Celebrating the incarnation of God

Published on 05 Dec 2019
A Christmas crib scene

Into the viper’s lair the young child puts his hand [1]. The prophet Isaiah pictures a friendly child, not appreciating the danger, rummaging in the nest of a deadly snake.  In Advent the incarnation is a focus for our prayer.  God comes towards us.  How do we receive him?  Is the friendly child born in the stable at Bethlehem putting himself in great danger?  His passion and death, after all, await him.  The Son of God reaches out to us in friendship. Are we serpents poised to bite his hand?

Isaiah chapter eleven is a vision of harmony. Creatures usually at odds live happily together in a ‘peaceable kingdom’ [2].  The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion-cub feed together with a little boy to lead them. The cow and the bear make friends [3].  Danger seems to have been abolished.  They do no hurt, no harm on all my holy mountain [4].  Old enmities among creatures come to an end. The infant brings peace to former adversaries.  The friendly child is surely perfectly safe when he reaches out to where the snake lurks?

Our preparation for the Christmas celebration of the incarnation of God is a confident renewal of our faith.  In Advent, we allow divine grace to amend our life.  We permit ourselves to be made worthy of the Lord’s promises.  Opening our repentant heart to the advent of the saviour, we let ourselves be purified and strengthened.  We renew our trust in God who is so friendly towards us.   There are obstacles, however, to acceptance of the incarnation.  Not everyone welcomes Jesus.  We ourselves have been inconsistent in our friendship with the Lord.  We have sometimes slithered away from him.  Our lair has not always been a place of prayer and holiness. There has been neglect of Christ and his teaching.  His truth has been resisted with some stubbornness. In Advent, however, not only is there renewed gratitude for God’s friendliness towards us but also a reinvigorating of our friendship with God.

If the incarnation can be compared to a child rashly exploring a dangerous nest, we very much desire to be no danger to God as he approaches us in humanity and with affection.  We long, in fact, for our heart to be a place of safety for the Word made flesh. If God is taking a risk in coming into the world, then we are determined not to be the viper who would do him harm.  The threat to the child will not be from us, we are resolved.  We are friends of Jesus.  Our faith is also in his wonderful effect on all who come truly to know him.  Jesus impacts on lives in ways which bring harmony and reconciliation, which abolish old quarrels and troubles.  He stretches out his hand to us: we grasp it; united with him, we are ourselves transformed and become part of his mission of transformation.

The incarnate word of God loses no time in making peace.  The Son is courageous in his building of harmony.  He acts forcefully to achieve his friendly purposes.   The shoot which springs from the stock of Jesse [5] is a judge fighting for justice. His word is a rod that strikes the ruthless; his sentences bring death to the wicked [6].  Christ battles on behalf of those dear to him. For he shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless.  He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor [7].   Jesus, our friend, clothes himself in integrity and faithfulness [8].   His goodness is armour for combat.  With whom is the incarnate word in conflict?   He confronts the oppressors. He defends the innocent.  We seek to be the Lord’s allies in these confrontations.  Yet, contritely, we admit that until now, in many of the disputes in which God has placed himself on the side of the good, our support has been shaky.

John the Baptist, the precursor, is clear that there will be fierce resistance to the truth.  He comes to prepare the way for another who will not have an easy journey.  Despite the John’s best efforts, obstacles to the Christ remain. The advent of God in the world is well prepared but also resisted.  Among the opponents are seeming friends.  The Lord reaches trustingly into certain dens and is bitten.  Persistently, Christ is misunderstood. In due course he is cruelly treated and put to death in humiliation.   As part of the crowd who hear the invitation of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord [9], how do we react?  There is an amicable invitation: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand [10]; do we accept it?  Or are we among the brood of vipers [11] who listen politely to the announcement of the saviour’s arrival while interiorly opposing him?

The friendly child stretches out his hand: some sink their fangs into him.   We have no such foul intentions. On the contrary, our serious preparation for the advent of Christ commits us to working hard in his service.  We are to get our teeth into a mission.  We are called to radical amendment of life.   As we walk with Jesus on his way, sharing the good news, we are converted and re-converted. There is some urgency in this. John the Baptist warns us candidly of the danger of a heavy retribution.  This can only be avoided by a root and branch conversion.  Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees so that any tree that fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire [12].   The Son although merciful and forbearing, will not meekly accept everything that is done within his beloved creation. His winnowing fan is (already) in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out [13]. 

Advent invites us to draw closer in friendship to Christ who is advancing lovingly towards us. We go to meet him in peace. His ‘peacable kingdom’ however is a demilitarized zone secured by force in a world of much conflict.  The wolf lives with the lamb [14].  Repenting of our wrongdoing we acknowledge that we have sometimes been among those who have not cared enough for the weak and also been among those who, despite our protestations, have not always welcomed God into our life.  We realise that although we count ourselves among the friends of the Lord we have not been consistently friendly towards him.  We need the help of Christ as much as anyone.  He assists us by steeling our resolve.  He confers constancy [15].  Part of this grace is a resistance to being diverted from the path on which he has set our feet.  Our living in peace with each other and with the whole of God’s creation mirrors the way we have been treated by the one who made us [16].  He stretches towards us, knowing he might be hurt: we respond as true friends: peacefully, openly and lovingly.  They do no hurt, no harm on all my holy mountain [17].                                 

This reflection was written by Peter Gallagher SJ

[1] Isaiah 11.8
[2] The Peaceable Kingdom: 62 paintings, 1820-49, representing Isaiah 11, by Edward Hicks 1780-1849
[3] Isaiah 11.6-7
[4] Isaiah 11.9
[5] Isaiah 11.1
[6] Isaiah 11.4
[7] Psalm 72 (71).12-13
[8] Isaiah 11.5
[9]   Matthew 3.3 quoting Isaiah 40.3
[10] Matthew 3.2
[11] Matthew 3.7
[12] Matthew 3.10
[13] Matthew 3.12
[14] Isaiah 11.6
[15] Romans 15.4-5
[16] Romans 15.7
[17] Isaiah 11.9


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