The word “Incarnation,” like the word “Trinity” is another term that doesn’t appear in Scripture but is widespread in Christian use. “Incarnate” mean to invest with bodily and especially human form and nature. “Made manifest or comprehensible.” This is another example of a “normal” word that becomes Christianized with a unique Christian meaning. When Christ becomes incarnate, he is made manifest to us.
The Catechism tells us that “The Incarnation is therefore the mystery of the wonderful union of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Word.” (CCC483).
We see the most beloved and striking passage about the incarnation in the first chapter of the Gospel of John where the apostle writes “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:1-5,9,14)
The Catechism says of this verse that “Taking up St. John’s expression, ‘The Word became flesh’, the Church calls ‘Incarnation’ the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it.” (CCC461) and that “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith: ‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.’” (CCC463) That is another reference to the writings of St. John, 1 John 4:2.
It’s interesting to note that while the Church teaches the greatest feast of the Church year is Easter, when we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass, the moment we bow is at the Incarnation – “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” One understanding I’ve read about the reason for this is that the Early Church Fathers understood that while indeed the resurrection of Christ is the greatest feast of the year, that raising a person from the dead was something God could easily do. But for the eternal God to become man in order to save us – that was almost beyond comprehension. We bow to remind us that we should never cease to be in awe of that reality. It is a stumbling block for both the Jewish people and the Muslims who profess the God of Abraham – that this man Jesus was God who became flesh to manifest himself to us. And we should always be profoundly humbled and grateful.
A Christian hymn from the fourth century reminds us this way– “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.” John Michael Talbot has a beautiful version of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” that’s worth checking out if you’ve never heard it.
The Catechism gives us four reasons that God became man in paragraphs 457-460. First, in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who “loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” Second, in order that we might know God’s love. Third, to be our model for holiness. And fourth, to make us “partakers of the divine nature.”
2 Peter 1:3-4 speaks to our understanding of how we come to partake of the divine nature – “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.”
The concept of partaking of the divine nature is known as “divinization” or “theosis” in the Eastern rites of the Church. It is the transforming effect of divine grace – becoming more like Christ (like God) until our nature is fully transformed into the image of Christ. This transformation of our nature is the result of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We do not lose our individual personality or being in this transformation, but we are perfected in the grace of God until we become the person we were truly created to be.
It is important to understand that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormons) claim a similar theology but in reality it is very different. They believe that humanity may not only be given God’s holiness and perfection, but also His essential divinity or godhood. Joseph Smith taught that God the Father is an advanced and glorified man. “As man now is, God once was” and “As God now is, man may be.” This is very different than the Christian understanding of the nature of God, and especially our understanding that God does not change (Part 1, Part 2). We are called to participate in the very life of the one Triune God, becoming free of all the hinders us to truly participate in His life and to worship Him in spirit and in truth.