A Christmas Story During Lent: The Incarnation
On March 25, the Church will pause from her Lenten fast in order to feast. The occasion is the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, inviting her to be the Mother of God. Mary’s yes–her faithful fiat and great amen–has resonated throughout two millennia: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Nine months later, on December 25, the Church will celebrate the feast of the Nativity, when an angel appears to shepherds and proclaims, “a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Together, these solemn occasions reveal two mysterious movements within one miraculous event: the Incarnation, wherein God breaks into human history through his only-begotten Son of God “who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” This dogma, which is unique to the Christian religious tradition, proclaims that “the Word [of God] became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
Why is it so important that the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity took on a human body? Was it necessary for our salvation? What are some of the practical implications? Pondering the significance of the Incarnation, my mind often returns to the mausoleum of St. Peter’s Cemetery in Lewiston. Upon entering this sacred space that was built on hallowed ground, you might say that one comes “face-to-face-to-face” with not one but three carved images of Jesus. The most obvious statue is of the Resurrection, reminding us that in and through his human body, Jesus has brought the human experience, with all its promise and potential, to its perfect and ultimate fulfillment. The message for those mourners who bring their loved ones to this resting place is clear: Christians have a faith-filled expectation of sharing in a life that transcends the grave, a life intended not only for our immortal souls, but for the entire human person, which includes our flesh, blood, and bone bodies as well.
This hope-filled depiction of the human body is precisely the reason that visitors also should take note of the two other carvings of Jesus (into both of which the artist has incorporated the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary): to one’s left, the Mother of God rejoices as she cradles her newborn babe; to one’s right, our Lady of Sorrows mourns as she cradles her crucified son.
Individually and collectively, these three works of art–the Nativity, the Pieta, and the Resurrection–remind us that Jesus became one like us in every way, except sin. In Jesus, God came to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, and to feel just as we do; in Jesus, God came to rejoice at a young couple’s wedding in Cana, to cry at Lazarus’ grave in Bethany, to touch a little girl with the gift of life, and to be touched by an outcast who desires healing and inclusion. At every moment–from the womb to the tomb and beyond, Jesus embraces fully the human experience, with all its joys and sorrows, its pleasures and sufferings, its opportunities and temptations, its possibilities and limitations. It is “through Him, with Him and in Him”–His body–that Jesus teaches us how to love God and neighbor, how to be faithful to His commands, and how to be obedient to His will; in essence, He shows us how our mission as the Body of Christ is to put flesh on his message and ministry as we journey through this time in human history.
Jesus enters into this earthly existence to reaffirm the origin of every human person, who has been made in the image of God and is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Similarly, Jesus exits from this earthly existence to reveal the destiny of every human person, who is called to “have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).
The early Church put doctrinal flesh onto this Scriptural skeleton. Summarizing centuries of debate about the mystery of the Incarnate Word, the early ecumenical councils declared dogmatically that Jesus is one divine person with two distinct natures. As the Son of God with a fully divine nature, He has the power and will to save us from sin and death. As the Son of Mary with a fully human nature, He has taken on Himself that which He loves most and that which he himself was not in order to save it. In doing so, Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2008 Christmas Midnight Mass homily, “The Creator who holds all things in his hands, on whom we all depend, makes himself small and in need of human love.” Whether we are talking about ourselves or Jesus, we recognize that the human body is a good and necessary part of God’s plan of creation and redemption. Perhaps St. Athanasius summarized it best when he said, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Rev. Andrew Dubois
Moderator of the Curia
What Catholics Believe is an ongoing Harvest series on the United States Catholic Catechism of Adults. Click below to read continuing articles.