The Incarnation

It is fitting that in this final week (yes it is still the Third Week of Advent, but Christmas day comes very shortly after the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year) we reflect on the doctrine of the Incarnation and its meaning within Christianity and specifically the catholic church.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

This is the foundational line from the Gospels that articulate in a sort of mystic way the Incarnation of Jesus as both God and child. There is a story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew (and virtually no mention of the story in the Gospel of Mark) but I think that this line from John is perfect. It is simple and yet terribly complex; which is a spot on summation of a foundational event in Christianity. Indeed, what separates Christianity from every world religion is found within the Incarnation; a God who comes down and becomes fully human while remaining fully God.

In the original Greek versions of the Gospel, John writes ‘the Word’ as Logos, which is a very important idea worth exploring some more as we speak of the Incarnation. The Logos was almost purely a Greek concept that was imported into various sects within worlds that were influenced by the Greeks (at that time the Greeks were like the United States when it came to culture and arts). It can literally be translated into English as the Word, which works well because such a label is illusive and broad, just the same as that of the Logos. The early catholic church was without question influenced by Greek culture and society. One of its biggest salesmen was Paul who was a hellenistic Jew that spoke and wrote in Greek. And rounding the early first century within the early church we see leaders like Justin Martyr and Cyril of Alexandria link the Logos to that of the Greek understanding of the concept; a seed-bearing Logos that would spread ideas of itself around humanity and then having that Logo dwell in humanity in the form of Jesus the man and Christ the Lord. Cyril of Alexandria himself would go further and add that the coming of Jesus through the Incarnation occurred in order that the Logos may be united to defiled human flesh thus making all humanity capable of sharing in His divinity. It is also interesting to note how early church fathers placed a clear distinction on Jesus as the Messiah (a purely Jewish concept) and Jesus as the Christ (a more hellenized concept). Despite the word itself being purely of Greek origins, it is likely that many gentile Greeks who would have been preached to about Jesus Christ would have assumed it was a familia nom as opposed to a title that bequeathed universal glory. But it was an intentional development by the church fathers which was undoubtably influenced by the Holy Spirit.

Saint Augustine writes that, “He whom the world could not contain was contained in a mother’s womb,” when remarking about the Incarnation. C.S. Lewis writes in a Grief Observed that “…the Incarnation leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” I am rather fond of this aspect of the Incarnation. It is indeed a concept that could not have been reasonably conceived by humans. It is impossible that anyone would have proposed and organized an entire religion around the idea of a God who becomes the nasty and brutishness of their creation. It separates Christians from every other religion in the world. Jesus had spit like we have spit. The coming of the Word in the form of flesh gives us a focal point in the material world in which all of humanity (and creation for that matter) is limited to. It is as if God is one cloth hanging against a separate cloth and creation is another hanging against it. They are separated at first, but are now united by the needle and thread that is Jesus Christ, made of the same substance of the Father and of the Father in every way, the Word becomes flesh and becomes the mediated between God and man forever. An entire focal point for all of creation. He breathed as we breathe (and probably had bad breath from time to time). He bled like we bleed. And yet He was totally God. There were no changes made to the Word when it became flesh, it remained fully and completely the Word, in addition to being full and completely human. And we know that He was different because although He spit as we spit, His spit made the blind see. And although He breathed as we breathe, His breath brought dead men back to life. And although He bled as we bleed, His blood paid the ransom for all of humanity as a result of the Adam’s Fall. He was both fully human and fully man.

And what better sacrament to we have in the catholic church than that of the Holy Eucharist to articulate this concept for us. Every day the Incarnation is not just replayed or reenacted at the hands of the Priest, it literally happens again and again. Since it was instituted by the Word made flesh. The bread and wine brought to the altar become the body and blood of Jesus in the same was as the body and blood brought into Mary bore a child that was the power and glory of God. And just the same as the body of Christ tastes and feels like bread even after the miracle of transubstantiation takes place on the altar, the body of the Son of God was like that of a human. If I can digress a bit here, and be permitted to indulge in a silly analogy in order to better illustrate my point. Suppose one of the children who came rushing to Jesus licked His face or hand, indeed His face would have tasted salty as ours and His hands probably clammy and perhaps a little dirty as our at times do as well. The same is true of the bread and wine after it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. And yet the saltiness, clamminess and dirtiness of the flesh of Jesus certainly does not diminish His glory and the fact that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

In fact we can venture to say with certainty that there is no Eucharist without the Incarnation and vice versa. Not just for the obvious fact that the Incarnation was how the man of Jesus was conceived into this world, but because you cannot have the body and blood of Christ without the flesh and veins of a human being. For reasons we will never be able to comprehend (but in faith we hope some day will be revealed to us), we require the body and blood of Christ as Christians for spiritual and temporal nourishment as part of the physical Body of Christ here on earth. In order for this life giving substance to exist and to be present here, God needed to take the form of man and literally create the body and blood of Christ in order that it may be shared from generation to generation to nourish the entire Body of Christ while we labour and wait for His Second Coming. The Logos became flesh and blood so that we may share and nourish on it indefinitely until He returns in glory. What an amazing cyclical existence and surely one that contributes to the entire concept of Christianity and a truth “hanging together” as C.S. Lewis once remarked.

Much can be said about the Incarnation of our Lord. It is after all the defining characteristic of the whole of the Christian faith. Along with the Holy Eucharist, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ, we can look upon the Incarnation as linked faithfully to the Eucharist. Together they represent the two stable and everlasting bookends that is the Christian faith.