CREEDS Retreat Conference I: Advent and the Incarnation of Christ

Readings:  Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 3:1-7

Godspell:  “Prepare Ye” and “Save the People”

One of the single greatest mysteries of our faith is the Incarnation of Christ.  When you stop to think about it, who are we that the Author of all Life should take on our own corrupt and broken form and become one of us?  It has been called the “marvelous exchange:” God became human so that humans could become more like God.  When I was in seminary, it was explained to us by a simple, yet divinely complex rule: Whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.  So God assumed our human nature, taking on all of our frailty and weakness, all of our sorrows and frustrations, all of the things that make being human difficult at times.  As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it, he became “one like us in all things but sin.”

This belief in the doctrine of the Incarnation is essential for our Catholic faith, even our Christian religion.  One cannot not believe in the Incarnation and call oneself Christian.  It’s part of our Creed: “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  This doctrine is so important, so holy to us, that at the mention of it in the creed, we are instructed to bow during those words, and on Christmas, we are called to genuflect at that time.  There is always a reason for any movement in the Liturgy, and the reason for our bowing or genuflecting is that the taking on of our flesh by our God is an occasion of extreme grace, unparalleled in any religion in the world.  If the Incarnation had not taken place, there never would have been a Cross and Resurrection.  First things are always first!

And so it seems that it’s appropriate as we being our reflections on Matthew’s Gospel to begin with the Incarnation.  It’s even more appropriate that we do that during this season of Advent, whose very name means “coming.”  During Advent, we begin this wonderful period of waiting with the cry of St. John the Baptist,

“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.’”

And the movie and play Godspell famously does this with the wonderful refrain “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”  You notice in the movie that this song accompanied the liturgical action of the players being baptized by the Baptist.  Their dancing after pledging repentance of the sins of their past life signifies the joy that we all share being on the precipice of something new this Advent.  They received the forerunner of our sacramental Baptism by the one who was the forerunner of Christ.  This baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins like ours, but unlike ours, did not convey the Holy Spirit.  That would come later, after the death and Resurrection of Christ.  He had to return to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit.

But, as the song suggests, that baptism was essential to prepare the way for Christ.  The Benedictus, the Gospel canticle from the Church’s Morning Prayer, which is based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke, speaks of that baptism and the significance of the Baptist’s ministry:  “You my child will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before him to prepare his way.  To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  Indeed, if our sins had never been forgiven, we would know nothing of salvation, indeed there really would be no salvation.  But that baptism of St. John literally prepared the way of the Lord by helping the people to know that God was doing something significant among them.  That was the reason for them dancing and splashing around in all that water: they too were on the precipice of something new, something incredibly, amazingly, wonderfully new.

Now in Matthew’s Gospel, we have an infancy narrative – a story of the birth of Christ.  “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about,” the Gospel begins.  Mary is found with child through the Holy Spirit, and Joseph doesn’t know what to believe.  But in Matthew, Joseph is the one who gets a visit from an angel, not Mary.  And he is the first one to hear a key phrase in Matthew’s Gospel: “do not be afraid” – “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”  Fear, for Matthew, is the cardinal sin, because it is fear that keeps us from responding in love to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Apparently Mary had no such fear, because the beginning of the Gospel “finds” her already with child through the Holy Spirit.  The child is born to the couple and at the instruction of the angel, he is named Jesus, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In the movie, there is no infancy.  Christ comes at the end of John’s baptism sequence, and instructs John to baptize him because, as Jesus tells him, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  As he is baptized, Jesus sings, “God save the people,” a prayer that is of course already being accomplished as he speaks.  The play seems to be a bit more pessimistic than the actual Gospel, because Jesus practically pleads for God’s mercy on his people, implying a relationship that was not nearly as close as the Gospels proclaim and our faith believes.  This is one of the little grains of salt we need to take from the movie; in fact it does seem to be an expression of the author’s take on the Jesus event.  So I’d just say don’t take Godspell as Gospel, if you know what I mean!

And so the advent and Incarnation narratives give us some pause in these Advent days.  We have the opportunity to think about our own birth, or rebirth, in faith.  We get to make the paths straight and the way smooth for the coming of our Lord yet again.  Maybe these days find us struggling to come to a new place in our faith, a higher stage, a bold move.  We might tremble a bit at where God seems to be leading us through our study of Scripture.  But Matthew begs us to hear those all-important words – “be not afraid” – be not afraid to go where God and Scripture lead you.  Be not afraid to take the next step.  Be not afraid to ascend to that higher place God longs for you to be in right now.