Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: Introduction

Catholic scholar George Weigel once said about John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that it would “change our understanding in every aspect of the Creed.” With all due respect to the eminent doctor, I believe his focus is misplaced. Important as Theology of the Body may be to many Catholics, there is something far more revolutionary in our midst. A proper understanding of this will indeed transform everything you know about the Catholic faith. Without it, you understand nothing. Without it, Theology of the Body means nothing. I speak of the Incarnation.

Even saying that phrase will draw blank stares from a lot of Catholics. For those who know what it means, I submit many do not understand its true importance. When we speak of the Incarnation, we speak of the very moment our Lord was conceived within the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This moment was the decisive moment in human history. When we speak of “game changers”, this was the game-changer par excellence. All of salvation history pointed to this moment. All history since has been influenced by it. Without the Incarnation, our faith is impossible.

So why do we hear so little about the Incarnation in our everyday faith lives? Part of it is an imprecision in our language. When Mass is attended every Sunday in English, we hear the phrase “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” In the Latin, even in the ordinary form, we sing the following at the Creed:

Et Incarnatus Est,
De Spirtu Sancto
Ex Maria Virgine
Et Homo Factus Est
This phrase explains that Christ was “Incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” While this might translate roughly into English, the central Creed of our faith makes explicit reference to the Incarnation. So important is this, at the very pronouncement of these words, one either bows or genuflects. In the Extraordinary Form, Catholics listen to the prologue of the Gospel of St. John, which recalls the Incarnation, again genuflecting at “and the word was made flesh.”

It should go without saying, “born of” is not the same thing as “Incarnate.” “Born of” can describe a natural birth. I was born of my mother Marie, a result of her union with my father Francis. Yet we are not talking about just this when we speak of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation involved several miraculous events. First, this occurred through a virginal conception. Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, though knowing no man. Naturally understanding, this is impossible. Second, God took upon human flesh; maintaining both full humanity and divinity together. How can Jesus be completely man yet also completely God? The Greeks knew of demi-gods, humans having a spark of that divinity, but of course “lower on the totem pole” of Olympus. The Romans deified some of their leaders after the death as perfect examples of Roman virtue, but the idea of a living God was something alien to them, even in the honorific titles they gave to Augustus (which roughly translates as "The Exalted one"). The very idea of God entering the womb of a virgin, possessing the fullness of humanity and godhead, was unheard of. As one can see, these two events combined into one change human history, and I submit they are absolutely necessary.

Yet if one thinks for a moment, certainly God could have chosen to manifest himself any way he wanted to. Yet think deeper, and one will realize that the Incarnation was really the only way possible. Allow that to sink into your very being before we continue. The Incarnation was the only way God could become man to secure our redemption. Any other way would’ve caused a change in our very existence, and of God’s. Since God cannot change (His very existence is outside of time), the Incarnation happened for a reason. I will attempt to explain those reasons as we continue. Furthermore, these reasons have profound implications for every article of the faith, and we would do well to explore them.

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