It is interesting that Jesus Christ referred to himself as a “sign of contradiction” unto the very world he not only first caused to exist but then came to deliver from its ancient nemesis, namely sin. Yet no figure in history has generated quite as much controversy as this so-called Prince of Peace. Even among his own Christian followers some have denied his divinity outright, others have insisted that his humanity was merely a cloak concealing his divine origins, while others go so far as to speculate that he was unaware of his true identity. For 20 centuries now this charismatic historical figure has stirred unceasing controversy, bloody feuds, and countless persecutions. Just as he predicted, Jesus of Nazareth has remained a social and religious lightning rod for a very long time, a fact that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
Most major religions, particularly Judaism and Islam, recognize Jesus as an important prophet but beyond that they part ways decisively with the Christian’s understanding of Christ. One of the foundational tenets of orthodox Christianity is the Incarnation, the belief that Jesus was something much more than a great prophet or holy man extraordinaire. Through the Incarnation God himself assumed a completely human nature in the person of Jesus Christ without sacrificing anything of his transcendent divinity. Such a doctrine is bound to raise at least a few eyebrows and create confusion because it stretches our human reason seemingly to the breaking point. It is not an easy concept to wrap one’s mind around, particularly in a materialistic, secular culture such as our own.
Yet even in those cultures where fantastic things are given credibility the Incarnation was regularly scoffed at. The Greeks with their elaborate mythology, the Romans hosting a pantheon of gods, the Arabs with their cultic idols, Persians, and even Jews all had enormous difficulty in digesting the notion of a God-man who died a real, agonizing death only to rise again to life. The Incarnation suddenly changed all the rules for understanding, or at least rationalizing, the interaction between the divine and human spheres. For the first time in history it brought those spheres into direct contact with one another, and not just through some angelic intermediary or visionary prophet but physically and biologically.
Jesus’ Incarnation suggested an intimacy between God and mankind that seemed for many to be as sacrilegious as it was life threatening. For just as a man coming too near a hot furnace was sure to be burned to a crisp, for a mortal to approach God too closely was tantamount to death. Jesus may well have appeared to that superstitious age as the tragic Iccarus personified, that mythological precursor of the Wright brothers whose flying too close to the sun led to his own downfall.
But the rub is that Jesus was not a fable or a myth but a real man. That he was an extraordinary man few have ever doubted. Therefore the only way to explain away his remarkable miracles and teachings was to relegate them to the realm of legend rather than factual history. It proved to be far too difficult to square the man with the accounts in any historical sense, assuming he was merely a man. I would add impossible in fact, especially when one factors in that most incredible of miracles, the raising of the dead to life. Not even the most advanced science in our technological age is prepared to explain such a mystery. Without the dimension of divinity supplementing his humanity, no one can reasonably explain how Jesus accomplished such things. The fact that he did accomplish them has made him a contradictory figure ever since.
Christians accept the historical and metaphysical reality of the Resurrection as evidence of Jesus’ Incarnation which has put us at odds with all of the sophists, skeptics, mythologizers, philosophers, and various nonbelievers who have disputed the Incarnation for 20 centuries now. By simply being who he is, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God manifested in human form, becomes an enduring sign of contradiction to the world. He invites, but does not compel, one to believe that God so loved the human race that he would become one of us out of pure love. And ultimately it is love that stands in starkest contradiction to the spirit of this world.
Of course, not all men and women have rejected the mystery of the Incarnation, meaning that God’s love can still be recognized in the world. But, looking around us, it too often appears that his love is the exception and not the rule. We have the power to change that disparate equation, however, if we realize that truly loving God means contradicting the world, and sometimes even contradicting my own thoughts and desires which are of the world. The Incarnation, God made man in the person of Jesus Christ, is the greatest sign of love this world will ever see, even if men choose not to see it.
It is not necessary to see a thing for it to be real, after all. Love is something we sense in our heart, not something we can quantify or touch or see. No amount of worldly contradiction can ever diminish the love of God for mankind. As individuals we are free to contradict and deny him, but what does that really avail one in the end? Each person needs to ask themselves, “Is my life a sign of contradiction to the world, or a contradiction to God, his laws, even his Church?” If we, as mature Christians, are not living as signs of contradiction to the world then it is safe to say that we are failing in our Christian vocation. That does not mean we need to be hostile, defensive, or pugnacious towards nonbelievers, but we should always feel some small, nagging sense that we don’t really fit into the world completely. After all we weren’t made to fit in but to be signs and a sign that blends into the landscape is a very poor sign indeed.
There is no neutral ground here. We will either be signs of contradiction to Jesus Christ or else we will become signs of contradiction to the world, standing alongside him. If we really believe the Incarnation to be true then we must live out the Incarnation in our daily lives. It is the greatest sign of God’s love for our world, possessing the power to make each and every one of us another faithful “sign of contradiction.”
Francis J. Pierson