The creed says of Jesus of Nazareth, “Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.”
The March 25 feast of the Annunciation comes unannounced in the middle of Lent, and so we sometimes forget it is the equivalent of D-Day in salvation history. This is the moment when God stormed the beaches of time and space to invade Occupied Earth and destroy an empire that dwarfs the Third Reich: the devil’s empire of sin and death encompassing the whole world.
We are taught that God the Father made everything “through” the Son: that Christ is the “Wisdom” of God imaged in Proverbs, who crafted the world alongside the Father in sheer delight! That often disturbs modern people, who wonder: How, in a universe of billions upon billions of galaxies filled with billions upon billions of stars, God could possibly be interested in the affairs of some hairless bipeds crawling around on a grain of sand called “Earth”? “Man is tiny compared to the size of the universe,” they complain. However, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out long ago, man is tiny compared to the nearest tree. So what? What does size have to do with anything? The real distance God had to cover had nothing to do with space (a meaningless concept when God is infinite). It was the distance between his holiness and our sin. And still he did it.
Some will call this provincial hubris and claim that Christians foolishly believe humans are better than all the other civilizations with which (we moderns assume) the universe must surely teem. But, in fact, this is to overlook the actual reason for the Incarnation. God did not become man because we are so wonderful, but “for us and for our salvation.” It is our wretchedness that drew the attention of divine compassion. He came, not to say “Way to go!”— but to rescue us from the disastrous pit into which we fell at the dawn of time.
This is one of the reasons why Jesus was born of a virgin — as a living reminder that we didn’t earn our salvation and that the initiative was entirely with God. Our very prayers for the coming of God into the world and into our lives are themselves a gift from him. Jesus was born of one who was, in a famous phrase, “younger than sin.” Yet, her immaculate sinlessness was a gift from him, not an achievement of hers.
The Virgin who gave birth to Jesus had a name and face. Although she is iconic, she was not an icon, nor a faceless, nameless Earth Mother. She was a young Jewish girl, born of the last people on earth to think of pagan Earth Mothers and Sky Fathers. And she believed, not in some vague pantheism, but in the God of Israel. She was real and human, not a myth. Like mother, like Son. From her, the Word took on flesh and refused to stay up in heaven. God — the invisible power that hurled Andromeda and invented DNA and holds quarks together and spoke to prophets and parted the Red Sea and knows everything and can do everything — that God somehow joined himself to a single cell in the womb of a creature with a digestive tract built on the same basic model as that of an earthworm, with blood reflecting the same salinity levels as the seawater from which life sprang, bearing a nervous system, endocrine glands, musculature and a gene array that is made of the same sort of stuff as the rest of the animal kingdom.
God became a creature whose diapers had to be changed. Scandalous? You bet! But that is the Christian claim. And if it doesn’t shock you, you haven’t been listening.
The Incarnation has always been a hard doctrine to believe. There is something so dullingly ordinary about what our senses present to us that we figure there just can’t be anything miraculous about things and people that we see every day. Somehow, the knowledge that Jesus was fully human made it impossible for many hearers to believe that he could be anything special — even when they had just seen him perform the miracle of the loaves and fishes. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Mary, whose father and mother we know?”
This curious inertia still afflicts us today. And yet the same Holy Spirit that wrought the incarnation of the Son of God in the Virgin’s womb is still at work in the present moment — right where you are sitting, if you like — impregnating human beings with the life of God and growing Christ again in the hearts of men, women and children all over the globe.
Mark Shea is the content editor