December 2005

Dear brothers and sisters,

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness… (Philippians 2:6-7a)
As a child, my favorite part of decorating for Christmas was the manger scene. I loved unwrapping the figures, placing them in the cardboard stable, and sometimes playing with them. (I was particularly fond of a much-mended camel in my grandmother’s manger scene.) Today, some version of the Nativity scene is the principal sign of Advent and Christmas in our home.

It was a pleasure to learn that this favorite custom of mine was initiated by St. Francis himself! However, his purpose in creating the stable scene went much further than having a visible reminder of the “reason for the season.” He wanted the townspeople to experience what it would have been like for the Son of God to be born in a cold stable (probably a cave) amidst farm animals. We are so accustomed to Nativity scenes that this reality may be taken for granted. "[A]t its origins the nativity scene was a striking affirmation of God’s entry into the mundane, everyday life of poor people, the world of creatures, the world of straw and rocks."[1]

Over the years, I’ve slowly come to see the wonder of the incarnation a little more clearly, thanks in part to its being one of the central themes of Franciscan spirituality. For God, omnipotent and omnipresent, to become limited by time and space is hard enough for me to imagine. For God to become helpless by human standards is even harder to comprehend. Yet, according to the book of Hebrews, "he had to become like his brothers in every way" (2:17), and Jesus would not have been like us if he had not been born helpless and had not had to grow in "wisdom and age and favor before God and man."(Luke 2:52) It’s just hard to conceive of God giving up - well, not being God, but pretty much everything that we think of defining God - to become one of us. No wonder theologians have had so many arguments about whether or not Jesus knew everything that he knew as God throughout his life on earth! (Compare Jesus’ knowledge of events in the Gospel of John with the other Gospels to see two perspectives.) Jesus was fully God and fully human - we believe, but don’t understand how this can be.

Francis viewed the humility of God as revealed in the Incarnation as an essential quality to be imitated by his followers. How ready am I to give up anything to save someone else? I have a bad feeling that I might well be more willing to give my life than to humble myself to save another - after all, giving my life is a Big Thing, and humbling - worse, humiliating - myself gets no rewards in this life whatsoever. Christ gave up so much to become one of us, to show us how much God loves us - can we justify doing less?

May the peace of Christ fill your hearts at this blessed season…Vickie

[1] Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition by William J. Short, OFM, p. 41.