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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.

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December 18, 2013
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.
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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.


In chapter 2, titled “He Came Down From Heaven,” the author speaks of the Incarnation in light of the Old Testament hope. Chapter 3, titled “Born of the Virgin Mary,” considers faith and reason as applied to the historical reality of a human virgin giving birth to the Son of God. The conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit through the Virgin Mary appears in Matthew and Luke. By the 2nd century, Church Fathers seemed convinced of this as a historical reality and adamantly defended it. Schönborn writes, “No one ‘invents’ something that provokes derision and misunderstanding all around! The only sensible interpretation seems to be this: the fact of a solid tradition in the primitive Church regarding the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit is the starting-point of all the attempts to understand, interpret, and actually proclaim this baffling, even repellent fact” (22).

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The idea of the Virgin Birth is also rooted in the Old Testament. Chapter 4, titled “He Has Become Man,” meditates on the significance of the virginal conception for understanding Christ’s humanity and the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation, which is the “divinization” of humanity. Schönborn points to the collect for the Christmas liturgy, quoting it: “Grant us to share in the divinity of your Son, who has put on our human nature” (p. 35). Jesus is born without the inheritance of sin; death had no power over him, and so his death is for us.

Chapter 5, titled “The Christmas Icon,” seems the most creative by Schönborn. In it, he explains the creativity found in iconography, and how the message they give is different from Western Christmas art, and how it is not meant be taken as a literal historical description of the night of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. “Mary and Joseph do not kneel in adoration of the Child: the Child lies neither in a crib nor in a stall. Instead, generally, Mary takes a prominent position in the center of the picture, lying on a cushion-like bed. Her gaze is often turned away from the Child; Joseph most often sits at some distance from Mother and Child, withdrawn and brooding. Finally, the Child lies in a cave on a structure resembling an altar, firmly wrapped up in linen cloths. He is almost always accompanied by the two nursemaids who bathe the Child; Western art hardly ever mentions them; it is more familiar with the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men from the East.” (p. 40) Maybe Western art does not include them because this bath scene comes from apocryphal gospels? Schönborn describes the theology depicted in the icons in detail. For example, “Whereas the bathing of the Christ-child is designed to show the genuine reality of his human nature, the Joseph scene is concerned with the mystery of the Child’s conception through the Holy Spirit and his divine nature” (p. 47). Regrettably, the Paulist press printing does not have the five icons Schönborn wishes to comment on depicted. An older printing by Ignatius Press (1992) does.

To summarize, the five meditations in The Mystery of the Incarnation seem like a mix of catechesis, theology, and some practical apologetics. The writing style is accessible for the non-specialist. The translation by Graham Harrison makes the thoughts of the author clear. Schönborn’s treatment of icons is especially interesting for those unfamiliar with this craft of spiritual art. The author’s treatment of myth does more than make one aware of the genre in a rationalist world – it makes one want to go read C. S. Lewis on the subject. 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. This central mystery of faith makes the real historical event from the past present in our lives and points us to a glorious future. May we meditate on the coming of Christ into our lives during Advent.  


The Mystery of the Incarnation was translated by Graham Harrison in 2013 for Paulist Press. The original text was published in 1983 as Das Geheimnis der menschwerdung.  The first English language edition was published in 1992 by Ignatius Press. 
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