Some Paradoxes and Mysteries of the Incarnation

122513In the ancient Church, and until rather recently, we genuflected at the two references to the incarnation in the Mass: at the Creed and at the Last Gospel (John 1). Why did we do this? It was explained to me that the mystery was so deep that one could only fall in silent reverence.

There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the incarnation. As mysteries they cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and we bow today at the mention of the incarnation in the creed for it is a deep mystery.

As we celebrate Christmas I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little of them as possible, just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words, not common with me, is in reverence to the mystery and also to invite your own reflection.

  1. The Infinite One becomes an infant.
  2. An antiphon for the Christmas season says, How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
  3. An old Latin Carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio – (Alpha and Omega, sitting in mommy’s lap).
  4. He who looks down on all creation looks up to see his mother. The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem….ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy to recognize the face of your mother with a smile….For you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die, and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
  5. He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness.
  6. He to whom all things in heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
  7. He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice, Scripture says, The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty….The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness …The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29). Yet, this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
  8. His infant hand squeezes his mother’s finger, as infants do. From that same hand, the universe tumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
  9. He who holds all creation together in himself (Col 1:17) is now held by his mother.
  10. He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
  11. He who is our sustainer and our food, is now hungry and fed by his mother.
  12. Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss. (Christina Rosetti “Ere the Bleak Mid Winter”).

Each of these is meant to be a meditation on the great mystery of the Incarnation. Please add to this list!

Remember the word paradox means something that defies intuition or the common way of thinking. It unsettles or startles us to make us think more deeply. It comes from the Greek: para- + dokein. Para usually meaning “beside, off to the side,” sometimes “above,” and dokein meaning “to think or seem.” Hence a paradox is something off to the side of the usual way of seeing things or thinking about them. If you are going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox, for God’s ways and thinking often defy and confound human ways and thinking. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform with worldly expectations.

This Christmas consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember too, mysteries are to be lived more than solved. Reverence is more proper to mystery than excessive curiosity. Here, more is learned in silence than by many words.

16 Replies to “Some Paradoxes and Mysteries of the Incarnation”

  1. ‘She…wrapped HIM in swaddling clothes.’ What a paradox! What kind of Love of the One who left the heavens to dwell for a little while here on earth. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the atheist and other non believers in JESUS cannot believe in GOD. They cannot accept The Omnipotent One becoming a worthless (in today’s standards) and insignificant baby. My goodness, as a grandfather, I am strengthened as I hug my little boy. That’s it, we ought to hug this Infant Jesus so that we will become strong in heart, mind, soul and spirit. Thank YOU, LORD JESUS that YOU came to this world. We terribly are in need of YOU. YHWH SHAMMAH.

    Thank you, Monsignor for this article. It led me to a differ meditation.

  2. God is mysterious and in this way, attractive to us. God calls us to love Him and attracts us to this loving. There is a good purpose to this mystery: invitation and calling and fulfilling.

    1. “Once more in meditation, prayer and song, we have recalled Jesus’s journey along the way of the cross: a journey seemingly hopeless, yet one that changed human life and history, and opened the way to “new heavens and a new earth” (cf. Rev 21:1). Especially today, Good Friday, the Church commemorates with deep spiritual union the death of the Son of God on the cross; in his cross she sees the tree of life, which blossoms in new hope.” – Pope Benedict XVI

      How can you ‘see’ and yet unable to explain this? Shouldn’t you have the ability to explain what you ‘see’?

      And the paradox is:

      Without the Tree of the Cross, there is no redemption.
      Without the Tree of the Cross, the gates of heaven will not open.
      Without the Tree of the Cross, there is no resurrection.

      The Tree of the Cross is the Tree of Life….This theology is coming soon.

  3. Thank-you for your excellent article!

    Jesus,the great divine mercy of God, on a mission of mercy, begining as an infant.

  4. By God’s power, though a man, Adam, was created first and then from him a woman came forth, Eve, so salvation was made possible when a sinless woman was born first, and brought forth a sinless man, who was God, Himself.

  5. I think this is ok:

    The Beatific Vision slept in Mary’s arms.

    Good list, Monsignor.

  6. For me one of the paradoxes of Christmas is that it has never historically been seen by the Church as being as important a feast as Easter. Easter is the greatest of the feasts of the Liturgical Year, and I would never wish to challenge the long history of its observance as the greatest day of the year, greater even than Christmas. But I observed to a priest-friend this Christmas Eve that “We really seem to feel in our hearts that Christmas is the more important feast, don’t we? And this is especially true of little kids.”

    He replied “Yes, Christmas is more attuned to our secular culture, to the receiving of material things as gifts.” I wanted to answer him, “No, no . . .” but I could not think of why it had suddenly and dramatically struck me that he was wrong. I now see why he was wrong, and that he was profoundly wrong. For most of us, in our heart of hearts, Christmas seems more important. It is so because it celebrates an historical event, a fact–not a myth, not a pious wish–but the following fact: at a moment in time, God became a helpless little baby. This is so much more natural a thing for us to see and to wonder at, so much happier a thing to meditate upon, than the disappearance of a God-man through a wall after He had eaten and drunk with his disciples. Jesus proved Who He was by appearing after his Resurrection and eating and drinking, by conversing on the road to Emmaus (nowhere), by showing his wounds to Doubting Thomas, by leaving a Cloud of Witness behind to testify to these realities. But first He became a helpless newborn baby. The Church bows before these realities, and she rightly considers the Resurrection the great event of all of history, but for most of us, the little baby . . .

    Christian Faith grows deeper through Theology but also through a right understanding of Anthropology. For Theology, the Resurrection is the greatest event. For ordinary Christians, as we can look at them through the lens of a proper Christian Anthropology, it is Christmas that captures their hearts. And it is this capturing of people that constitutes God’s great action in the world.

  7. 13. He who was, is and forever shall be.
    14. He whom death could not silence.
    15. He whom the grave could not hold.

  8. I have been made to understand to its depth, ‘for nothing is impossible to G_d.’ (Lk 1:37). Before G_d’s revelation e.g. God is not man or cannot be man, and a man who can suffer and die (stumbling block for Jews; foolishness to the gentiles), etc.
    For every of what we think be a conundrum we can pose to G_d, he has an infinite number of solutions to every single one of them. This is the way I understand He does it, with ‘and’.
    Therefore the new born Babe is God and man, Son of G_d and Son of man; his Mother: Virgin and Mother; Mother of G_d; St. Joseph true (and truer than other natural) father (not in the normal manner) and Lord, etc.

  9. It strikes me as paradoxical that Psalm 42/43, which speaks of God’s light as that which can bring the worshiper forth from the affliction of the enemy, and the Last Gospel, which speaks of the light that shines in darkness, have both been excised from the Church’s normative daily liturgy (these, ironically, in a revision process that, paradoxically in itself, was presumably meant to make the Mass more “scriptural” and “relevant”); and yet we wonder — or, worse, we don’t wonder — why the enemy and darkness encroach upon the Church.

    (Please, Monsignor, forgive the gripe, which I offer up in prayer along with my sins; and accept my thanks for your meditation.)

  10. Here’s a paradox I’m wondering about: “… Even if you do not commit adultery, you have become a lawbreaker if you commit murder.” James 2:11. We normally use as an excuse “it’s not like I committed murder or killed anyone” to lesson the gravity of our mistakes by taking it to the extreme which we normally think of it being murder. Maybe taking it to the next level would be to say “it’s not like I committed adultery.” I hadn’t been able to make sense of this verse until reading about these paradoxes, and I think this verse in James has something to do with not having other gods before our God Almighty and Jesus triumph over death, but thinking about it this way vanishes the paradox completely.

  11. Sent with all of our Christmas cards.

    First, the humble request:

    Next, the humble permission:
    “Let it be as you said…”
    Into the Virgin’s womb the Divine Child becomes flesh. Two natures, one Divine Person…
    The Obedient One: the Love-Child of the Spirit.
    Mysterious: “The Spirit goes where it wills…” Yet, …the humble request.

    From: Divine Secrets ©, Bill Thompson, 2013

  12. Bethlehem means “the house of bread” (in Hebrew), a symbol written into history of Jesus the bread of life. But now Bethlehem is mostly an Arabic city, and as I know from spending five years in an Arabic country , “lehem” means meat or flesh. Linguistically, demographically,,bread has become flesh, a symbol written into history of the mystery of Transubstantiation.

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