What does “Incarnation” mean? | Archdiocese of Washington

When I used to be a math tutor, I helped elementary school students who were struggling with arithmetic. As a physicist, I was knee deep in very difficult and advanced mathematics and realizing that some children had difficulty with addition and subtraction initially took me aback. Basic arithmetic had become so familiar to me that it took some time to figure out how to teach and explain it. I took it so much for granted that I forgot how odd it must seem to a child coming across it for the first time.

In a similar way, we could look at today’s “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” question: “What does the word ‘Incarnation’ mean?” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the Church calls ‘Incarnation’ the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it.”(CCC 461) While this is not easy language it is something that most Catholics are used to hearing and may not think twice about. When we realize that most of the disagreements in the first five centuries of the Church revolved around this doctrine, we may be surprised. What, exactly, is the big deal? In these arguments, the big deal was our salvation.

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Responding to a Profound Mystery

English: Icon of Jesus ChristThere are mysteries and there are miracles that mark one’s journey throughout our faith history; all of which are extraordinary but some might only be classified as profound.

For instance: God creating man in His own image and likeness is an extraordinary thing but God becoming man is so extraordinarily profound that we must respond to this statement in some heightened way. By elevating this mystery the Church hopes that all Christians might meditate upon the significance of this inconceivable event and gain some small insight into the very nature of God. That, of course, was why the Church mandated that at the very mention of the incarnation of Christ, in the Nicene Creed, the faithful should immediately drop to their knees to both accent and contemplate the enormity of the event; an event that brought us salvation and the hope of eternal life. Without this event, heaven is impossible and our human fate hopeless.

Since the advent of the Novus Ordo, our genuflections were turned into a bow of the head reserving a genuflection for Christmas and the Annunciation. Now, almost 50 years hence, even the bows have all but disappeared. At Christmas and the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord nothing changes: our response is like any other day which is to say that we do nothing at all. I think it is a point well taken, that how we pray is how we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi). And our relaxed attitude might be telling us that today we do precious little of either.

A lukewarm response begets a lukewarm faith and we all remember the warning of the Spirit to the Angel of the Church in Laodicea(Rev, 3:13-22): “thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.” It seems that the riches and plenty of those living in Laodicea had rendered the faithful unthankful and incapable of seeing their own wretchedness and nothingness in relation to God. The answer to their blindness and to the restoration of their former zeal was revealed to be the twofold path of penance and prayer. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” _ Rev. 3:22

Living in a land of plenty coupled with our heritage of self-reliance may also have hindered many of us who were called to a Christian life. We seem incapable of developing fully the most basic trait necessary to accomplish this spiritual journey: namely, humility. For it is through humility that we are driven to our knees in penance and in prayer.

Genuflection is an exterior sign of our interior humility and should call to mind our true state in relation to the Creator of the Universe. What further can be said that might reveal the astounding truth regarding the love of God for man? That God would deign to live a life in human vesture is so unimaginable that it should evoke unmitigated awe and love in return for a gift that is beyond conception. “For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” __ Php, 2:5-8

If Christ, the Son of God, the Lord of lords could humble himself for our redemption, can we not humble ourselves before Him in a recollected moment of awe and love for this Gift of gifts? Since God gave Himself for love of man it seems that our only possible response would be to give ourselves in entirety to God for love of Him.