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Book Review: The Mystery of the Incarnation

The center of the book gives a wonderful spiritual reflection on the real meaning of Christmas: Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, has taken on human flesh and come to us through a Virgin.

Book Review: The Mystery of the Incarnation

Ignatius Press

As we move through the calendar year, the wisdom of the Catholic Church encourages us to focus on specific mysteries of our faith to deepen our spiritual lives. In the season of Advent, from the Latin adventus or coming, our focus turns to the coming of Jesus Christ and the mystery of his Incarnation through which we believe God became flesh. We both remember and look forward to the promises made to us by God. As Pope Francis in his encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, puts it, faith is an act of remembrance in the future (L. F. 9). A little book aimed at a wide readership which might help someone seeking contents for meditative prayer during Advent is The Mystery of the Incarnation by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. The author is a Dominican, the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria since 1995, and has achieved international recognition for his work as editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Reprinted by Paulist Press in English, Schönborn gives a series of five meditations beginning on the genre of myth, moving to three on the Creed concerning God becoming a man, and ending on icons depicting Christmas. I would like to give a brief sketch of what Schönborn presents and let the reader decide whether this book could be helpful.  

Schönborn’s first chapter title, borrowed from C. S. Lewis, is “Myth Became Fact.” I am convinced that this topic needs to be considered by thoughtful Christians in our contemporary world, and I will treat the contents of this chapter in the greatest detail for this brief review. The idea that God is born as a human being through a virgin classifies as the genre of myth. There are similarities of this concept in world religions, including death followed by resurrection. The early Fathers of Christianity were well aware of this problem and viewed, in general, other religions as a form of plagiarism. However, since the 19th century, a growing criticism is that Christianity is the religion of plagiarism. Schönborn takes issue with this charge, which reduces the fact of the Incarnation to a plagiarized myth – that is, to something not true. To do so, he turns to the work of C. S. Lewis on myth. Myth for Lewis causes a fascination in us – a longing, a cause of purification and an expansion of our consciousness. Myth as a genre should not be rejected as a falsehood under which Enlightenment philosophers would have us believe. Christians should not be afraid of myth parallels in other religions to Christianity. Creative theology is grounded in myth.

To demythologize Christianity misses the point. “The heart of Christianity,” Schönborn quotes Lewis as writing, “is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth: of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Lewis, God in the Dock, 66-7; see Schönborn p.8-9). On the one hand, myth is important for theology; on the other hand, it is also wrong to overlook the historical reality of the central Christian mysteries: the Incarnation (Christmas) and the Paschal Mystery (Easter). I have enjoyed the respect Schönborn seems to take for the writings of Lewis. In another book familiar to me by Schönborn, Happiness, God, and Man (Ignatius 2010), he writes two essays, one about Lewis’s space trilogy and the other giving an analysis of Till We Have Faces.