Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

An “In the Flesh” Invitation

The first decoration that our family likes to display when preparing for the Advent and Christmas seasons is our creche. I am quite attached to our Fontanini Nativity set as it was a wedding gift from the parish that I was serving in the early 90’s. Since then, we have built up the collection and thus, we now have a small village to surround the central point of interest – the manager. The creche is in fact, one of the most recognizable symbols during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Sadly, many in our culture are opposed to this public display of religious devotion. I firmly believe though, they are scared because they have never considered the implications but intuitively know they exist.

St. Francis is credited with the first Nativity scene in 1250 at Greccio, Italy. He had worked all day and put together a living manager in a small cave. His goal was to refocus the town’s folk from the secularism and materialism that was creeping into this solemn celebration (sound familiar). As they gathered, some noticed that St. Francis was wrapped in ecstasy and suddenly, he was holding the Christ child. Within one hundred years, Nativity scenes were expected décor as part of the Advent and Christmas celebrations. I am sure many of you will be attending your local Christmas pageant sometime over the next week – if not this evening. But, for the Franciscans, the creche is much, much more than a seasonal decoration. Did you know that it is a common Franciscan tradition to keep a basic Nativity scene up all year round. Why? Because the Incarnation is central to  our Christian faith.

It is true that our greatest liturgical solemnity is the resurrection but really what does it celebrate? It not only celebrates that Jesus rose from the dead but He rose from the dead with His body. Thus, the Incarnation is vitally important to us because,

For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (CCC456)

What does this mean?

Yes, it means that Jesus “became like us in all ways but sin.” (Heb. 4:15). It means that he walked, talked, cried, laughed, and experienced the vast panoply of human emotions. Most importantly, it means that He came to redeem us, in our entirety – soul, mind and body. He sanctified our nature and with it all the operations proper to the human person (mind, body and spirit). He made holy the human experience. We should also remember that by taking on our flesh, He also sanctified all material creation. Once again, by His actions, He blesses creation and proclaims that it is good.

Many Catholics these days think that the body is a temporary state, of which, one day they will be free. Not so! Every Sunday in our profession of the Creed,

God’s creative, saving, and sanctifying action – culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting. (CCC 988)

Resurrection means we get our bodies back. We are not angels nor should we wish to be so (You will not get your wings when someone rings a bell). We forget that without our bodies we lack that which is essential to experience the world, each other and the Blessed Trinity itself. Angelic beings do not learn, all their knowledge was given to them at the moment of their creation. We on the other hand are designed to take in information through our bodily senses. Death does not mean an end to taking in information. It does mean that our bodies at the resurrection are glorified. Meaning, our senses and bodies are perfected.

We live in a world that is unhappy with(in) our own skin. As Catholics, we do believe in enhancing how God made us. This means that we assist in the natural qualities of the original design. But, we go beyond enhancing the natural qualities by changing them altogether, as if God made a mistake. I would rather be a blond! Why can’t I have curly hair? My feet are too big. I need to reduce my nose! My ears stick out too much. My teeth aren’t naturally white enough…And the complaints go on.

The Incarnation is a reminder that the body is good even with its imperfections and frailties. Jesus came to redeem us bodily by uniting us to Himself – body and soul:

He who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man (GS 22, quotes in RH 8.2).

God don’t make junk. He also doesn’t make mistakes. You are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Before you were knit in your mother’s womb, He knew you and called you by name (Jer. 1:5). We are precious in the eyes of the Lord (Ps. 116:15).

Many would say that God condescended Himself to save us by taking on our nature. Metaphysically that is true. But, it is no less true that He raised our nature and dignity to unspeakable heights because He loves wholly and completely. When we look into a mirror we should revel in the work of an artist. I mean really, which one of us would dare add to the landscape of Michaelagelo’s Sistine Chapel or a daffodil to Monet’s Water Lillies? Please! That would be absurd.

The Nativity is more than a Christmas decoration or a mystery that gives way to the glory of the resurrection. It is central to understanding our dignity and ourselves. We need to get comfortable in our bodies – it will be with us for eternity. I think that the creche could be a good remedy for all the psychological ills related to our bodies. It is also a reminder to all mankind that the material universe was not an after-thought but the glorious garden in which we will encounter the Living God.

My wife has always kept a Nativity up all year round. She sees it as a beautiful reminder that the God of heaven and earth loved humanity so much that He wanted to walk with us. As she passes by it every day in her curio cabinet, it reminds her that she is fearfully and wonderfully made. Our daughters also keep their own sets up in their rooms. I use it to remind them that God don’t make junk and if they don’t like what they see in the mirror they should first look in the manager. It offers a better reflection.

I pray that this Christmas the manager will be a source of meditation on our own humanity. I, of course, like saying that it is a study in the Theology of the Body. And, when the season comes to a close, maybe you will keep a small creche displayed. Maybe, you display it just as a reminder that the Incarnation was not Plan B but an “in the flesh” invitation to glory in His creation.

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