When I was a customs officer in San Ysidro, California, in 1966, I one day had a flash of insight into incarnation. Prior to that moment I thought of the word exclusively as the term for a once-in-human-history event – the “mystery of the incarnation,” ” the Word made flesh” of John’s gospel and all that.
I was processing an importation, and the importer wanted to either do something or avoid doing something contrary to the Customs Regulations, and I wouldn’t let him. This was, of course, a regular part of my duties; the essence of the job really. He was a little insistent, might even have hinted at a bribe, but I didn’t yield, and the regulations were complied with. I suddenly saw the whole exchange as an incarnation. In carrying out, enforcing, the Regulations I was giving them life. Without me being their voice, their living presence, the written provisions were just so much ink on a piece of paper, among hundreds of pieces of paper in a ring binder, among many binders on the shelf. And importers would come and go and do whatever they wanted, heedless of the very existence of the words. But the words lived through me. After that I saw incarnations, with a small “i”, everywhere; police officers enforcing traffic laws; even drivers simply obeying the speed limit; married couples caring for each other, giving life to their vows “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health;” anyone feeding the hungry or giving drink to those who thirst. I am reminded as I type this of the observation of a political philosopher, Machiavelli maybe, that it is by words that men are governed. We are all, each of us, all the time, incarnations of words that we have read or heard. And sometimes people are incarnations of evil words, hence the phrase, “evil incarnate,” applied to monstrous historical figures like Reinhard Heydrich, but also applicable to lesser lights, such as one who shoots a congresswoman at an outdoor meeting with constituents, thus giving life to, embodying, (note the word “body” in “embodying”) hate-filled, anti-government words he has heard about “second amendment remedies” and such.
How then to relate this to the once-in-human-history Incarnation with a capital “I”. What was different, special, about that? At this moment I think it is this: the Word to which Jesus was giving life was all the words of the Old Testament, which were laying out for anyone to read about how to live, but which had become so encrusted with contrary human traditions as to have been effectively nullified, even perverted to their opposite intent. But he lived them, and principally he lived the one he quoted as the sum of them all – the Great Commandment – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. What makes this incarnation singular is the universality and timelessness of the words he embodied and the lengths to which he went to be their incarnation. But it wasn’t supposed to remain a once-in-human-history event; it was to teach us to be – to do — the same.