In 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.
- The Infinite One becomes an infant.
- 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.
- An old Latin Carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio – (Alpha and Omega, sitting in mommy’s lap).
- 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.
- He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness.
- He to whom all things in heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
- 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.
- 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.
- He who holds all creation together in himself (Col 1:17) is now held by his mother.
- He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
- He who is our sustainer and our food, is now hungry and fed by his mother.
- 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.