St. John the Evangelist wrote it memorably and succinctly, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek original actually reads, “…and tabernacled among us.” One innovative translator has rendered that literally, “…he pitched his tent among us.” The ancient creeds convey the same message in time-honored if unadorned phraseology, “…he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Certainly the Incarnation is integral to Christianity no matter how the event is described. Yet, just to be sure, St. Luke goes out of his way in today’s Gospel passage to re-assure his readers that the mission of Jesus Christ was not just a spiritual or transcendent or Divine event. Jesus was a genuine human being and indisputably took his place in mankind’s history. And this flesh and blood arrival of Jesus Christ into the workaday world continues to have repercussions into the value of daily life, into the nature of authentic religion, and, as Pope Benedict regularly insists, into the agreement of faith with reason.
As he did at the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, St. Luke specifies the beginning of Jesus’ public life by citing concrete, historical circumstances that many of his readers could no doubt recall.
Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas and even John the Baptist himself were all well known historical figures who would help the first readers and later generations locate Jesus Christ squarely in history. Jesus was not a metaphorical personality representing an accumulation of wise sayings and insightful maxim. Jesus was no symbol of human potential. Jesus genuinely did “pitch his tent among us” and experienced human life to the full. Indeed he was “crucified, died and was buried.” One cannot get more human than that.
Because the Son of God became the actual man Jesus Christ, daily life was revealed to have a deeper significance. Jesus worked out mankind’s salvation by embracing human life fully. The deepest truths of daily life, of human life, of man’s reason, had been obscured by sin. Through grace, Jesus enabled his disciples to grasp that truth once again by their unflinching worship of God, their honesty toward neighbor and their charity toward the poor. Their daily lives were the test of their spiritual lives. Jesus the God/man made heaven and earth one. His followers may not separate the two.
Authentic religion took on a new aspect in the light of Jesus’ humanity. Again, earthly elements like water, oil, bread, wine, touch, words, harvest festivals, meals, the common life, births, marriages and deaths became the vehicles for impressing God’s eternal truths on time-bound man. Religion was not a flight into another world as some had thought. Rather Christianity was an initiation into the Divine world through an ever deeper embrace of all that was good about this world.
The God who made heaven also made earth. The God known through faith was also the God known through reason. Christianity, by putting nature at the service of grace, truly celebrates God in all his aspects – earthly and heavenly, materially and spiritually, human and Divine.
Perhaps most important for the present day is the need to appreciate the solidarity between faith and reason.
The authentic Christian may not separate sacred duties from secular challenges. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a solemn declaration that the truth is one. Jesus’ Divinity enhanced his humanity; it did not replace it or contradict it.
Today sacred truth might surpass secular truth but it cannot conflict with it. Faith should give direction to reason and reason should be deepened by faith. Many in the current generation make faith a merely private matter while assigning reason a public agenda. For example, while the absence of an established church in America might be understandable, the partition of church and state has lately devolved into the practical elimination of any religion from public life.
This situation is both unChristian and inhuman. The removal of God from public life denies the Incarnation and, frankly, lowers man’s noble estate. Christians must continue to celebrate the Incarnation and to ensure the incarnate Christ’s full role in human history.