By Rose Leigh & Amber Kinloch
“And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” (Nicene Creed)
Every December, people put out Nativity scenes. All the figures crowd around the manger where Jesus lies, looking as helpless and tiny as any other newborn baby. The word “Incarnation” might not be the first word that springs to mind when we think of Christmas, but that’s what we’re celebrating.
The Incarnation* refers to Jesus taking on a human nature, while also retaining His divine nature (CCC 462–469). God could have redeemed us in any number of other ways, but He didn’t. He chose the Incarnation as the best way to save us. Why?
The short answer is that the Incarnation and the subsequent events that follow from it (i.e., the Passion and Resurrection) are the greatest manifestation possible of God’s love for us. None of us can consider these mysteries in a deep, honest way and not conclude that we are loved by God.
Apart from this, God imparts some practical and theological lessons about the human body through the Incarnation. What can we learn from this Mystery about the importance and purpose of our human nature?
*Note: The Incarnation is not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception.
The Full Human Experience
Jesus did not merely assume the appearance of a man, like the Angel Raphael in the Bible (Tobit 12:19). Jesus has a real human body. During his life on Earth, he felt cold, heat, and hunger (Matthew 4:2). He labored with His Hands and experienced tiredness after a long day’s work (John 4:6; Mark 4:35-41). He, the Creator of the universe, had the experience of being confined to a certain point in time and space. Most importantly, He underwent bodily suffering and mental agony.
By all this, Jesus shows us that we’re not alone. He has undergone the human experience. He understands and appreciates it. Moreover, through His Physical Presence, He has sanctified it. The human has been touched and transformed by the divine. Perceived evils have been transformed into sources of good.
On the other hand, as Jesus was without sin, He would not have been subject to the effects of Original Sin, like sickness. The Catholic Encyclopedia adds, “Theologians…are unanimous in the view that Christ was noble in bearing and beautiful in form, such as a perfect man should be; for Christ was, by virtue of His incarnation, a perfect man. In His humanity, He shows us what we originally were supposed to be. Furthermore, “St. Athanasius gives the reason that it were unbecoming that He should heal others who was Himself not healed” (Catholic Encyclopedia).
The Importance of Physical Presence
As human beings, we need and desire physical connection with others. There is no substitute for this. It is an essential need rooted in our nature as corporeal creatures.
God acknowledges this by taking on a body in the Incarnation. He wills for us to encounter Him directly in the flesh, as when He invites the Apostles to touch Him after His Resurrection (Luke 24:36-43). Can there be a greater manifestation of love than this intimate contact with a Divine Person? Even today, we have this opportunity every time we receive Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. What a wonderful gift!
On the flip side, it can be dangerous when we interrupt or destroy physical connection. Think of social media. How easy it is to forget that we are conversing with real human beings and to tease or lash out at them without a second thought. Or, perhaps, we’re so caught up in an online encounter that we neglect to pay attention to the people present in the same room as us.
Most importantly, the Incarnation points to the importance of encountering God through the senses. Watching the Mass on TV is not equal to attending in person. Nor can we go to Confession or get confirmed, married, or ordained on the Internet or over the phone. The physical aspect of worshipping God is not insignificant because of our nature as physical beings.
Our Bodies have a Purpose
Finally, Christ took on a body for a purpose: to manifest His Love in the most sacrificial and physical of ways on the Cross. He then rose from the dead and opened the gates to Heaven for us.
We are called to use our bodies for a purpose as well. Our individual physical gifts, capabilities, and limitations can be part of how we accomplish our personal vocation and mission. Married couples “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) and reflect God’s Trinitarian love through a familial union. A sick or disabled person is a living icon of the suffering Christ. A painter uses his skill to convey God’s truth, goodness, and beauty on canvas.
Overall, the purpose of our bodies is not primarily pleasure, as we all would very much like, but to imitate Christ in His sacrificial giving. To offer ourselves up as living sacrifices in union with Christ is not a tragedy, but a manifestation of love and a source of glory. The sacrifices we make might include small things like fasting on Good Friday or giving up our lunch to someone who’s hungry, to the radical sacrifices made by martyrs who suffered and died rather than renounce Jesus.
Catholics put at least one huge crucifix in every church for a reason. Nativity scenes depict the beginning of Jesus’ salvific mission, but Jesus’ Body on the Cross is the climax of that mission. The image of the suffering Christ on the Cross is the ultimate depiction of how we are called to live our lives. Christ has defeated the sting of death and risen from the grave. One day, if we are faithful, we too shall be raised.
Rose has been drawing and writing since she could hold a pencil, creating worlds of giants, fairies, and adventurers from her imagination. She works as a graphic designer and loves discussing the good and creative aspects of literature, art, and film.
Amber writes from the bunker of her living room. There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life. Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.