The great convert from Anglicanism of the 19th century, Cardinal Newman, wrote that if asked to select one doctrine as the basis of our Faith, ‘I should myself call the Incarnation the central aspect of Christianity, out of which the… main aspects of its teaching take their rise…’ God the Son united a human nature to His divine, so that, as a beautiful Offertory prayer puts it, ‘we may be made partakers of His divinity’.
The central importance of the Incarnation to our Faith is shown in our practice and prayer: the Angelus, rung three times every day, calling to mind Gabriel’s address to Our Lady, and her consent, and the great mystery of the Word-made-flesh. In the Creed we bow at the words: et incarnatus est… et homo factus est, ‘and he was made incarnate… and was made Man.’ Twice a year (or in the traditional rite, every time the Creed is recited) on precisely those feasts which more particularly call to mind the Incarnation of the Word, that is on the Annunciation and on Christmas (and I hope you see the link between the two!), we kneel at this recalling of the Incarnation, just as we genuflect in the Angelus at the words, ‘and the Word was made flesh’.
The central importance of the Incarnation is the reason Christians first began calling Our Lady ‘Mother of God’ – the unashamed declaration that Mary’s child is the Creator and Redeemer, of her and of the whole world. The early Christians began to see Our Lady, acknowledged truly to be Mother of God to be the touchstone of orthodoxy. St Germanus says, ‘Hail, thou fountain springing forth by God’s design, whose rivers flowing over in pure and unsullied waves of orthodoxy put to flight the hosts of error.’ And in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary we greet Our Lady, ‘Rejoice, because thou alone hast destroyed all the heresies in the world’.
Our Lady is said to destroy all the heresies of the world certainly through her powerful intercession, but also by simply being what she has been made by God’s grace, the Mother of God. What is implied is that all heresies and errors concerning the Faith begin ultimately with the rejection of the Incarnation. It need not be an overt rejection, but nonetheless any attempt to bypass the fact and the implications of the Incarnation become the seedbed of error and heresy.
In our own time we see that this is certainly the case. All the major confrontations, the grouses and campaigns, the perceived injustices – all of which are in error, spring from the rejection of the grace and mystery of the Incarnation. In 1968, when open dissent from the Church’s magisterial teaching first became fashionable (indeed, de rigueur to prove your progressive credentials), Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, on the regulation of human births, was opposed and derided. The acceptance of contraception, and the concomitant rejection of the Church’s teaching, is in the end a rejection of the Incarnation. By refusing to acknowledge the truth about ourselves as bodily creatures, many are refusing Christ’s grace – and more than that, they also reject the Incarnation by rejecting the teaching authority of the Church.
Since that time there have been other examples. The well-meaning but thoroughly mistaken campaigns for the ordination of women takes its starting point as equality, couched with buzz words like ‘full discipleship’. Full discipleship for Christians comes with confirmation, not ordination. Holy Orders is a sacrament no one has a right to, but to which some men are called. The idea that women could possibly be ordained implicitly rejects the concreteness of the Incarnation of Christ, not simply that the Word became flesh, but that He was a Man, this man, the man Christ Jesus. Here, ironically, the proponents of this error want the Pope to have more power than he claims, for Pope John Paul has already admitted that the Church lacks the power to ordain women.
Likewise the clamouring for homosexual relationships to be seen on par with marriage must in the end take the view that the body is external and not strictly essential to who and what we are. If homosexuality is understood as good or even holy, then the body is clearly not essential – it is as though two people are souls or angels, who just happen to be ‘trapped’ in bodies of the same sex. And if that is the case, then Christ’s humanity is not so essential either, and again it is the Incarnation that is emptied of its power and significance.
Every heresy no doubt begins with good intentions, and possibly with the best of intentions. But that does not make it right. And error has never made anyone happy in any lasting sense, nor has error ever set anyone free. Only truth can do that; the truth that is Christ can set us free, and ‘if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed’ (John 8.36).
The long line of Jesus’ ancestry that confronts us in the Gospel sets the scene of the Incarnation for us. Christ did not appear out of nowhere, out of the heavens. He was born, born of a woman, born under the Law – born of a long line of human beings, saints and sinners. He does not come to make us comfortable in our errors, or to preach a Gospel that will settle us more firmly in our sins. No, He comes to shake us out of our ease with error and sin and death, becoming what we are so that we might become what He is. That is the whole point of the Incarnation as far as the salvation of humans is concerned. The Word became flesh, so that we might behold His glory, the glory as of the Father’s Only-begotten, full of grace and truth – the same grace and truth that sets us free.