By: Christopher West
Catholics are often accused of being unfamiliar with the Bible. That’s probably true in some cases. But I’d like to level a different criticism against us. I think often times we are overly familiar with the Bible. We’ve heard various Scripture passages so many times they lose their significance. Picture the following scenario. It’s Advent. The whole Church is preparing for Christmas. Over the next several weeks we are sure to hear that famous passage from John’s Gospel dozens of times: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
Hold on. Did you hear that, I mean, really hear it? It’s become all too familiar. It’s much easier to allow the familiarity of certain biblical proclamations to excuse us from pondering what they actually mean and imply. A God in the flesh!? How are we to let the implications of such a stunning truth sink in? As I’ve written before, a phantom deity is much more tenable and much more becoming than a God who wore diapers, a God in the flesh.
The Wonder of Birth
I had an experience recently that brought the astounding reality of the Incarnation home to me in a big way. My third son and fourth child, Isaac Joseph, was born. It wasn’t only Isaac’s birth that struck me. That, of course, was amazing. But right after his birth, the midwife pointed out something else that sent me reeling. Let me warn you that I’m about to get earthy. There’s a definite point to it, but the squeamish might want to skip to the last few paragraphs.
As the midwife was examining the placenta, she very casually opened up this bloodied membrane, pointed inside and said, “Here’s where Isaac lived for nine months.” My brain couldn’t quite take it in. The whole experience of pregnancy, birth, and then breast-feeding is an “in your face” reminder that we are mammals. We’re more than mammals, of course. We’re also endowed with an immortal soul. We’re “spiritualized mammals,” or “mammalized spirits,” if you will.
The Awe of the Incarnation
All of this was striking me in a dramatic way. But pondering the mystery of the union of matter and spirit in my newborn son was only the half of it. It hit me like a ton of bricks while I was gazing wide-eyed and jaw-dropped into this precious mammalian “sac of life” — “In the fullness of time, God sent his son born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). I believe, or at least I claim to believe, that the Most High God lived for nine months in a bloody mammalian sac like this. WHAT?!
This may sound strange to some, but right there as the midwife was holding this membrane open and all of the above was flooding my mind and heart, I felt like the curtain to the holy of holies (the most sacred space of worship for ancient Jews, was thought to be the very presence of God on Earth) had just been pulled back. I was gazing into the tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Almighty. This is what we believe, that a woman’s womb became the earthly dwelling place of the most high God. God took on our nature and entered our earthly, “mammalian” dwelling place, so that we could take on his nature and enter his heavenly, divine dwelling place.
We gave Jesus our nature and he gave us his. Quoting from St. Athanasius, the Catechism puts it this way: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (CCC, 460). In a stable in Bethlehem of Judea, two thousand years ago, a human person gave birth to a divine person. Again this Christmas the readings of the liturgy will proclaim to us this “good news of great joy.” Perhaps what I shared above will help nudge you out of the “oh-so-familiar” mode we can be in when we hear the Christmas story repeated this year. For me, as Isaac Joseph’s proud father, it was more than a nudge. It was a jolt.