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A Brief Explanation of the Incarnation

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by Joseph Tuttle, Benedictine College

In order for Jesus Christ to redeem humanity, it was necessary that the Second Person of the Trinity become man and die on the Cross. The Incarnation is intrinsically linked to the redemptive deed of Christ. In his text On the Incarnation of the Word, St. Athanasius summarizes the problem of why Christ became man in order to redeem man. Man was originally created to live and not to die, but sin and death entered the world: “God made man for incorruption, and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death came into the world.” Thus, man was infected with original sin and began to practice wickedness. Something had to be done. The Word of God would have to suffer and die in order to restore man’s fallen nature.

The problem that many face in knowing what the Incarnation is exactly is explaining how God became man to suffer and die for us. Christ assumed every aspect of humanity except sin. For St. Gregory of Nazianzus, if Christ did not truly become man in everything but sin, that which he did not take on would not have been healed by His redemptive death: “For what he [Jesus] has not assumed he has not healed; it is what is united to his Deity that is saved…” In order to understand what Christ assumed it is necessary to examine the Incarnation itself.

The Son of God is a divine, and not a human, Person. However, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, he has two natures, human and divine. In the event of the Incarnation, Pope Leo the Great says in his Tome, “the properties of each nature and substance were preserved entire, and came together to form one person…Each nature preserves its own characteristics without diminution, so that the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God.” Pope Leo says that the two natures in Christ are not taken over by the other. His divinity does not destroy His humanity and His humanity does not destroy His divinity.

It must be reiterated here that Jesus’ divine nature does not originate in Mary, as St. Cyril of Alexandria aptly points out in a letter to the heresiarch Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople: “His divine nature did not take a beginning of existence in the Holy Virgin, nor did his divine nature need another begetting of necessity for its own sake after being begotten of the Father.” Mary can truly be called the Theotokos (‘God-bearer,” or colloquially “Mother of God”) as long as this understanding of the origin of the divine nature is understood. Also, Jesus’ divine nature, being perfect and therefore impassible, could neither suffer nor die. It was in his human nature that Jesus suffered and died, in order to redeem us. Still, the unity of the human and divine in Jesus is so profound that, since his Person is divine, it can be truly said that we “see God crucified,” according to St. Gregory of Nazianzus.

In conclusion, the Incarnation is a mystery. As humans, we cannot fully comprehend it. Nonetheless, we still affirm that by the Logos’ becoming man, He restores man’s fallen nature and gives the hope of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. As St. Athanasius says, “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” By becoming man and dying for him, Jesus Christ restored and restores humanity so that St. John could say that “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” St. Athanasius beautifully summarizes this mystery: “For He was made man that we might be made God…and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.”

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