Christopher Smith on the Mystery of the Incarnation
We live in a world that seems obsessed by time, and yet which appears to have a very limited understanding of it. My piggy bank would do quite well at this time of year if I had had a pound for everyone who asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” I tend to smile and say “No!”, and leave it at that. I suppose that what I’d prefer to say is, “Well, it depends what you mean by ‘ready’.” Of course, it’s really just a conversational gambit; but generally I think it means not, “Have you written your sermon and organised the school mass?” but “Have you written your Christmas cards and bought some large joint of meat to cook on Christmas Day?”
The more I reflect on it as the years go by, the more I am struck by the way that secular society has moved away from an understanding of time as a thing given by God, and as something organised by the Church in the liturgical year, and become panicky over the arbitrary deadlines it sets itself. The Church gives us a year beginning with Advent, which itself gives context to Christmas. God has come and will come again. And Christmas is the festival which enables us to celebrate the Incarnation, and so the beginning of the story of our salvation. That festival begins with First Evening Prayer of Christmas, yet for the world around us – a world that we cannot ignore – the starting pistol is fired at the beginning of December and the race is on to write the cards, buy the turkey, shop for presents, and organise the work “do”. There is so little time, you see.
Except that there is time. And it is God’s time. For the thing we must try to hang on to is that time is just as much part of God’s creation as you, me, and the turkey. And perhaps that has an implication for the way we ought to think about the great mystery of the Incarnation which we are about to celebrate.
St Augustine had a bit of a thing about time: in his Confessions, he says that he knows perfectly well what time is as long as no-one asks him, but “if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not”. Eric Mascall called time “that mysterious and tragic feature of the world”, and I think that raises for us the idea that, although we rightly speak of the events of Good Friday as an act of almost unimaginable sacrifice and self-giving by God, the sacrifice begins at the Annunciation, as God takes on the constraints of created time, even before He takes on the constraints of created flesh.
St Augustine said that the world was created not in time, but with time. That’s in City of God, in a chapter headed, “That the world and time had but one beginning, and the one did not anticipate the other”. God, after all, does not have a “beginning”; so the “In the beginning” of Genesis means “At the beginning of creation”, rather than “At the beginning of God”. Time is not something which exists and into which God sends His creation; time is an aspect of creation, maybe even a necessary consequence of creation. So for God to enter our world and make the sacrifice of dying, He first has to make the sacrifice of entering time. The Infinite chooses to be bound by finite time, by finite creation, by finite space. He assumed this mortal body, Frail and feeble, doomed to die, That the race from dust created, Might not perish utterly. And what has not been assumed cannot be redeemed, so part of God’s coming in time redeems for us the messy business of time, “that mysterious and tragic feature of the world”. Of course, the fact that God elects to do that does not bind God within His own creation, any more than my describing God in English makes Him English. But it does free us up to see the whole business of time in a rather different way from the way in which non-Christians perceive it.
Anxiety about time seems to be a common feature of the way we live now. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t care about (for example) being on time – of course we should, because to be otherwise is dishonouring of the person we are going to meet. But the modern obsession with “things I must do in my lifetime” adds another unhelpful anxiety.
To focus on the babe in the manger in the stable in Bethlehem is to focus on one moment in history that, in fact, allows us to glimpse eternity. The infinite God takes finite flesh, and we see as God sees, and He sees as we see. In that moment, the Infinite also becomes finite. And that’s the reality of that stable in the midst of the restlessness of the Roman world. In this purest form of love lies our salvation: the love of the Father who sent His Son, and the love of the Son who emptied himself and took flesh in the womb of the Virgin. In weakness, not strength, God shows His love: a love which is unconditional and absolute, self-giving and self-sacrificial. Now is God not only omniscient, omnipresent, infinite – He is also totally dependent on the human beings around him, lying in the arms of His Virgin Mother, His eyes not yet open. As Austin Farrer once said, “The maker of the world begs for milk without even knowing that it is milk for which He begs.” Because of this, in the fullness of time, we shall no longer be constrained by time. And what a blessing that will be.