Folks of my vintage may remember the faithful recitation of the Creed in Latin at Mass each Sunday morning, and the automatic genuflection of the entire congregation at the words, “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine.” Our physical bodies descended to mime the truth proclaimed by our lips.
With the introduction of the English vernacular in the Missal of Pope Paul VI, the words became, “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man” and the genuflection became a bow. In the third edition of the Roman Missal the phrase now reads “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man,” but the ritual bow remains.
Perhaps we had become so inured to the rush of words that we hardly pondered the utter human absurdity of first proclaiming the Divine Word as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” before quickly adding the reference to the “descent” into human existence.
The original Greek of the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) as clarified by the First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) to resolve further debates at the time is even more scandalous. The Creed doesn’t simply say that he became “human / anthopos,” but insists that he took on “flesh / carnis (in Latin) / sarkx (in Greek)!”
There were groups of scandalized early Christians who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human. Apparently it was easier to believe that a human being could be divine than to accept God as human. That God would only pretend or “act as if” had to be condemned by the church as clearly unacceptable and in fact heretical.
The soaring Prologue of John’s Gospel, once said at the end of every Mass as believers prepared to scoot into the work of the day, also included a genuflection at the words, “the Word became flesh / sarkx and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). That Gospel’s account of Jesus went on to assert that unless you (we) “eat the flesh / sarkx of the Son of Man, you do not have life within you” (6:53). The Second Letter of John declared even more pointedly those to be “deceivers … who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh / sarkx” (v.7)!
To affirm, as we do, that the Almighty Eternal Second Person of the Trinity actually took on human sarkx is to insist that he accepted as truly his own all the weakness, vulnerability and utter messiness of human existence! That is precisely the meaning of the Greek word “sarkx!” To present him as a baby … drooling, spitting out food and needing a change of diapers on occasion … was almost incredible, indeed “unbelievable” in its most literal sense. No wonder some of those early Christians choked on the phrase. Even at Christmas time, bowing as we do every Sunday at Mass, we still can’t resist cleaning and dusting our notions of the crèche to make it totally hygienic without a speck of dirt or even any hint of the fragrance of fresh barnyard manure.
If the Eternal Word took on absolutely everything human, becoming “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), then everything human has received the potential in turn of somehow becoming divine! To enforce that teaching and to spell it out more comprehensively the early church teachers insisted that “anything not assumed was not redeemed!” Early hymns sang of a “sacrum commercium / a holy exchange!” What a deal! How could anyone resist such an offer?
Early Byzantine iconographers traditionally clothed Jesus in the under garment of divine scarlet with an outer cloak of human blue, and conversely depicted Mary as wearing blue beneath her divinized royal outer garment of scarlet. The artistic tradition tried to reflect its dogmatic counterpart.
That belief gives all things human the potential of sharing God’s eternal glory forever.
- Every human doubt contains the grace of our quest for a better understanding of God’s work in our world.
- Every human disagreement implies that God’s truth is bigger than what any individual can understand.
- Every sin includes some shadowy spark of goodness or else we would never be included to make such a choice.
- Every human hope suggests the existence of something bigger and grander that we can imagine.
- Every sentiment of love or generosity reflects God’s care for our world and becomes a partner to divine providence.
Our Christian belief in the profound truth of the incarnation means that anything we can ever experience throughout life is part of God’s work and a bearer of grace.
There are very few of our beliefs with such remarkable consequences for everything we are and do.
God’s glory has indeed shone on our weak and fragile world. A Blessed Christmas to each and all!
P.S. Thanks for so many kind wishes and lovely cards at this holy time of the year!