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The Incarnation of the Son of God

The heathen had very early conceived the idea that God had descended from heaven and mixed with men; the Greek mythology is full of it. Now God has actually come down to earth (John iii. 13) at the moment of the Annunciation (Luke i. 26-38).

1. The second divine person became man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the action of the Holy Ghost at the moment of the Annunciation.

Louis of Granada writes: “Just as the sun must be wrapped in clouds if we are to gaze upon it with eyes undimmed, so God wrapped Himself in flesh as in a cloud, so that the eyes of our soul might bear to look upon Him.” Human thought must be clothed in words to reach our ears; so God clothed Himself in human nature to reach the souls of men. “The Word [i.e., the Son of God] was made flesh [i.e., became man] and dwelt amongst us” (John i. 14). The Incarnation took place in the instant when Our Lady uttered the words: “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Luke i. 38). They err who think that the human nature was first formed and afterwards united to the divine person, just as the Valentinians were wrong in asserting that Christ brought His human body from heaven. Christ received His body from the Virgin Mary. He was made from a woman (Gal. iv. 4), and was of the seed of David (Rom. i. 3). The Son of man came down from heaven, it is true (John iii. 13), in regard of the divine person, but not in regard of His human nature; we must not, however, imagine that the divine essence came down from heaven and united itself to the human nature; this would mean that all three persons of the Blessed Trinity has assumed our human nature. Such a thing is impossible, for such a union would require a change in the divine essence, which is incapable of change. Only one of the divine persons, the Son of God, assumed our human nature. God (i.e., a divine person) not the Godhead (i.e., the divine essence) became man. There is, however, an intimate union between the nature of God and the nature of man in the person of the Son; and it is certain that all the divine persons had their share in the work of the Incarnation, for in the work which God does outside Himself all three persons of the Trinity have their share.

The Incarnation is in a peculiar manner the work of the three divine persons.

The three divine persons formed a human soul and a human body and united to them the Second Person of the Trinity. As St. Augustine puts it: “In the guitar the sound seems to come from the strings alone, yet three elements are wanted, the human hand, the skill of the player and then the string.” Or as St. Fulgentius explains it: “Body and soul are necessary for a man to profit by his food, yet the body alone receives the nourishment.”  So the three persons of the Trinity co-operated in the Incarnation, but the Second Person only was united to the flesh. The Incarnation is ascribed in a special manner to the Holy Ghost, because it is the greatest work of God’s love. The Church teaches that the works of love are ascribed to the Holy Ghost, Who is the love of the Father and the Son. According to the Fathers there is no doubt that either God the Father or the Holy Ghost might have become man; but it was meet that He Who is the Son of God from all eternity should become the Son of man; that He Who is the perfect image of God should restore to mankind that supernatural image which had been lost by sin.

2. The Father of Jesus is therefore God the Father in heaven; Joseph, the spouse of Mary, is only the foster-father of Jesus.

St. Gregory the Great tells us that Christ is the Son of God, not only because He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, but also because God formed His sacred humanity. In the first promise of the Redeemer as we read it in the Protevangelium Christ is called, not the seed of man, but the seed of the woman (Gen. iii. 15), and in the genealogy of Christ recorded by St. Matthew, no mention is made of His descent from Joseph, but only from Mary (Matt. i. 16). Yet Christ was commonly thought to be the Son of Joseph (Luke iii. 23). Mary was espoused to St. Joseph that no accusation might be made against her by the world, and that she might have in him a protector. About St. Joseph we have the following facts: He was a carpenter (Matt. xiii. 55); he was a just man (Matt. i. 19). St. Jerome tells us he was perfect in every virtue, and St. Thomas Aquinas gives as the reason for his holiness that he was so close to the fount of holiness, just as the spring is clearer as we approach its source. St. Francis of Sales tells us that St. Joseph was conspicuous for his purity, and therein surpassed all the saints and even the angels. To him was granted the honor which kings and prophets sighed for in vain; he might take his Lord into his arms, kiss Him, speak with Him, clothe Him, protect Him (St. Bernard). He was called father by Him Whose Father was in heaven (St. Basil). Many saints assert that St. Joseph has a very high place in heaven as the spouse of the Blessed Virgin, and that he will be called upon by men in the last days of the world and give signs of his great power. St. Joseph is the patron of the Church (Pius IX., Dec. 8, 1870); i.e., his prayers for the Church have great efficacy at the throne of God. He is also the patron of a happy death, dying as he did himself in the arms of Jesus and Mary. He is also invoked for temporal wants, since his care on this earth was the support of the Holy Family. St. Thomas Aquinas says that St. Joseph received power from God to help in all necessities; and St. Teresa declared that no prayer of hers to St. Joseph in temporal or spiritual need was ever left unanswered. The Catholic Church has always honored St. Joseph in a special manner, after Our Lady and above the other saints.

3. The Incarnation of the Son of God is a mystery which we cannot understand, but only admire and honor.

The conception and Incarnation are as little understood by us as the flowering of the rod of Aaron (Numb. xvii.). “Shut thy eyes, Reason,” says St. Bernard, “for under the veil of faith thou canst see the sheen of this mystery, just as the eye of the body can bear the light of the sun when shaded by a cloud.” “I know that the Son of God became man, but how I do not know” (St. John Chrysostom). The following are illustrations which have been used to convey the idea of the union of the Godhead and the human nature in Christ: The divinity and the humanity are united in Christ as body and soul are united in man (Athanasian Creed). If spirit and matter, so essentially distinct, are united in man, all the less matter of surprise is it that the divinity and humanity, which after all have their points of resemblance, are found united in Christ. “Speech is a sort of incarnation,” says St. Augustine. “At first the word is conceived as a mere thought, something purely spiritual. If that thought is to be conveyed to another, it is put in words; yet, though it appeals to the senses, it is nonetheless produced from the soul. So the Word of God has appeared to many and ceases not to remain with the Father.” Other illustrations to show the action of the Holy Ghost in Christ’s conception: St. Isidore tells us that Christ was formed from Mary just as Eve was formed from Adam. The Incarnation resembles in some respects the creation, when everything was produced by God’s almighty power without co-operation of man.

The mystery of the Incarnation is commemorated by the ringing of the Angelus bell.

The words of the Angelus recall in the most lively way the scene of the Annunciation. At the words in the Credo of the Mass: “He took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Ghost” the celebrant always kneels, also at the words in the Last Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh.” On Christmas Day and the Annunciation (the twenty-fifth of March), the sacred ministers at High Mass kneel on the altar steps and bow their heads at the “Et incarnatus est” of the Credo. The angels also venerate the mystery of the Incarnation.

4. The Incarnation of the Son of God was necessary to give perfect satisfaction to the injured majesty of God.

God might have chosen some other means for redeeming man. He might, by special exercise of His goodness, have been content with an imperfect satisfaction, or have remitted the guilt without demanding any satisfaction at all. St. Augustine on this subject writes: “There are some foolish people who think that God could not have redeemed mankind otherwise than by Himself taking flesh, and suffering at the hands of sinners. He might have followed quite another plan.” As we shall see in treating of the death of Christ God wished to have perfect satisfaction, to display His justice as well as His mercy. Perfect satisfaction could be given only by a God- man. The greatness of an injury is measured by the dignity of the person who suffers; hence the offense given to God is infinitely great. No finite being, not even the most perfect angel, could atone for an offense against God, only God Himself. “So that,” to use the words of St. Anselm, “to redeem man it was necessary that God should become man.” As God only He could not suffer; as man only He could not redeem; hence the Godhead assumed a human nature (St. Proclus). If a valuable portrait be damaged beyond recognition it can not be restored unless the sitter present himself to the artist; thus God had to come down on earth to restore His likeness in man (St. Athanasius).

The God-man could satisfy perfectly the injured majesty of God by appearing on earth in a state of lowliness.

Had He appeared in His majesty men would never have dared to crucify Him (1 Cor. ii. 8). Like Codrus, the Athenian king, He secured victory to His own by dying for them. The oracle had promised the Athenians victory if their king died by the hands of the enemy, and Codrus, disguising his royal dress, marched into the enemy’s camp and was by them put to death. The prophets had foretold that mankind should be saved by the death of its King, and Christ, taking on the form of a slave, was put to death. The evil spirits fled when they saw Whom they had killed. “If,” as Louis of Granada says, “a king would prove his courage in battle, he must put away all symbols of his rank, to proclaim them only when he is victor;” and this is what Our Lord did. He will come again with great power and majesty (Matt. xxvi. 64). St. Thomas says that we cannot affirm with certainty that God would have become man had man not sinned; it certainly would not have been beyond His power.

5. The Second Person always remained God though He became man, and by the Incarnation He lost none of His dignity.

When we assert that the Son of God came down on earth, we do not mean that He left heaven. So a star may become visible to us without leaving the firmament. As St. Ambrose says, the divinity of Christ is not destroyed, but only hidden by His human nature, just as the sun is not put out, but veiled only by the clouds. And as the thought, because spoken, does not cease to be a product of the soul, so the Word of God did not cease to be with the Father (St. Augustine). As a word, though spoken only for the benefit of one person may be heard by all the bystanders, so the divine Word was not limited by the body which He assumed, but still fills heaven and earth. Moreover God lost none of His dignity by the Incarnation. The sunlight which plays over filth is not defiled; still less is the Godhead defiled by taking flesh from the pure womb of Mary (St. Odilo). If a prince put on a slave’s dress and in it picked a precious ring from the gutter to place it on his finger, there is no loss of dignity; so, too, the Son of God was not degraded by taking on Himself the form of a slave, and coming down on earth to save souls and gain them to Him (Tert.). When the Apostle says that Jesus Christ debased Himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil. ii. 7), he does not mean that God lost anything, but only that He assumed a nature lower than His own, and gave us thereby an example of humility. “He humbled Himself” (Phil. ii. 8).

6. By the Incarnation of the Son of God all the members of the human race have acquired a special dignity.

The human nature of the Son of God is like the yeast which leavens the whole mass (Matt. xiii. 33). Christ is the vine, and we are the branches (John xv.). The angels even fall short of us in this respect, for though they are exempt from sickness and death they cannot claim God for their Brother; were they capable of envy, they would envy us that honor. As St. Ambrose says: “The Almighty took the form, of a slave that the slave might become a king.” “The Son of God became the Son of man that the children of men might become children of God” (St. Athanasius). “Oh, what a wondrous redemption is that where man is, as it were, put on a par with God!” (St. Hilary.)


This article, The Incarnation of the Son of God is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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