“Et Verbum caro factum est.” (“And the Word became flesh.”) For the better part of 800 years, this statement from the Gospel of St. John was read at the end of Masses as part of what was called “the Last Gospel.” When these words were spoken, the congregation would go from standing to genuflecting. “And the Word became flesh” is a reference to the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, becoming man and dwelling among us. It refers to the conception and birth of Jesus Christ. The word that encapsulates this moment of God becoming man is “incarnation.” This article presents what the church and its tradition puts forth as its understanding of Jesus Christ being God incarnate.
The term “incarnation” carries a specific meaning that can be found in the root of the word itself. “Caro” is the Latin term for “flesh” or “meat.” From this word we get “carnivorous,” which describes an eater of meat. We also get the word “carne” as in “chili con carne” – chili with meat. So, when we say “incarnation” we mean “in the flesh.” It is our faith that Jesus Christ, born to our Blessed Mother Mary, was and is God in the flesh – he is the Word (God, the Son) incarnate. We express this in the Nicene Creed we pray each Sunday at Mass: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of the “via negative” (the negative way), in which we can learn about God by knowing what he is not. The same concept applies to the incarnation of God as man. So let me quantify a few examples of what the incarnation is not before I expand on what it is and how it is to be rightly understood.
• The incarnation is not God appearing in a human disguise (that was a first-century heresy called “Docetism.” which reared its head again in Albigensianism around the 12th century)
• The incarnation is not the God taking on human body but in fact being only divine, with no touch of humanity (a 3rd-4th century heresy called “monophysitism”).
• The incarnation is not God being born into this world as the first and finest of God’s creatures with a special relationship to God (that was a 3rd-4th century heresy called “Arianism” which, to be truthful, still haunts our world today)
What the Incarnation is
What then is the incarnation? Let’s start with some background from salvation history: From before all time there was God. He was and is one God, a unity, but that one God is of three divine persons (God, the Father; God, the Son; and God, the Holy Spirit). God created the heavens and earth, and man. The first man and woman (Adam and Eve) were disobedient to God and they caused a breach in the relationship between man and God. Through covenants, commandments and a coterie of prophets, God tried to heal that breach. However, while God honored the covenants, mankind, again and again, fell away in disobedience. God had promised a Messiah, a long-awaited one, for the Jewish people. This Messiah would be a prince of peace (not in the sense of no more war, but in the sense of bringing peace to the relationship between man and God).
God did send a Messiah. Not an exalted prophet, not a king or emperor. Nope. He sent himself: God the Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity, the Logos (the Word) became flesh and dwelt among us. He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and born into time. His birth would give hope a restored relationship between man and God, and the gates of paradise closed by the sin of our first parents might again be opened (or as the Christmas hymn says: Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
In many religions the idea of God becoming man would be inconceivable, but in Christianity we understand God to be so loving that the inconceivable is, in fact, conceived and born. So, recalling the errors about the incarnation, how do we understand this incarnation to be possible without damage to our understanding of God and his perfections and without damage to our understanding of Jesus Christ as being fully God and fully man?
For the best way to understand God becoming man in the person of Christ, we have to focus on two key words: “person” and “nature.” We have to understand these words in the manner in which they were used in the era when church doctrine was developed in its early councils. The church’s doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ is a divine person with two natures: human and divine; moreover, Christ was fully divine and fully human. How do these two natures exist in one person?
Person of interest
The term person as we use it today tends to be applied universally with a human being. The council fathers of the early church did not understand that term in this way. They used the Greek term “prosopon” (“person”). The term “prosopon” spoke to the idea of who a person, at their core, is. Further they held, that the “prosopon” is immutable. Thus, a human is a human always, an angel is an angel always, and God is God always. At his core, Jesus Christ is a divine person. He is God, God in the flesh, yes, but God nonetheless. If God became man and ceased to be a divine person, then that, by definition would no longer be God incarnate. So, in terms of our understanding of the incarnation, Jesus Christ is a human being (in the way we use that term today), but he is not a human person; he is God.
While the term “person” was used to describe who a person is, the term nature meant something different. The term “nature” today is used to speak of a person’s demeanor or character (e.g., “Vicki is good-natured”). However, this was not the understanding of that word in the early centuries of the church, when the word “nature” was put forth using the Greek word “physis.” This word “physis” expressed not who a person is, or how a person is, but rather what one could do. Thus, our human nature, which we all share, allows us to do things defined as human. A divine nature allows one to do things that are reserved to the divine. To put this complex idea into concrete examples:
In his human nature Jesus could swim, in his divine nature he could walk on water.
In his human nature Jesus could shed tears for those suffering, in his divine nature he could heal their suffering.
These two natures (divine and human) exist fully in the one person of Christ, Son of God, son of Mary, who is fully divine and fully human in nature, divine in person. Thus, Christ is the Word made flesh, and he dwelt among us; he was divine person (God) assuming our human nature while maintaining his divine nature. Jesus Christ was fully God; Jesus Christ was fully man. His divinity was of God, his humanity of Mary.
Warning: Don’t lose the Word in the words…
Now speaking of a “prosopon” and a “physis” may not be a spiritual way of understanding Christ coming into the world as our savior. It might seem dry, if not just plain surreal. Nonetheless, it is good to know, appreciate, and understand that the faith we have in Christ as the Son of God become man is not a mere nice-sounding platitude, but rather it is a developed, considered and understandable faith. Our faith must always seek understanding so that we may come to understand more, or more fully, what we believe and why we believe it.
On Christmas morning, as you sit with friends or family opening gifts and sharing the joy of the day, look at the Nativity scene. It will undoubtedly be in eyeshot. As you see that little image of a child in a manger, remember the key point of the incarnation is not theological concepts, wrapped in centuries old language. It is knowing in faith that God so loved the world that he came into the world to save us; to save you. He came to restore peace in the relationship between God and man, and from crèche to cross he succeeded, making him the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. On Christmas Day, a savior is born unto us, as one of us, for all of us. And history is changed forever and for better because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Merry Christmas.
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.