Jesuit 101: The Contemplation on the Incarnation: Why and How Jesus Shows Up

by | Dec 3, 2021 | Advent, Jesuit 101, Prayers, Series, Spirituality

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Why did Jesus come among us? How did it happen? There are lots of ways we can try and answer those questions. So, let’s try.

The Gospel in One Verse

Being a kid from Green Bay, I got to go to lots of Packers games with family and friends, and I watched a lot of football. Once, maybe in 2nd grade, my teacher asked all of us to track the amount of TV we consumed over a weekend, and I was almost ashamed when I reported nearly SEVEN hours on a Sunday. I had to watch the 12 noon and the 3:15 games, which meant a lot of time in the living room Lay-Z-Boy. 

Before I ever thought to figure out what it meant, I remember seeing signs at all the games I went to and watched that read simply, ‘John 3:16.’ The name and numbers were enigmatic to me, but ever-present in crowds at sports events in the 80’s and early 90’s. Eventually, I asked someone. 

‘John 3:16’ is a scriptural reference, of course: for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. I’ve heard this passage called ‘the Gospel in one verse,’ and because of signs at ball games, John 3:16 became one of the most well-known Bible verses around. 

Here’s my even shorter version of that verse: God loves the world, and so shows up in the flesh to save us. Simultaneously simple and mind-bending. Beautiful and profound. A staggering reality, and a humble truth. A bedrock of Christian faith.

Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises: The Second Week

This Advent season, our Jesuit 101 series takes a turn toward the second week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the second movement in the Christian masterpiece of the soldier-turned-mystic-turned-founder of the Society of Jesus. In a nutshell, the second week prompts us to consider what we know about Jesus of Nazareth and how Jesus seeks to be in relationship with each and every one of us. Perhaps the broad questions of the second week are twofold: who is God to us, and who are we to God? In the second week, we explore Jesus’ miracles and healings, his preaching and teaching, his birth, the parts of his life the Bible says nothing about, and even his own prayer. We are invited to experience Jesus ‘becoming’ who he is, and who the eternal Word has always been. In turn, we continue becoming more and more ourselves.

The second week of the Exercises begins with what we often call “The Contemplation on the Incarnation.” There are two questions at the heart of this contemplation: why did Jesus come, and how?

The Contemplation on the Incarnation

Traditionally, this contemplation unfolds in three parts. We start with God looking at the world, then we go to Mary and the angel Gabriel’s announcement to her, and finally, we bring it all back to God. What does this look like?

The Three Divine Persons Look at the World

Now, I can be a bit of a space-nerd. I’m still reeling from Dune, and I find myself Googling ‘Hubble Space Telescope’ more often than I’d like to admit. Seeing photographs like The Blue Marble and Earthrise remind me that while I’m on the ground, the world can seem infinitely large, but with a few – trillion? – steps back, I can fit the whole earth within my field of vision.

The Blue Marble, taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972

This long view, perhaps, is one way to imagine seeing the world as God sees it – in the introductory notes to the Contemplation on the Incarnation, Ignatius invites us to consider how God looks at the whole world and all it contains with love and with profound concern. This world, created by the Godhead – the Three Divine Persons – is filled with people who struggle to honor the way God calls us to be together and with the Divine. And – not to be bleak – God is concerned. So, in God’s ever-presence to the world, God determines that the Second person of the Trinity – the eternal Word, Jesus – will become human, walk among us, and work for our redemption.

But, God’s view is not only the long view. Here, then, Ignatius invites us to use our experience of the world in our own time to imagine what God sees. We cannot escape the reality of the world, and while we can choose to turn the other way, the Contemplation on the Incarnation serves as an invitation to face the world as it is. Imagine all people who suffer, and all those who cause that suffering. Think of people dying from natural disasters related to human-caused ecological destruction, of people dying from preventable illness, people robbing one another, killing one another, hoarding scarce resources from one another, even simply forgetting that others exist. If we can see this unfolding in our time, surely God sees it as well. And, God sees all this across time and space in the same moment. 

So, about 2,000 years ago, God may have said something like this: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” God chose to enter into our temporal reality. Why did Jesus come among us? Because God so loved the world and wanted all of us to be in God’s divine presence forever.

At Home with Mary: The Annunciation

That’s the why of Jesus. And now, the how. Here, again, we’re invited to use our imagination. Ignatius asks us, perhaps using Luke 1:26-38, to imagine the home of Mary, to see her in a quiet moment, to sense her goodness and patience, and then see her suddenly overwhelmed by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells her that she is favored by God and will bear Jesus into the world. 

What?

This wasn’t Mary’s plan, as we know. She was betrothed; she hadn’t had relations with a man. How could this be? David Fleming, in his contemporary reading of the Spiritual Exercises, invites us to imagine the Annunciation with these words: “I let myself be totally present to the scene, hearing the nuances of the questions, seeing the expression in the face and eyes [of Mary], watching the gestures and movements which tell us so much about a person.” How does a person who receives unexpected news respond?

In a beautiful poetic reflection, Denise Levertov reminds us of Mary’s quiet but profound power, faith, and choice. Mary, as a human person, could say yes or no. Levertov writes: “This was the moment no one speaks of, when she could still refuse. A breath unbreathed, Spirit, suspended, waiting.” We know that Mary, in her faith and growing wisdom, said yes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Does God show up and force Mary into her new role? Even more broadly, does God choose to come into the world some other way – as a giant monster or purging fire or anything else we might imagine that God is capable of? No – God sought in this moment what God always seeks: partnership with us, and a chance to continue showing us the way.

The Colloquy

As this contemplation moves through its two major questions – the why and the how – we’re at last invited to pray what’s called a colloquy – a way of sharing our experience of the Contemplation on the Incarnation with the Divine. In Ignatius’s words, “At the end a colloquy is to be made, thinking what I ought to say to the Three Divine Persons, or to the Eternal Word Incarnate, or to our Mother and Lady, asking according to what I feel in me, in order more to follow and imitate Our Lord, so lately incarnate.” Speaking ‘as one friend speaks to another,’ we’re asked to share with Mary or Jesus or the Trinity what we experienced in seeing the world as God sees it and witnessing God’s response. What does this say to us about God? Who does God reveal Godself to be? And, perhaps more importantly, what does our contemplation reveal to God about us – about you or me? 

Remember – the whole thrust of the second week is entering into a deeper relationship with the Divine. 

In the same way, this Advent – this in-between time of here and not yet – we can take a moment and recognize what kind of relationship God has with the entire world, and out of love, become one of us. We can take time to consider that moment in between when Mary considered her choice. We ponder the mystery of God Incarnate – Emmanuel – God with us. And, we prepare for new life through the birth of a child.

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