The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the Contemplation on the Incarnation from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more about this contemplation, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The Contemplation on the Incarnation: Why and How Jesus Shows Up”.
The celebration of Christmas can be both beautiful and overwhelming. This time might be filled with bright lights, decorations, singing, shopping, cooking, gatherings of family and friends, Christmas pageants and Masses. No matter how you celebrate, the season itself is a grand event. It’s easy to get lost and even overwhelmed in the midst of it all. The recent spike in the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has changed some of these plans, but that in itself can be overwhelming to think about. In the midst of everything that is going on around us, my own individual thoughts and concerns can feel insignificant. We might all feel a bit overwhelmed with everything going on around us.
What are my personal worries and struggles in the grand scheme of things? Does God even see me? The contemplations on the Incarnation and the Nativity from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius help us to see the big picture and help us realize that hope is found in small human moments.
The Contemplation on the Incarnation is at the beginning of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, which focuses on the life of Christ. Before we pray over any other moment in Jesus’ life, even the Nativity, Ignatius instructs the retreatant to pray over the Incarnation, the moment when God decided to enter into our humanity. This contemplation begins on a grand scale, imagining the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity as they look over the world. We are to look at the entire world through God’s perspective: “see the great capacity and circuit of the world, in which are so many and such different people.”
When I pray over the Incarnation, I usually start by looking at the different people in my life, my family, friends, and all those that I have encountered before. Eventually, I begin to branch out. I imagine people in different situations throughout my own country, then all over the world, trying to see as many cultures as I can bring to mind. I might even try to imagine people throughout time, relying on images from pictures, books, and movies to bring the scenes to life.
The first part of this exercise can be both beautiful and overwhelming. Is this what God sees? Where am I in this sea of people? Does even God see me?
As I sit in the presence of God looking out over the world, I start to imagine a variety of human activities, “some in peace and others in war; some weeping and others laughing; some well, others ill; some being born and others dying, etc.” For me, this looks like flashes of news stories from all over the world. Like the news, although there can be a mix of both positive and negative events, I tend to focus in on the more negative aspects of humanity. The contemplation does lean toward these negative aspects because, after all, part of the point of the exercise is to see the moment when God decided to become human to save us from ourselves.
If we end there, the exercise would be very bleak. A world filled with people in darkness. But the story of the Incarnation continues, and we become part of that story.
What is God’s response to seeing the world like this? Complete and unbridled compassion. We are instructed to hear “what the Divine Persons are saying, that is: ‘Let Us work the redemption of the Human race.’” How they go about this is the most revealing.
God looks beyond all of the negativity and the noise and the “big picture” of humanity begins to zoom in dramatically as we see the events of the Annunciation. We go from being with God looking over the entire world to one small room in a home in Nazareth. After seeing a world full of pain and despair, hope is found when God focuses on a young woman named Mary. We look on with God as the angel Gabriel is sent to Mary, a young woman with faith and courage enough to say yes to being part of bringing God into the world, yet it feels like all of existence waits with bated breath as Gabriel waits for Mary’s “fiat.”
The Contemplation on the Incarnation begins on a massive and overwhelming scale and ends looking at a single person in a small room, in a small town.
God does not ignore the pain, sin, and injustice in the world, but instead decides to do something about it by looking for a ray of hope. So often, hope is found in small unexpected moments. After looking at all of existence, God found hope in a small room in Nazareth. Sometimes we need to find hope in the small moments. Moments of kindness and goodness within ourselves and others. Moments that remind us that a small amount of light can overtake the darkness.
The nativity is another small moment and the focus of the next contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises. We go from God looking over all of creation, to Mary at the Annunciation, to Jesus lying in a manger. Ignatius has the retreatant imagine all of the small details of this scene, even “the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; considering the length and the breadth, and whether such road is level or through valleys or over hills.” We can imagine the sights and smells of the Nativity. What it would have been like for the baby Jesus to be born among animals. You might even hold Jesus within your arms.
While the Nativity is one of the biggest events in human history, it is also a small and humble event. The world didn’t change overnight, but it began to change with a small moment of hope.
God chose to enter the world in one of the most humble of ways. As a small, defenseless child, born in a stable and placed in a manger, where animals were fed. This is God’s answer to the question, “Do you see me?” Through the Incarnation and the Nativity, God says, “Yes, I see you, I am with you, and you are not alone.”