In his Angelus address last Sunday, Pope Francis delivered a beautiful reflection on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—a dogmatic teaching that is unique and essential to the Christian religion. From the very first months of his papacy, he expressed his profound belief in the Incarnation as foundational to the Catholic faith. In a morning meditation at the Casa Santa Marta on June 1, 2013, he said, “That is the truth, that is the revelation of Jesus. That presence of Jesus Incarnate. That is the point.” Later that month, he tweeted: “Jesus didn’t save us with an idea. He humbled himself and became a man. The Word became Flesh.” In his homilies, speeches, and encyclicals, he never neglects the humanity of the Incarnate Lord. I dare say that the Pope’s Christology is Incarnational.
It is to be noted that the Pope’s faith in the Incarnation does not end in theory. Rather, through his humble, touching, and very human gestures, he shows the true meaning of the Incarnation of Jesus. After all, the Incarnation of Jesus has radical consequences in how one lives the Christian life; the love of Jesus who chose to be human in solidarity with sinful and broken humanity impels Christians to do the same.
In his classic Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola begins the Second Week with a Contemplation on the Incarnation (101-109). He depicts the Holy Trinity gazing on a world filled with people who are diverse, sinful, and in need of redemption. Ignatius’s image of God is not a deistic God who doesn’t care about what’s happening in the world—an impersonal God similar to the “god” of Aristotle and classical philosophy. Pope Francis also referred to this in Sunday’s Angelus address: “In reality, an abstract, distant god is more comfortable, one that doesn’t get himself involved in situations and who accepts a faith that is far from life, from problems, from society.” Ignatius describes God as one who “works the redemption of the human race,” and it is through the Second Person’s Incarnation that this redemption reaches humanity. Ours is a God who is involved in the world and in human and social realities.
The incarnational spirituality of St. Ignatius is also evident in a well-known aphorism derived from his spiritual insights: “Finding God in all things.” Fr. James Martin, in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, explains that this “Incarnational spirituality means believing that God can be found in the everyday events of our lives. God is not just out there. God is right here, too. If you’re looking for God, look around” (p. 8).
No doubt, the thinking and spirituality of the pope are heavily shaped by his Jesuit identity.
In Sunday’s Angelus address, commenting on the Gospel account Jesus’ rejection by the people of Nazareth—his very own hometown—Pope Francis eloquently explained the reason why he was rejected:
“In the end, why didn’t Jesus’s fellow villagers recognize and believe in Him? But why? What is the reason? In a few words, we can say that they did not accept the scandal of the Incarnation. They did not know this mystery of the Incarnation, but they did not accept the mystery: they did not know it. They did not know the reason and they thought it was scandalous that the immensity of God should be revealed in the smallness of our flesh, that the Son of God should be the son of a carpenter, that the divine should be hidden in the human, that God should inhabit a face, the words, the gestures of a simple man.”
By worldly standards, the Incarnation of Jesus—God assuming flesh—is truly scandalous. In the early Christological controversies, the idea of the Incarnation of Jesus was ridiculed by detractors and critics. For God to become fully human is absurd. St. Paul already encountered this problem when he bluntly proclaimed that Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23) In addition, some prevailing Greek philosophies during the era of the Hellenization of Christianity were dualistic and detested the material world. They believed that matter is inferior to the spiritual. Like Plato, they believed the goal of the soul was to escape the body. Considering this worldview, belief in the Incarnation of God seems crazy and irrational. However, challenging cultural assumptions is embedded in the genes of Christianity. Christianity’s flexibility lies in its ability to balance openness and criticality when in dialogue with philosophies and ideologies. The standard of Christianity is not to be found in the world, but in Christ alone.
In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis states that Jesus “was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter and the things of the world. Such unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel. Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship” (98). Why would God choose to be incarnated in the first place, if matter and human flesh are dirty and detestable, if the world is perceived as condemned? According to these worldviews, God becoming human in Jesus Christ is indeed scandalous.
In my own personal reflection, at the heart of the rejection of Jesus’ Incarnation is our failure to see Christ in others, especially in the marginalized and oppressed. As Francis puts it: “And then, the same thing happens to us like Jesus’s fellow villagers, we risk that when he passes by, we will not recognize him.” To borrow from St. Ignatius, Jesus’ “divinity hides itself” (SE 196). It takes an Incarnational spirituality to find God in all things, especially in the discarded of society.
To profess one’s belief in Incarnation while turning a blind eye to violations of human dignity is a contradiction. In Misericordiae Vultus, reflecting on Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:13-45), the pope illustrates this connection between faith in the Incarnation and concern for humanity: “In each of these ‘little ones,’ Christ himself is present. His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled… to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us. Let us not forget the words of Saint John of the Cross: ‘as we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love.’” (15) The effects of Christ’s Incarnation continue for he is incarnated among us, in our midst.
In the spirit of the Ignatian Year, let us pray for the grace to meet Jesus “in the normal: eyes open to God’s surprises, at His humble and hidden presence in daily life.” With that, like Pope Francis, we’ll see all things new in Christ.