When we hear the word Incarnation, many of us probably think: That’s the moment Mary conceived Jesus in her womb. This leads us to think of the Incarnation as an event that happened once, over 2,000 years ago, in a country far away from most of us. God became a human being, lived, taught, died, rose, ascended. And that’s that. But perhaps we can gain a greater appreciation of the Incarnation by reflecting on daffodils.
Theologian Margaret Silf puts it this way. In spring, she says, when she goes out to her garden in the backyard, she finds herself saying, “O look! The daffodils are back.” But even as she speaks these words, she realizes they are not really accurate. The daffodils are not back. They have appeared in her backyard, yes, but they were in her backyard all winter long. Their bulbs were nestled beneath the ground, harboring all their stored sunlight from the previous summer. And when the conditions were just right (proper temperature, proper light, proper moisture) they began to sprout green shoots which pushed themselves up through the soil in quest once again for the life-giving rays of the sun.
Silf suggests the Incarnation might have been something like that. God didn’t first enter our world when Mary said her great yes at the Annunciation. God was already here! But Mary’s “yes” made the conditions “just right” for God to take flesh in our world, that is, to appear as a human being. By extension, when Jesus ascended into heaven, he didn’t leave the world. He is still present here in many ways: in the Spirit he sent, the Eucharist he gave us, the sacred scripture we read and ponder. But Jesus is also present in us. Jesus is present in me. That’s what the Incarnation also means.
The Incarnation means God has taken up residence within our world, within us. But it’s deeper than mere residence. It’s not as if God is merely
“residing” on some mountaintop or in our garage. No, God is involved in our human history, in our world events. God is involved in the circumstances of our personal lives—whether we want God to be there or not. As the psychologist Carl Jung had etched above the entrance to his house: “Summoned or not, God will be there.”
And there’s even more. God is living not only in our world, but in our hearts, closer to us than we can comprehend or even imagine. Traditionally we’ve called this “residing” of God in us “the Divine Indwelling”—a rather beautiful phrase.
In his book, The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, calls the Incarnation the “central mystery within all of Christianity.” He also says “it is the most misunderstood, or more accurately, to coin a phrase, under-understood.” He emphasizes that the Incarnation “is still going on and it is just as real and as radically physical as when Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, walked the dirt roads of Palestine.” How? In and through us, the Body of Believers.
I find great consolation and excitement in thinking of the Incarnation in these terms. God’s presence in the natural world underscores its sacredness. From a tiny frog to a giant whale, from a towering Sequoia to a lowly hydrogen atom, from the air we breathe to the water we drink—all, all is sacred. God’s presence in our world events gives me hope and urges me to get involved with these events in order to help fashion a better world. God’s presence in other people leads me toward greater respect and concern for all people. And finally, God’s presence in myself, gives me strength and courage to live my faith more deeply every day.
It is winter for many of us living in the northern hemisphere. When I look out my window, I don’t see too much life right now. The trees are bare. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they’re dead. The bird population has diminished significantly. And I haven’t seen our resident chipmunks scurrying on our side porch for a while either. Also I see no bees. I see no other insects such as flies, mosquitoes, ladybugs, grasshoppers. But appearances can be deceiving. The world is not dead. It is very much alive. The sap in those trees will soon rise causing new leaves to sprout. Those absent birds will return and begin building their nests. Our resident chipmunks (who are currently in semi-hibernation) will be tearing up our flower beds again soon. Those bees (hunkered down in their hives) will soon venture out in search of nectar. And all those insect eggs (presently tucked in the soil or within the cracks of tree bark or beneath dead leaves) will soon hatch and a new generation of insects will populate the world.
Yes, the mystery of the Incarnation is written everywhere in creation—in the trees, the birds, the chipmunks, the insects. And also in the daffodils.
What does the Incarnation mean to you?
How have you experienced God’s presence in our world and in your particular life?