The Incarnation: God’s Great Surprise
On this 6th day of Christmas I want to reflect on the Incarnation and what it means for me and you. I confess that I approach this subject with a certain amount of trepidation. Many others have written more eloquently about the Incarnation than I will ever be able to. Yet, I do have thoughts I want to share. The Incarnation is, after all, the central mystery of our faith. As Archbishop Joseph Raya writes in his book Abundance of Love, “The Son of God, the God of God and Light of Light, took on our physical reality. He became a fetus growing and developing as does every human being. The Creator became matter: the Infinite was contained in a womb.” In short, the Incarnation changed everything. It is God’s great surprise. And it is a mystery. We cannot hope to fathom it. The best we can do is bow in adoration of the Christ Child in the manger, who is God become man.
What exactly is the Incarnation?
Specifically, the Incarnation refers to God becoming man in Jesus of Nazareth. It sounds simple enough, but during first several centuries of the Church, christians wrestled time and again with how to understand the Incarnation, how to understand exactly who Jesus is. Certain errant beliefs cropped up from time to time, and the Church Fathers would meet in Ecumenical Councils to refute errors and to better articulate our understanding of the Incarnation, of who Jesus is.
“In 453 the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon defined with majesty the reality of the Incarnation. The Fathers of the Council gave us a declaration which is in fact a hymn to God, stressing the dignity of the human person:
“We teach that the one and only Son of God,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
is the very same one perfect in divinity,
and very same one perfect in humanity.
He is the very same God,
consubstantial with the Father
according to his divinity,
and the very same person,
consubstantial with us according to his humanity.
He is the one and the same Christ in two natures
(human and divine)
without change, without confusion,
without division, without separation.
The union of the two natures
did not in any way suppress
the difference between these natures:
each one kept its proper character and distinction
while encountering the other in the unique Person,
in the one and unique Lord, Jesus Christ,
the unique Son of God, himself God the Word.”
(from Abundance of Love by Joseph Raya, pp. 9-10)
One of the ramifications of the Incarnation that strikes me most is that matter matters. Spirituality isn’t some pie-in-the-sky thing. And our physicality and the physical reality in which we live is not evil. Creation is good. We are created good. What we do with our bodies matters. You can see this clearly in both the Eastern and Western Churches… we worship God with our bodies. As Catholics, we may chuckle at our Sunday Calisthenics: genuflect, sit, stand, kneel, stand, kneel, sit, etc. But it’s all part of the bodily worship of God. In the East there are bows and prostrations. And our churches are filled with things that touch our senses: candles, incense, icons, statues, holy water, stained glass windows, and beautiful music. This is how it should be. We are human beings who come together to worship God as human beings. Matter matters. And far from being useless, the tangible and the earthly are vital to encountering God.
Theology of the Body Isn’t just about the Bedroom
During his Wednesday audiences from September 5, 1979 to November 28, 1984, Pope John Paul II systematically presented a series of 129 lectures that would later be called the Theology of the Body. Most of what you hear about today in relation to the Theology of the Body is human sexuality and theological basis for sexual morality. But I have always looked at the Theology of the Body in a broader context, namely the sacramentality of all of creation. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Because of the Incarnation, when it comes to spirituality, the body is not a second-class citizen.
I have often thought how strange it is that we in the West need the Theology of the Body. It’s like the fixation for experts we have today in our society. Common sense has long been exiled. Today we need experts to tell us what common sense had informed humanity for millennia. It’s the same with the Theology of the Body in my opinion. The only reason Pope John Paul II felt the need to teach the Theology of the Body is because we in the West have lost our sense of mystery. We have lost our sense of faith. His series of lectures was an attempt to use reason to get us back to faith because we kinda-sorta like to think we listen to reason. I’m not so sure we do. Just look around. But I admit that I am not an expert. This is just my two-cents.
Archbishop Joseph Raya is an expert, though. Below, I am quoting a passage from his book Abundance of Love, which is about the Incarnation. What he writes clarifies what I have tried to say above. He writes simply, shining a small light on a mystery that is shrouded in darkness. We can make out contours and veiled beauty though. And it should elicit from us awe. Please read it. And let me know what you think.
Christian Notion of Flesh
“In the biblical and Christian understanding, human persons are not ‘incarnate souls;’ they are, instead, ‘animated bodies.’ Body and soul are wedded in love. The body is a bride. The body is penetrated with God’s goodness. God joined body and spirit, not out of punishment, but out of love. For us Christians, the body is a part of the universe and represents the whole universe. It is a tent and a dwelling place of God’s delight. It was out of love that God created the body, and it was out of love that he assumed the body. Thus, when he united our body and creation in himself, he restored them to their pristine glory, and returned them to the Father who is their Source.
“The unity and solidarity of the whole creation is in the flesh of Jesus Christ. This truth is the golden thread that runs through our whole Christian teaching, giving it a meaning and relevance we can never repeat enough. When God the Son became incarnate, he joined in himself heaven and earth, and united the Creator to his creation. Consequently, when he died for our sins, humanity died in him and with him. Sin was wiped out and destroyed. When he rose from the dead, all humanity rose in him and with him and shared in his new life. And when Christ God ‘ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father,’ in him and with him our humanity was restored to its original beauty. Humanity and creation flowed from the love of God-Trinity; in Christ God they are returned to God-Trinity.
“It makes sense, therefore, to say that the sacraments convey the grace or life of God because the sacraments are made of the matter of creation which is already united with God through the Incarnation, alive in him through the Resurrection, and filled with him through the Ascension. Since matter has thus been penetrated by divine reality, a piece of bread can become Eucharist and contain and impart the Living God; water can be a channel for God’s life and for identification with Christ in baptism; a drop of oil in Chrismation can impart the Holy Spirit; and an Icon can be the Sacrament of Christ and bearer of the Spirit!
“In the Incarnation, Christ became the essence of humanity, the center of creation, the focal Being in relation with all beings. The Incarnation is the pure act of love by which God desired to be one with his creation.
“The Fathers of the Eastern Church constantly affirmed that God would have become man even if Adam had not sinned. God made the universe out of love, not out of necessity. He is rightly called Philanthropos, a Lover, the Lover of his creation and of every human face in this world. The reason for his Incarnation does not proceed from sinful mankind in need of salvation, but from God, who is a Lover, Abundance of life and love. He became flesh because of his desire to manifest his divinity in humanity, which he created to be the beloved place of his presence.” – Abundance of Love, pp. 18-20