There is a moment in time which defines all history; a moment to which all that came before, all that has come after and all that is yet to come, points as supremely significant. On March 25th of each Liturgical Year (March 26th this year), we remember the event that took place then – the moment when the Blessed Virgin Mary gave her fiat to God’s request that was communicated to her by the Archangel Gabriel – the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord. It was the moment when all creation held its collective breath. The significance of this day derives from what Mary’s yes allowed to occur – the moment when our God entered into His own creation and became man. It is the moment when the love of God for us was made manifest like never before since man was created and called into communion with the Creator Who is revealed as Father.
This event that was announced – the Incarnation – is one of the great mysteries of our faith and is well beyond our ability to fully grasp. The Incarnation is so great a mystery that I suspect that many of us do not attach to it the degree of importance it is due and therefore, do not, within our limitations, adequately appreciate the act of love that our God demonstrated by becoming man.
I will endeavor to answer the following questions as we explore this mystery of God’s love:
- What does the Church understand and teach about the Incarnation?
- What significance does the Incarnation hold for history in general and for me in particular?
- What does the Incarnation teach us about God and about ourselves?
- Why did God choose to become man? Why did He come in the manner and circumstances of a Jewish baby of that time over 2,000 years ago?
- How should I respond to this act of love? What impact should it have on my daily life?
The Time Leading up to the Incarnation
The story of the Fall of Mankind is well known – our pride led us to believe and act as if we were somehow possessed of more wisdom than the One Who created us. But even at the moment of that first sin – that first turning away from God, the God Who created us continued to love each of us who were and were to come, and began his work of redemption, His fathering us to prepare us for that moment when He would enter into time as the God-man Jesus who came to rescue us definitively. But that fullness of time was not yet at hand.
There is no act of man in human history to which this this can be compared to help us grasp its significance; no similar act by man to show compassion to a lower animal is possible. Even if we were to imagine a man becoming a cherished pet in order to rescue it, the comparison would be inadequate to define the magnitude of God becoming man and, in any case, would be simply unthinkable. But so also is the Incarnation unthinkable to us. Only at that one point in history when the time was right and we were ready did our God become Incarnate. All that God performed prior to the Incarnation – the covenants He entered into with us, the law He gave, the prophets He sent – was performed to prepare us, and to prepare the rest of fallen creation, for His coming in history and His making all things new.
What is the Incarnation?
But when the time was full, God did enter into history and become man. We proclaim this each Sunday in our Creed. We reflect on it each time we meditate on the First Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. We recall the fiat of Mary given through the Archangel Gabriel and the Incarnation when we pray the Angelus. And we set aside one day each year to celebrate it in a special way in the Eucharistic Liturgy. The Gospel this day is proclaimed:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
Jesus is God Become Man
The identity of God Incarnate is Jesus. But Who and What is Jesus? Jesus is the Divine Person – the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, True God, who entered time and assumed in some mysterious way a human nature (a human body and a human soul) united to but not mixed with His Divine Nature which is Spirit. In other words, God did not cease to be God nor did God simply put on a human body much like we might put on a set of clothes. He became true man while continuing to be True God. This is what and who we mean by the Incarnation. In a profound and real manner, God has freely united to Himself a human nature and remains Incarnate for the remainder of eternity – forever more. God loves you and He loves me that much.
Mary is the Mother of God
Who and What Jesus is tells us who and what Mary is; so much so that she is given by the Church the title of Mother of God in order that we might properly know Who and What her Son is. And it is because we remember and adore her Son that we remember and venerate Mary. There is much we can learn about Mary from the above passage of Luke – her holiness and sinlessness, the circumstances of her married life, her vow of perpetual virginity, and her love of God – but it is this that I want to reflect upon: Jesus is the only natural-born son who ever chose his own mother before he was conceived; indeed He chose her from before she was conceived by her parents; for God is outside of created time.
It is no wonder then, that He prepared her in a special way so, as the Early Church Fathers reflected, as sin and death entered into the world through the free act of disobedience by Eve, the Saviour and new life would enter into the world by the free act of obedience by Mary, the New Eve.
Why the Incarnation?
Most fundamentally, God became man to redeem us. By our sin, we caused infinite damage and offense because our sin is against God Who is infinite. Therefore, there is nothing that a mere man can do to repay or earn back what was lost. But, Jesus Who is both True God and true man could merit salvation for us by the infinite value of his redemptive acts. But why come as a Jewish infant, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth? Why carry out His ministry as an itinerant rabbi with “no place to lay his head”? Why suffer the Passion and Death on the Cross if each of the acts of suffering he probably experienced while growing up was adequate for our redemption? There are so very many words that could be written to answer this, instead, let’s allow Scripture to speak:
Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
God’s ways are not man’s ways. He came as a Jew for it was to the Jews that the promise had been given. But He also came to the Gentiles. This is evidenced by the coming of the Magi to worship him in the manger which we celebrate as the Epiphany. Man’s first sin of disobedience was a result of pride and the antidote for that sin is humility. Jesus voluntarily emptied Himself of reliance on His Divinity in his kenosis. No matter what the crowds and the leaders did to Him or asked of Him, His humble love and obedience to the Father was always manifest during His life on earth. He spent 30 years obeying His mother and father, living quietly in Nazareth, growing in the wisdom of experiential human knowledge. In His humanity, He grew tired and hungry. He experienced the hurt and pain of loss and rejection. In all of this, He taught us how to be. Again, God loves you and He loves me that much. He has lived and loved on earth as He calls us to live and love.
How Shall We Respond?
First and foremost, we should dedicate ourselves to meditative prayer and reflection on these truths as a response of love to our God Who is not just lovable but is Love. We should daily, weekly and annually recall the Incarnation through the prayers, devotions, and liturgies mentioned above.
We should pattern our lives, attitudes and behaviours on His, becoming more humble servants of God and not masters of man.
We should pray to always see those to whom He calls us to serve, pray always for the wisdom and courage to love them and show compassion to them as He did, and pray to always love God as the Son loves the Father.
In this way, nourished by the grace of the sacraments and the practice of the virtues, we will be perfected in Him. For that is why He became one of us. The greatest sin and tragedy one can imagine would be to freely reject this freely given Gift of God and remain lost.
To the glory of God Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Into the deep…
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, Editor-in-Chief for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization at his parish and a deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
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