O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
Two years ago I wrote an article titled, “A Newborn and St. Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life as Incarnational Encounters,” which was published in the journal Spiritual Life. This morning, while reflecting on today’s antiphon — O Emmanuel, O God-with-us — I kept returning to many of the same thoughts I had in that essay.
This first part of the article is a reflection on the experience of the Incarnation that we can have in the very ordinary experiences of our lives. For example, I felt the power of God-with-us (Emmanuel) in the meeting of best friends’ newborn son. I believe that there are ways in which we can experience and be inspired by a sort of Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, in our everyday lives.
After explaining the manifold ways Christ comes to us as a newly born presence in our lives, what I call moments of incarnational encounter, I explained that St. Francis has a particular ability to recognize these moments of Christ’s breaking into the world again and again in his own life. Then I shared some reflections on a masterwork of St. Bonaventure, The Tree of Life. St. Bonaventure presents us with the invitation to use our imaginations to enter into prayerful relationship with God (nearly four-hundred-years before Ignatius Loyola was born, one should note).
Bonaventure draws the reader into the place of Mary and to imagine the experience of the annunciation and conception. Speaking directly to the reader, Bonaventure says:
Oh, if you could feel in some way the quality and intensity of that fire sent from heaven, the refreshing coolness that accompanied it, the consolation it imparted; if you could realize the great exaltation of the Virgin mother, the ennobling of the human race, the condescension of the divine majesty; if you could go with your Lady into the mountainous region; if you could see the sweet embrace of the Virgin and the woman who had been sterile and hear the greeting in which the tiny servant recognized his Lord, the herald his Judge and the voice his Word, then I am sure… with the tiny prophet you would exalt, rejoice and adore the marvelous virginal conception!
Bonaventure leaves the realm of narrative description and takes on the task of spiritual guide. As if directing a play or writing a script, the reader is made to play a role in the unfolding of the story and encounter the Incarnate Christ; first as Mary did, next as her cousin Elizabeth did, followed by the infant John the Baptist and finally as ourselves present to the mystery and sharing in the joy of those who were present to the newly conceived infant Jesus.
At the end of this section, Bonaventure closes his reflection on the conception and birth of the Word-Made-Flesh with an invitation to enter into an intimate relationship with the newborn Christ. Like parents in awe of their newborn, gently caring for their child, Bonaventure leads us into the stable to meet the Incarnate Christ. In what remains one of the most moving lines in all of Bonaventure’s writings, displaying a real sense of Christ as a newborn baby, he says,
“Now, then, my soul, embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.”
The tone is strikingly different from most reflections on the Birth of the Lord. Bonaventure guides our meditative prayer toward a very real experience of an intimate connection with the newborn Christ.
As Christmas approaches, what is it that you imagine when you think of God-with-us?