Catholicism 101: Incarnation

by Gjergji Evangjeli


St. Athanasius famously said, regarding the Incarnation, that, “God became man, so that man might become god.” A few years of continuous contemplation of this very deep thought from one of the greatest Fathers of the Church would not even begin to peel the first layer off the great Mystery that is the Incarnation of our Lord. This teaching, that God became man, indistinguishable from any regular person, was very confusing to the people to whom the Apostles were preaching. In fact, it is only out of use that we do not realize the radical strangeness of it all. In Greek mythology, there are plenty of gods who come down in human form, but none of them undergo the kenosis, by which they would come not in glory, but in the lowly form of a servant.

A good way to illustrate the radical and complete love that God exhibits through the Incarnation is to look at the father rushing out to meet the returning prodigal son and covering him with his overcoat as a metaphor for the Incarnation. The result is that something quite unique happens in history, the Author is Himself one of the characters in His story. Other than the miraculous event of the Resurrection, the Incarnation is the single most important event in human history.


Christ’s birth is prophesied quite early on in the Bible in Genesis 3:15, where God, despite punishing Adam and Eve for their disobedience, also establishes their way to redemption. At this moment, where we see God’s most severe chastisement of humans, we also see his most extensive mercifulness. Only Christ’s acceptance of bodily form can break the ancestral curse and reform humanity back to its initial glory. In dealing out the punishment for sin, therefore, God fully understands that it is also He that will be the one to offer atonement. The reason why there is so much talk of ‘joy’ in the liturgical celebrations of Christmas is precisely due to this fact: the fulfillment of the first and greatest promise that God gives to man is initiated at the moment of the Incarnation.


St. Athanasius tells us that through the old Adam all die, but through the new Adam all receive life. The life St. Athanasius is talking about here is not just ordinary life, but supernatural and divine life. The Greek word bios, which is the root of such words as biology, refers to ordinary life, but zoe, the life which Christ gives us through his Incarnation, is radically different. One is finite, the other is infinite. One is merely human, the other is divine. One continues existence, the other transforms and multiplies existence. It is precisely this radically new kind of life that allows for us to share in the divine nature, if we will it.


In our current age, the meaning of Christmas, which is to say, the radical importance of the Incarnation and the radical difference it makes, is often muddled. Our songs and our social liturgies are as good a sign as possible in this field. We are today much more preoccupied with gifts, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and a million other things. All of these things are well and good; there is nothing inherently dangerous about them (though it would be nice if we understood the real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, as opposed to his scarlet-dressed substitute). However, through preoccupying ourselves so much with all these, we run the risk of forgetting the greatest gift of all, which is our unique relation to God. St. Paul says, “… it is clear that he is not concerned with the aiding of angels, but with the sons of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brethren in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make a sign of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Heb. 2:16-18) One of the most puzzling things about the Christian faith and one of the things which should fill us with much awe concerning the limitlessness of God’s love for each of us is the fact that, through Christ’s incarnation and all his salvific work, we are made adoptive sons and daughters of God. Christmas is the beginning of that adoption process. Merry Christmas!


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