A Mystery at the Heart of the Incarnation

by Kathy Kramer-Howe

Matthew 2:10-11
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Last month I visited Barcelona, Spain and made sure not to miss Antoni Gaudi’s great cathedral, La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family). Gaudi began work on it in the 1890s and it was just one quarter completed at his death in 1926. It is still under construction, following his vision and plans, and should be completed 100 years from his death in 2026.

This art nouveau and gothic work of art towers over the city. Its eastern and western porticos, great soaring structures of arches, sculptures and statues, represent the Nativity and the Crucifixion, respectively. I stood beneath the symbols and figures representing Christ’s birth in frank awe. There are angels, minstrels, animals and plants, as well as the major figures of the story. The façade almost explodes with joy, exultation, new creation and divinity. I could almost hear the harps, trumpets and Glorias.

Details of facade of Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona


Minstrels and Children on the Facade of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

But then I noticed one ledge that represented what the Catholics call the Feast of the Holy Innocents. A soldier held aloft a tiny child, its mother screaming on her knees, with a sword poised to impale it. Hanging off the ledge were the limp bodies of other first-born baby boys murdered by the evil King Herod. I almost wept. I was stunned that Gaudi had included this dreadful scene. What was he thinking?

As I ponder this, I sense that God is inching me towards a deeper acceptance of death and suffering in a world God loves and blesses. There is no rational way to understand it. But I almost grasped how the baby Jesus, God taking on the human experience, was destined for suffering as well as unfathomable love. The cruelest of human deeds was one of the outcomes of his birth, one his family had to flee when he was still very tiny. Yet love bathes the whole story in golden light and assurance.

The mystery of Christ’s birth is more present to me now. We sense the awesome change he brought into our world. We feel more generous, hopeful and loving. We light up the world to let God know we remember. Yet, we must not completely ignore the darker side of our greatest joys. Somehow God is able to hold them, love them and redeem them. Can we, too?

Prayer: Divine Mystery, light your fire in our hearts and bellies. Help us get lost and confused, so that we make room for your guidance. Strengthen our spiritual selves as this is how we recognize you, love you and become more like you. Amen.

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