Part 1 – what is the incarnation?
God made us for Himself – to share in His life in heaven. However, through Adam sin entered into our human nature, dividing us from God. Yet, God did not abandon us; He willed to come to our rescue and to bring about our salvation. While it is speculated that God could have accomplished our salvation in multiple ways, the most fitting way (and thus the way He chose to do it) would be through the taking on of our human nature in His own life, and in coming among us in the human nature to carry out the work of salvation through undergoing death. It is the taking on of our human nature by God that will be the subject of the next three installments, focusing first on the nature of the mystery itself of God taking on human nature, followed by consideration of the place of the Virgin Mary in this mystery, and concluding with briefly exploring some elements of Jesus’ earthly life.
This mystery of God becoming man is called the Incarnation. That God becomes “incarnate” literally means that he takes on flesh. Recall from earlier
installments that God, in his own nature, is invisible and is pure spirit (without a body). In the Incarnation, God willingly takes to Himself the fullness of the life of our human nature in the body – with its limitations and weaknesses – in the person of the Son who is born of a woman (the Virgin Mary) into our humanity, all while remaining fully God in His infinite nature. This truth of God in the fullness of His Divine nature taking on the fullness of human nature is a great mystery of faith of which we can understand some elements but not the fullness of its significance.
To break down some of the key elements of this truth of the Incarnation, we want to consider (with The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism) the difference between “who” and “what” is Jesus Christ. In considering “who” Jesus is, we are speaking of His identity – that He is the Divine Second person of the Blessed Trinity. When asking “what,” we speak of Jesus’ nature – that he is both fully God and fully man; that is, he is fully two natures (no either human or divine, but both), lacking nothing of either nature. As revealed in the Scriptures (especially John 1), the second person of the Trinity, the Word, is fully God from all eternity, who in time takes on human nature so as to redeem fallen humanity. Thus, the most basic way to define the Incarnation is that of the eternal God taking on Himself the fullness of the human nature, such that nothing of His divinity is reduced nor is any of what it means to be human lacking – with nothing of the two natures being confused or overpowered by the other.
Why does God go to this extent to come down from heaven to take on Himself our human nature? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 457-460 identifies four reasons: to save us from our sins; to testify to God’s love for us; to be our example of holiness; and to offer us a share in His own divine life. Each of these goods, while they could each be taken separately, together express God’s singular desire to take us to Himself for all eternity to be loved forever – which is itself a great and beautiful mystery. In our next installment, we will see how the Virgin Mary participated in this saving plan of God and how she remains for us an aid to our receiving of Christ’s saving works.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 456-483 articulate the meaning and nature of God taking on our human nature, addressing key questions and issues pertaining to this mystery.