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.
In our days, as a creation of the media, more people have a passing acquaintance with the Gnostic gospels like those attributed to Judas or Mary Magdalene. I call this a passing acquaintance, because most people usually know little more than the title of these so-called gospels. Few of them have bothered to read these.
These two Gnostic gospels share a few features. They are both anti-gospels in a sense, because the Incarnation of Christ is always a bad thing. The body is something to be overcome. For Mary Magdalene, in the gospel which bears her name, her womanhood is something which limits her. She must become something which is not man and not woman in order to be saved. In other words, her bodiliness is holding her back.
In the gospel named after Judas, Christ’s humanity is a prison, which Judas must free him from, even at the cost of betrayal. Here again it is humanity which is despised and rejected. Both of these so-called gospels share another feature in that Judas and Mary Magdalene become recipients of secret knowledge. And what is that knowledge? Basically that the body is evil and that it is a prison.
Few things could be further from Christianity than such ideas. The culmination of such silliness is in a product like the Da Vinci Code, which purports to reveal a great secret. Now, what, you might ask, could be this great secret which will change the whole world? There are all sorts of things one could imagine. But how many of you would have imagined the so-called secret to be a royal bloodline. That’s right. Because, apparently, what the world really needs is yet another royal family.
In the Gospel, the real gospel that is, the one from Jesus Christ, there is a secret. Jesus says, ‘I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.’ But the secret is something no one could have guessed because it is about God himself.
Jesus reveals that what He is in relation to the Father is Gift. ‘All things have been delivered to me by my Father’. The Son is the Beauty of the Father, God’s perfect grasp of himself. What the Son is by nature, he makes us by grace. We also are made in the image of our Creator, made like Him by grace. Made to be gifts in the Supreme Gift.
And that is why Jesus begins these words, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is God’s own Joy at being God, God rejoicing in love. To reveal this to us, to draw us to Himself, God the Son, the eternal Word who is the Image of the Father, took what is ours and became one of us, a man like us in all things but sin.
To us human beings, God comes as a human being. He saves us in a way apt for us. And so Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!’ And what is that? St John writes,
‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.’
That is the great secret: that God desires to give us his own self, his own life, coming to us in a way we can receive him – in the flesh itself. It is for this mystery that we prepare ourselves in Advent, until Christ comes in glory.