What does”Incarnation”mean?

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

When I used to be a math tutor, I helped elementary school students who were struggling with arithmetic.  As a physicist, I was knee deep in very difficult and advanced mathematics and realizing that some children had difficulty with addition and subtraction initially took me aback.   Basic arithmetic had become so familiar to me that it took some time to figure out how to teach and explain it.  I took it so much for granted that I forgot how odd it must seem to a child coming across it for the first time.

In a similar way, we could look at today’s “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” question: “What does the word ‘Incarnation’ mean?” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the Church calls ‘Incarnation’ the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it.”(CCC 461)  While this is not easy language it is something that most Catholics are used to hearing and may not think twice about.  When we realize that most of the disagreements in the first five centuries of the Church revolved around this doctrine, we may be surprised.  What, exactly, is the big deal? In these arguments, the big deal was our salvation.

Since the original sin, mankind had cut itself off from friendship with God.  Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins and restore us to communion with God.  The theological question was this: if Christ came to save us, what did He have to become in the Incarnation?  Jesus Christ saved us by becoming like us in all ways but sin.

The first major Christological heresy, Arianism, claimed that Jesus Christ was not  really God, just a very godlike creature.    Arius didn’t want to admit that God could become man—it might imply that God wasn’t perfect and transcendent.  But St. Athanasius argued fiercely against him.  Only God can bridge the infinite gap between us and Him.  If Jesus wasn’t really and truly God, then Jesus couldn’t save us from our sins.  This is why we say in the Creed that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father.”

The heretic Nestorius split the unity of Christ’s Person.  Can we really say that Mary is the “Mother of God?”  Nestorius thought this was pious nonsense.  How can the eternal and perfect God have a mother, or be born in time?  It seemed safer to say that two persons existed in Christ.   This, of course, is deeply wrong.   The same Person who died on the Cross had to be God, for us to be saved from our sins.  God died on the Cross.  Only as God did He offer something infinitely worthy to God, and only as man could He suffer on our behalf.  By splitting the unity of Christ’s Person, Nestorius would tear asunder the unity of Christ’s saving work.   Thus the Church found itself confessing that Jesus Christ was “True God and True Man.”

When we dive into the details, we find that the mystery of the Incarnation is far from straightforward, and sorting out the details takes a lot more than simple arithmetic. But the mystery of the Incarnation opens up to us the mystery of divinization, “for this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might becomes sons of God.”(CCC 460)

Join us on December 27th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

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5 Replies to “What does”Incarnation”mean?”

  1. The word “Incarnation” also means, is the most simple words possible, God becoming human and having a human face.

  2. One of the great things about the new translation into English is that words which have such depth of meaning were missing in the general Novus Ordo of the Mass. Catholics of my generation grew up with incarnate and consubstantial. The fact that others outside of the Holy Roman Catholic Church neither understood or used these words meant , to us, that we understood things that those outside, did not. Then, we lost these words and now we are having to rediscover them. We need to rediscover Gregorian Chant as well. Every Catholic that I knew in my youth was completely at home with the Missa de Angelis and we also knew O Salutaris, Tantum Ergo and Adoremus in Aeternum all of which we sang regularly in Benediction. Now, in the church which I attend, when we have Benediction, as we do every month after the Mass of the first Saturday of the month, if I don’t start off the singing of those hymns, the rest of the congregation inevitably messes at least one of them up (so I’m told)!

    1. Having grown up not knowing such a beautiful heritage, it is great that you were able to share. Now that a year has come and gone with the recent English changes, it has helped the mass become a lot more prayerful.

  3. A blessed Christmas and a grace-filled 2013 to all.

    The following is from Blessed Columba Marmion’s spiritual classic Christ in His Mysteries.

    “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his Master’s Crib,” wrote Isaias, in speaking of this mystery (Is 1:3). They saw the Child lying in the crib. But what could they see? As much as an animal could see: the form, the size, the color, the movement,–an entirely rudimentary knowledge that does not pass the boundary line of sensation. Nothing more.
    The passers-by, the curious, who approached the stable-cave saw the Child; but for them He was like all others. They did not go beyond this purely natural knowledge. Perhaps they were struck by the Child’s loveliness. Perhaps they pitied His destitution. But this feeling did not last and was soon replaced by indifference.
    There were the Shepherds, simple-hearted men, enlightened by a ray from on high: “And the brightness of God shone round about them” (Lk 2:9), They certainly understood more; they recognized in this Child the promised Messias, long awaited, the “The expectation of the nations” (Gen 49:10); they paid Him their homage, and their souls were for a long time full of joy and peace.
    The Angels likewise contemplated the Newborn Babe, the Word made Flesh. They saw in Him their God; this knowledge threw these pure spirits into awe and wonderment at such incomprehensible self-abasement: for it was not to their nature that He willed to unite Himself: not to angels, but to human nature, “but of the seed of Abraham he taketh hold” (Heb 2:16).
    What shall we say of the Blessed Virgin when she looked upon Jesus? Into what depths of the mystery did her gaze penetrate–that gaze so pure, so humble, so tender, so full of bliss? Who shall be able to express with what lights the soul of Jesus inundated His Mother, and what perfect homage Mary rendered to her Son, to her God, to all the states and all the mysteries whereof the Incarnation is the substance and the root.
    There is finally–but this is beyond description–the gaze of the Father contemplating His Son made flesh for mankind. The Heavenly Father saw that which never man, nor angel, nor Mary herself could comprehend: the infinite perfections of the Divinity hidden in a Babe… And this contemplation was the source of unspeakable rapture: Thou art My Son, My beloved Son, the Son of My dilection in Whom I have placed all My delights (Mk 1:2; Lk 3:22)…

  4. God is the balanced One perfect white light. Incarnation means the bodies of spectrum colors of the one light. Bodies are the manifesting of God’s spectrum within the white light of eternal life.

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