the beginnings of these attitudes’ demise. König said “The traces of Constantine’s Church would seem to be fading and a second turning point-point as fundamental as the Constantinian one confronts us.”
König was one of the great men who influenced and propagated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. There is ample evidence today that Church reform is always needed. It was almost the season of Advent in 1958, when Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope and became John XXIII. On the 25th January 1959, he called a general Council of the Catholic Church. As this is written, we are in the Advent of the fiftieth anniversary of that great event, from which John hoped that reform and greater inclusiveness would steadily develop.
Pope John and His Council
John was an example of individual holiness in the Church. Widely experienced, he knew the need for reform in the Church, but the actual word reform was anathema in an organization which had come to regard itself as a changeless and ‘Perfect Society’. He knew both Church and people’s needs. He called the Council to try to meet those needs. He avoided the term reform, but used renewal, or aggiornamento – a bringing up to date. He surprised everybody by using the week of Christian Unity to make his announcement. He hoped for early renewal in the Roman Catholic Church, but also hoped to lay the foundations for a perhaps more distant unity among all Christians. Preparing for the Council, he used homely phrases like opening windows, and that we are not museum-keepers but gardeners to help things grow. He saw the Council as both urgent and essential. Blessed Pope John’s inspiration, which created a worldwide surge of hope, was completed by his successor Pope Paul VI. But a small minority—mainly in the Roman Curia—was opposed to the Council from its very announcement 50 years ago. Unfortunately some remain opposed.
Change can be unwelcome for many reasons, but when opening The Second Vatican Council, Pope John set a tone which reflected his own pious and relatively conservative nature. This should have allayed any fears and commanded universal respect. His speech had contained:
The greatest concern of the ecumenical Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more effectively. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, body and soul. And since man is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to move steadily towards heaven... it is necessary that the Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of the truth inherited from the fathers. But at the same time, she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life in the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate. … The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, but the way in which it is presented is another.
That principle was maintained throughout and can be seen in the Council Documents, but it did not avert the minority opposition. Bishop Christopher Butler OSB wrote about this both publicly and very explicitly in his private correspondence. Those of us who vividly remember Vatican II and value it are convinced with, for example, König, Hurley and Butler that the Christian Church would lose its relevance, without a full return to its basic message.
What is the message to which Advent and Christmas is leading?
In essence the message is to become followers of Christ.
We belong—in conscience—to an organization of the People of God, which we call the Church. We have a duty to examine ourselves, and to examine the ‘Institutional Church’. If either is lacking we have a duty to speak. The purpose of the Church—which is us—is to follow Jesus, and to belong to that particular form of assembly which we judge—in conscience—will help us to follow him. Advent prepares us for the coming of Jesus and to do our duty in following him as best we may.
The tasks of Advent and Christmas are ongoing, in each of us, and in the Church.