Incarnation from a Franciscan Perspective
Sister Joan Kerley, FMSJ
The Mystery of the Incarnation has been debated by theologians and interpreted by creative musicians, artists, poets and writers throughout the centuries. After his dramatic conversion, Francis, in countless hours of contemplation, deepened his intimate knowledge of God’s Salvific love which enabled him to sing God’s praises in poetry and prayers. The Christmas Crib at Greccio in 1223 was one way he helped others experience God’s unconditional love as well. Thomas of Celano in his First Life of St. Francis (paragraphs 84-86) describes the event. Francis asked his friend, John, to prepare the place, saying:” I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” Carrying candles and torches, the people assembled for the Mass that Christmas Eve. Francis, the Deacon, sang the homily and preached about, as Celano reports:” the poor King and the poor city of Bethlehem…. [a virtuous man] saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep. Nor is this vision unfitting, since in the hearts of many the child Jesus has been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis.” (Pilgrim’s Companion to Franciscan Places, pp.135-7)
Murray Bodo, in Francis: The Journey and the Dream, summarizes: “Someone to love. That was Greccio, that was Christmas. He prayed for all the lonely people of the world that they would understand what God’s enfleshment meant to them personally. God was like us now in everything but sin. And He let Himself be touched and handled by everyone who would come to Him. Someone to care for, someone to touch. That was Greccio, that was God become a man… Someday, perhaps, all people could look into the altar creche at Christmas and know they had someone special to love, someone divine to care for. And they would begin anew to love.” (pp. 69-70)
St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) also contemplates the Incarnation in The Tree of Life. The familiar Advent custom, the Jesse Tree, contemplates the Old Testament people/events that preceded the Messiah’s birth. Bonaventure extends the line forward as he contemplates Christ’s life from his historical predestination, through his birth, public ministry, passion and death and resurrection, and his eternal glory in heaven. In chapter 6, “ A New Born and Bonaventure’s Tree of Life as Incarnational Encounter”, (in Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith) Daniel Horan OFM discusses the importance of having a real relationship with Christ which he notes involves two processes: We must recognize that it is God who always initiates an encounter which can often occur “unexpectedly and spontaneously in ordinary life.” But we, too, must “outwardly seek Christ through prayer and contemplation.” He continues: [The Tree of Life] “is a powerfully prayerful meditation on the true humility of God. At a particular point in history, at a particular place on Earth, God became a human being and looked, acted, felt, and responded much like any baby boy born more than two thousand years after Him. In this way we can see Christ in every child and in every person because Christ comes to us in all.” (location 1451) If you are unable to find a copy, you can do a similar reflection of Christ’s life by meditating on a chapter a day of St. Luke’s Gospel (24 chapters) each day of Advent.
In Chapter Nine, “Revisiting the Incarnation” (in Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith), Daniel Horan, OFM clarifies the two theologies of the Incarnation by quoting Béraud de Saint-Maurice: “The anthropocentric school asserts the subordination of Christ’s Incarnation to the fall of humanity… The Christocentric school holds that if Adam had remained faithful and not sinned, Christ would have still become incarnate.” (location 2071) Although the dominant theology taught by Thomas Aquinas is the former, the “Franciscan” theology stresses the latter, referring to the theology of Oxford Franciscan John Duns Scotus (c.1266 – 1208).
In “Incarnation in Franciscan Spirituality– Duns Scotus and the meaning of Love”, Seamus Mulholland OFM states: [Scotus’] “doctrine of the Incarnation… is firmly rooted in the Franciscan intellectual and spiritual tradition .. In Scotus, the Incarnation is not a contingency plan when the original creative process of God goes awry because of sin. Scotus rejects this notion as too central an emphasis on Man to the extent that the freedom of God to act in love is determined by an external necessity i.e. the redemption from sin. Scotus understands the Incarnation as always being in the mind of God even before the historical and existential physicality of creation itself and the fact of sin. … Scotus argues that the reason for the Incarnation is Love. The Love of God in himself and the free desire that God has to share that love with another who can love him as perfectly as he loves himself, i.e. the Christ…The Incarnation, in Duns Scotus, becomes the unrepeatable, unique, and single defining act of God’s love… The Incarnation in Franciscan spirituality is centred on Love, not sin.”
“Why should we worry about any Incarnational theology? Our image of God is instrumental in our relationship with God and others. A theology of the Incarnation that places its primary focus on sin very often instils a very judgemental image of God in our minds. This may be unconscious but, nevertheless, it influences how we think about ourselves, and how we think about others. We can become very judgemental, worry about whether we are doing enough to repent of our sins, criticize ourselves and others harshly and wonder if God could ever love us, if we are ever good enough. On the other hand, a theology of the Incarnation that focuses on God’s infinite love for human beings from the very beginning of Creation, taking into account the fact that we are all sinners in need of salvation, enables us to see a God of love , unconditional forgiveness and mercy. We will then treat ourselves and others in a more loving and forgiving way. Francis, through his prayer and contemplation, grew in the ability to understand God’s all-embracing love and then put the fruits of his prayer into action by the way he treated others. The “Franciscan” approach to the Incarnation has a lot to offer us and enables us to offer that same loving image of God to others.