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The incarnation: a cosmic mystery

30 November, 1999

Kathleen Coyle SSC, who lectures in theology in Manila, considers the full cosmic significance of the incarnation and the sacramental character of creation.

The significance of the incarnation extends far beyond our salvation and human history, back to the very beginning of time. The universe is not a divine afterthought. It has been weaving itself into a world of beauty for thirteen and a half billion years, and in its initial burst of creative energy was contained all that has unfolded to this present moment. From that initial moment every particle carried within it the seed of the next unfolding, including human consciousness. Our personal stories can be traced back to a time before the earth was formed, back to a generation of stars now gone forever, but whose violent deaths transformed the hydrogen of the stars into the dust that eventually became our planet – and our flesh. Tom Berry repeatedly reminds us that each of us has molecules within us that have existed from the first moment of creation (Berry 1988).


Stephen Hawking, the English physicist, explains that if the initial expansion of the universe had been a fraction of a percentage slower, the universe would have collapsed back into chaos; if the expansion had been a fraction of a second faster, nothing like a galaxy or a living being would ever have emerged (Swimme 1990:19).


God the goal of the universe

Scientific knowledge tells us that the evolutionary journey of the cosmos has culminated in a human beings. And in the Incarnation God in Jesus has also become a human being. The human person, therefore is the meeting place of heaven and earth. Such contemplative realization of God’s presence to us helps us believe that we are living in the mystery of God. Our existence in the universe opens us up spiritually to the experience of God as the goal of the universe as a whole. Our destinies and the destinies of all peoples and the earth and the forests are wrapped together. We are totally present to each other. We find this is great mystical insight in many writers. The author of The Tao of Physics (Capra 1977: xii) tells us:

 I was sitting by the ocean one late summer afternoon, watching the waves rolling in and feeling the rhythm of my breathing, when I suddenly became aware of my whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance. Being a physicist I knew that the sand, rocks, water and air around me were made of vibrating molecules and atoms, and these consisted of particles which interacted with one another… I know also that the earth’s atmosphere was continually bombarded by showers of ‘cosmic rays,’ particles of high energy undergoing multiple collisions as they penetrated the air. All this was familiar to me from my research on high energy physics, but until that moment I had only experienced it through graphs, diagrams, and mathematical theories. As I sat on the beach my former experiences came to life; I ‘saw’ cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses; I ‘saw’ the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt this rhythm and I ‘heard’ its sound.

A fifteenth century Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-ming states:

Even the frightened-cry of the bird, the crushing of a plant, the shattering of a tile or the senseless breaking of a stone immediately and spontaneously causes pain in the human heart. This would not be, unless there exists a bond of intimacy between ourselves and these other beings! (Wang in McFague, Berry, Cobb, Regan et al., 1990:158)

In Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, Shug shares her sense of wonder:

One day it came to me … that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed. I laughed and I cried all around the house… I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field and don’t notice it. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to get attention we do, except walk? (Walker 1988:178-9).


Our new awareness of ourselves as being related to the Earth is producing a new sense of the closeness of God, of the supreme energy of the Spirit in the smallest material thing.


God with all creation

The study of contemporary physics is revealing a cosmos of startling and beautiful complexity which is marked above all by movement and the wonders of systematic interrelationships. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ (Ps 19:1). God is not before but with all of creation. Creation is not a divine afterthought and God is actively involved in what is happening in creation. Once we realize that our cooperation is needed in order for creation to continue, we immediately sense our responsibility, our worth, our value in the scheme of things, that we have a crucial role to play in this great epic of being. ‘Revelation calls me into question, arrests my attention and summons me to responsibility’ (Johnson 2001:12). Our destinies, the destinies of all peoples of the earth, the forests are wrapped together.


The mystical inter-relatedness of all creatures and all matter has no boundaries. Each creature images God in a manner unique to its species, and each creature contributes to the web that sustains all of life, in ways that we are only beginning to discover. The cosmic dimension leads to ever greater depths of silence and worship of the divine presence, a silent oneness with the infinite, unimaginable mystery, which enfolds all, and from which no one is excluded. ‘In God we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).


Christ and the cosmos

If the evolutionary journey of the cosmos has culminated in human beings, as scientific knowledge suggests, and God too has become a human, then in some mysterious way there must be a close and infinitely significant relationship between Christ and the cosmos. This was Teilhard de Chardin’s great insight. Identification of the cosmic Christ with Omega Point is a feat of combined religious and scientific imagination. God the creator and God the redeemer are one and the same God. By stressing the  significance of the Incarnation theoloogy can show that while God has always been present to creation, through the incarnation, God has become present in a new and dynamic way, transforming and energizing the cosmos.


Jesus, the person full of compassion, is the very Christ who is at the heart of creation. For something of profound importance for creation has happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Teilhard explains that what happens to one element or species, intimately affects other elements or species. Something cosmic has to happen if there is to be redemption in any real sense for God’s plan ‘for the fullness of time [is] to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10). When the body of Jesus was raised from the dead, all of life shared to some degree in that resurrection. Like Teilhard, we must experience ‘the Divine radiating from the depths of blazing matter,’ (de Chardin cited in Burns 1990:265) or ‘the Omnipresence which haloes everything in nature’ (265). Such contemplative realization of God’s presence to us is believing that we are living in the mystery of God.


Think of the experience of cosmic worship evoked by the fragile majesty of our waterfalls and mountains; the free‑flowing elegance and untamed power of our rivers; the quiet waters of our secluded lakes; the haunting beauty of our sunsets; the clean, extreme, and harsh contrasts of our deserts. Or again, the depths of silence evoked on a walk along a mountain trail, dwarfed by huge trees and massive rock, and the sense of infinity evoked by endless horizons. We live in gratitude to God for gifting us with such a magnificent universe. In the words of Indian theologian Samuel Rayan,  ‘the earth has its own speech, its silence and its mystery.’ This mystical experience does not result in our withdrawal from the world; it thrusts us towards involvement and participation. We are spiritually connected to the land, the seas, and the rivers, that have been used, abused, and destroyed by a militant, materialistic approach to industrial development. It is such technological mastery and competitiveness which have created missiles that could destroy all humanity a hundred times over, and the atomic mushroom has already become the symbol of what we can do to our world.




God comes into our world as compassion

Because the Word became flesh, the glory, the doxa, of God is now present in the person of Jesus. The glory of God has dwelt among us. ‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14) The invisible God is redemptively and uniquely embodied in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God’s glory, the innermost being of God, God’s inner mystery, the splendour and sacred identity of God are transformed from glory to compassion. Jesus reveals that glory when he gives sight to the blind, gives another the ability to walk, preaches to the poor, heals a leper, accepts publicans, prostitutes and Gentiles and praises the widow who places her last coin in the temple collection.


These are human hearts thirsting for God. And before Jesus died he prayed: ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do’ (Jn 17:4). The glory, the splendour, the sacred reality of God has now been offered to us: ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them’ (Jn 17:22). God is now redemptively active in human persons who embody and practice the goodness and love of God. Like Jesus, we bring the glory, the pastoral presence of God to others when we give a drink of water, offer forgiveness, feed the hungry or care for another human being, when we appreciate the humanity of another person and deal with him/her with attention, devotion and reverence. When we allow our hearts to be touched by those we meet along the way we bring the creative love and glory of God into their lives; we reveal the glory of God.


Mystery of God’s intervention

The Incarnation is the mystery of God’s intervention as compassion in our world. It is the fulfilment of the promise made long ago to Abraham, i.e. that God bridges the chasm of evil – and the abnormal potential for evil is clearly depicted in the Tower of Babel story – with mercy and grace. Because of the Incarnation, God’s presence is no longer to be found in the temple but is now revealed to sinners and shepherds, tax collectors and traitors, Pharisees and those possessed by demons, the miserable and the marginalised – people in whom society places little value.


God is so bound to human beings in Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power that our human response is the mode by which God effectuates anything in human history. ‘The incarnation was not a thirty-three year experiment but the permanent mode of God’s engagement to save. This conviction … reminds us of where God is at work to overcome it’ ( Johnson 2001:14).


After the resurrection the disciples were reminded that God is no longer to be sought in the clouds as the men of Galilee thought – ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Acts 1:10) – for the mystery of the Ascension is not a mystery of absence but the mystery of a new mode of presence in our world. God is present here below in the flesh, in a birth, in a grave, in daily meetings of men and women, in the tears and in the laughter of the poor, and in the groaning of creation.


Embodied holiness

In the mystery of the Incarnation Jesus assumed our humanity, our limitations, our frailty. Because of this union of God in Christ with the whole of humankind, no area of human existence is left untouched or unaffected by God’s grace because Jesus assumed our humanity, our limitations, our frailty. It is in, and with, and through our humanness and limitations that we make our energized responses to the gospel; it is in, and with, and through our humanness and limitations that we strive to keep our religious and marriage vows, that we go on affirming and being affirmed, forgiving and being forgiven, sustaining and empowering. Because the Incarnation is an ongoing reality, we cooperate with the radical healing of God’s grace which goes even beyond our personal sins to the very roots of our being. We are being called to tear down walls of hate, fear and suspicion. Bernard Lonergan has reminded us that our prejudices and biases can so cripple our psyche that the basic images needed for new insights will not even be allowed to rise. The blocks and barriers, the fears and frustrations that cripple and prevent us from believing in ourselves or in our personal worth, and from being fully alive can and must be healed (Lonergan 1979:231).


We need to ask ourselves what embodied holiness might consist of in the specific, concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves. Belief in the mystery of the Incarnation challenges us to take our experience as men and women seriously. Christianity is the only religion that professes that God became a body. When the Word took on human flesh, we realized that God takes human bodies very seriously, and human flesh is very fragile. The Incarnation takes life and bodies and flesh and sexuality seriously. (The Eucharist too takes human flesh seriously.) Our personal and sexual identity is incarnational because the incarnate God holds the fullness of all humanity, whether male or female. We will refuse therefore to accept stereotypes or to be alienated from our bodies.


We give birth to God by allowing all that is within us to be fully alive. Seven centuries ago Thomas Aquinas talked about the importance of nourishing the mind. He declared that ‘the light of agent intellect’ is a participation in the divine light. New insights enrich our lives, nourish our minds and expand our imaginations. In our own time Sebastian Moore describes insights as experiences of the light of God. They make the incarnation happen. (Moore 1989: 110-1) Today, we have to think and speak and do what has not yet been thought or spoken or done. This too is how we make the incarnation happen


Linking the ordinary with the sacred

The Catholic Church which links the ordinary with the sacred should feel at home as it draws upon ecological energies and confronts environmental concerns because it emphasizes the sacramentality of all of reality. Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican mystic, said several centuries ago that you can get as much of God ‘by the fireplace and the stable’ as you can be devotions and ecstasies (O’Shea 2001:268). What is temporal must be penetrated by grace. Christian faith ought to become incarnate in everything in order to transfigure everything. Our concern ought to be not only with the spiritual and the supernatural, but with the material and historical as well. They too must become transparent and sacramental. Latin‑speaking Christians knew that the word sacramentum always meant a commitment to change one’s praxis. (Only later was the word applied to the rite of baptism that expressed that commitment.)


The word ‘sacrament’ describes an external religious ritual that celebrates a hidden sacred reality. Sadly, however, it often connotes only the ritual. If we take an iceberg as metaphor, ritual may be regarded as the tip, the larger portion remaining hidden beneath the surface. The greater part of the sacramental reality is not the ritual itself but the real and tranformative power of Jesus in our lives. We can begin by taking the person of Jesus as a sacramental reality in itself. He was a welcoming person; he made people feel strong. He nurtured, forgave, healed, and manifested leadership. What he did prompted change in others. People began to regard themselves differently. The community of disciples and the Church through the centuries wanted to do what he had done. His welcoming became expressed in the sacrament of Baptism, his strengthening in the sacrament of Confirmation, his nurturing in the Eucharist, his forgiving is made visible in Reconciliation, his healing in Anointing. Concentrating on the core meaning of sacramentality helps us to appreciate the transformative power of Jesus on people’s lives; otherwise our sacramental rituals are empty, disconnected from life. We ought to become what we celebrate.




A call to prophecy and participation

History records how the saints relived the Incarnation and how they embodied the love of God. Frequently, this led them to counter‑cultural and subversive activity; at other times it led them to focus on the outcasts of society. They healed lepers, nursed the sick, founded hospitals and educated the poor. St Basil (330-379) put it clearly: the bread which you use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the one who has no shoes. Aristides defending Christians before the Emperor Hadrian declared:


Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they freely give to the one who has nothing. If they see a stranger Christians bring him home and are happy as though he were a real brother. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs. These are really a new kind of people. There is something divine in them.


Incarnational theology

Living incarnational theology means making the love and justice of God present in different times and cultures. This is precisely what is provided for us in the personal stories of the saints of history. Because times and cultures vary, what it means to follow Christ will also vary and can never be rigidly prescribed. God’s love is incarnated in a community for the sake of the world and it is always linked with a certain moment in history.


We live in a moment of history when change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing. Our moment in history is still reeling from the global terrorism and the shock of the horrific events of September 11, 2001 – a dark day for humanity, as Pope John Paul II called it. It is also a world living with the insecurity of germ warfare. Love demands action for justice and this is the key to the teaching of the prophets and of Jesus. We are asked to raise a prophetic voice for those who have not been allowed to be at the centre of the community: the enslaved, exploited, the excluded, the deprived, those affected by racism, sexism, castism, colonialism and neo‑colonialism.


There is a lot of suffering in our world today that we cannot do anything about – ageing and health diminishment would be examples. But there is a lot of suffering that we can do something about, suffering that does not have to be – violence and suffering that includes humiliation. The influence of a caring person in our life can set free the destructive energy within us so that we can allow the positive energy of the carer to transform itself into compassion. None of us can give the caring, the loving that our families and world need except we ourselves are in touch with God’s mystery and are sustained by it. Such caring is precisely what is provided for us in the personal stories of the saints of history – in the words of Francis of Assisi, ‘Preach often, when necessary use words.’ When someone’s compassionate living challenges our commitment, it is an experience of grace for us. It is an experience of divinity present in the ordinary, a mystery that surrounds us though we are given but glimpses of it. But these glimpses are a given grace.


A call to contemplative living

Contemplation is the direct experience of our participation in the divine life: ‘You in me and I in you’ (Jn 15:4; 7; 17:23); ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me’ (Gal 4:20). Contemplation can open the imagination to new possibilities. It offers us a joyful sense of the unity of all our energies and powers for the Gospel is calling us to breathe new energy, new power into the world so that we become centres of creative energy and power and so that, together, our collective energies will transform our lives, our world. It is difficult to speak about contemplation for it transcends all concepts and because words are inadequate.


The incarnation and mysticism, in their deepest sense, both refer to the union of the divine and the human. The mystic is one who opens up to God’s presence and lets God fill his/her consciousness with God’s personal presence. This entering into the harmonization between God and humans does not imply flight from the mundane world of economics and politics. In the biblical sense contemplation has to do with hearing, feeling, doing. It is never divorced from life or from the world.


Today there is a renewed interest in contemplation and its relation to ministry. But how do we develop a contemplative consciousness that leads to action? In the words of Leonardo Boff, we aim to combine passion for God with passion for the poor for the test of true mysticism is love of neighbour. (The word ‘ecstasy’ has its roots in the word ex‑stasis, going out of one’s standing to the neighbour.) The prophet Jeremiah emphasized that we come to know the Lord in doing justice for the poor (Jer 22:13-17). Mystics must strive to become more prophetic and prophets become more mystical.


This presupposes a new way of seeking holiness and mystical union with God. The gospels are about plantings and harvests, budding fig trees, fathers and sons, women baking bread, seeds growing into trees. Reflectively pondering on the wonder of these everyday events helps us to appreciate what it means for God to draw near. All of life is touched by the divine. Contemplation needs silence, the stillness of silence. T.S. Eliot  expresses it well in poetry, the language of silence:


We must be still and still moving

into another intensity

For a further deeper communion.


Contemplation and action

How do we develop a contemplative consciousness by which our ministry and study and work become extensions of our personality? It is not a question of the contemplative versus the active; rather it is action vitalized by an interior contemplative life, nourished by community and the sacraments. Contemplation also needs solitude and silence, for Jesus is the harmony between Word and silence. God’s Word was silent for millennia before it was spoken in the Incarnation. In our liturgies it is important to pay attention to the silence within the music as much as to the sound, otherwise we end up with noise and our silence is not fulfilled in the meeting with the silence of God, the very purpose of liturgy. Our incarnational God is a God who is embodied, not only in Jesus but also in all of nature. The psalmist reminds us: ‘Contemplate him and be radiant’ (Ps 34:6) for we hand on what we contemplate. Such reflection enables us to be active mystics, for whom the border separating formal moments of prayer and the rest of life becomes more simply the passage point into alternative rhythms of a total life lived in God’s presence. Contemplative living nourishes prayer and prayer unites us with the sacred at the core of our being.


While the emerging spirituality of our age must be intensely personal, it must also be prophetic, incarnational, cosmic and communitarian. It must bring together science and spirituality, religion and social justice, and dialogue and mutual enrichment across religions. Recent global issues are reminding us of the urgent need of dialogue and cooperation with our Muslim brothers and sisters. As we begin to appreciate the mysticism, intuition and imagination of all the spiritualities of humankind, we will seek out possibilities for relating and interacting with them.


The Eucharist and the Cosmos
A rediscovery of the sacramental character of creation is a first step in the development of a cosmic spirituality. The transcendent must be rendered present in the immanent, and the immanent must be transfigured by the transcendent. In one of his frequent meditations on the Eucharist, Teilhard seems to suggest that through the words of consecration, the universe is divinised. He was conscious that the presence of God reaches the elements of the world in and through the body of Christ. By the words of consecration ‘this is my body,’ he explains: ‘not only the bread of the altar, but (to some degree) everything in the universe, that nourishes the soul for the life of Spirit and Grace, has become divine’ (de Chardin). He also adds that the words of consecration go far beyond the bread, over which they are pronounced, to the cosmos itself, ‘which century after century, is gradually being transformed by the Incarnation, itself never complete.’


Every Eucharist is a renunciation of violence, injustice, aggression and lovelessness. It is a celebration in symbol of all that we should be and manifestly are not. In the Eucharist we express in symbolic gestures the purpose of God’s incarnation in our lives. We express ‘all that God wants us to be, all that God wants the world to become, and thus for a brief moment we enjoy the actual occurrence of what would otherwise be purely utopian’ (Daly 1988:214). Teilhard de Chardin sees the universe as the body of Christ. At communion our ‘Amen’ in response to the words ‘The Body of Christ,’ is a promise to be faithful to and to care for the body of Christ. We promise to put into practice what we have just enacted in sacramental symbol, the mystery of God’s incarnational presence among us. This article first appeared in Doctrine and Life (December 2002), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.


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