Christmas: Reality Incarnate

On March 25, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the moment when Gabriel brought Mary the divine invitation to bear the Savior. Mary’s fiat allowed the Holy Spirit to overshadow her, and bring about the conception of Jesus. Now, at Christmas, nine months later, the work begun in Mary comes to its fruition, and the Christ child is born.

This interval of nine months may seem, and at a superficial level is, unremarkable. After all, everyone over the age of four or five years old knows that it takes nine months for a baby to develop in its mother’s womb before it is born. It looks as though the Church is simply giving the nod to elementary human biology. But this prosaic fact points toward a profound truth underlying our celebration: the reality of the Incarnate God entering the natural and historical order of creation.

I have written before  concerning Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, the gospel passage for the Vigil Mass of Christmas, and how it presents to us God’s plan of salvation working out through human history. While the genealogy shows God’s saving plan manifested through the broad sweep of 42 generations, the Annunciation account in Luke zooms in for a close-up view of the particular moment and place in which salvation history comes to a point, and the person that God chooses as the instrument and agent of his saving act. From this moment on, the gospels become very specific and particular: In the Incarnation, birth, and life of Christ, the God of all time and all space closes in upon this particular time, this particular place, and this particular Person.

Salvation by an Incarnate Divinity could only come about in this way. Human beings are creatures of the particular; we each live in a particular time, a particular place, and among a particular nation or people. If Christ is truly “a man like us in all things but sin,” then he had, like us, to live a particular life. There is no such thing as a generic human being or a generic human life.

Which brings us back to Mary, and the celebrations of the Annunciation and Christmas. The nine months between these feasts underscores the reality of Mary’s real nine-month pregnancy, signaling to us that, yes, Christ was indeed carried in his mother’s womb like all of us, and born of his mother just as we are. Just like each of us, he was a particular Man of a particular family, dwelling in a particular place and living in a particular time.

We cannot be reminded too often or too emphatically of the reality of the Incarnation. History shows us that many cannot bear such a sublime reality very well. One of the earliest Christian heresies was that of Docetism. The docetists held that Jesus was not actually human, but only appeared or seemed human (the heresy takes its name from the Greek verb dokēo, “to seem”). But if Jesus was only a divine apparition in human form, then our humanity has not in fact been joined to divinity, and thus we are not saved. As St. Gregory Nazianzus (329-390 A.D.) wrote, “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.” Our salvation hinges upon the literal reality of God-become-man.

The liturgies of Christmas, coming nine months after the Annunciation, bear witness again to the reality of Christ’s humanity. The prayers of these liturgies are among the oldest that the Church possesses. They are the fruit of centuries of contemplation, debate, and even conflict. They reflect the mature judgment of the mind of the Church, after enduring the challenges of heresy and schism. As such they are prime examples of the principle lex orandi, lex credendi, “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.”

One such prayer is the Collect, or opening prayer, of the Mass of Christmas Day. This prayer is very ancient: it is found in the Gelasian sacramentary, which dates to about 750 A.D., and the Verona sacramentary, whose prayers date from 400 – 560 A.D. Thus, this prayer bears witness to the faith of the Church from within a century of the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), which gave us the Creed we recite at every Sunday and holy day Mass. The prayer reads:

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature
and still more wonderfully restored it,
grant, we pray,
that we may share in the divinity of Christ,
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Note particularly the conclusion of the prayer: “…that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” That word, “share,” is of key importance; it translates the Latin word particeps. Our English words “participate” and “participant” are derived from this Latin word. Unfortunately, the English word “participate” has lost some of its strength in more recent times. We must not allow the contemporary weakness of the word (things like “participation awards” come to mind) to mislead us. “Participation” in the sense we find here connotes a complete involvement, a total identification between source and sharer. Used substantively, the word particeps meant “partner,” implying unity and equality of identity and purpose. In other words, to “share” in the sense we find here implies an identification so close that we cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. This comports well with what our theology tells us of Christ’s two natures: though Christ’s human nature and divine nature can be distinguished, nonetheless they cannot be separated. Christ is completely united to our human nature, and thus through him our humanity is united to Christ’s divine nature.

The collect for the Christmas Day Mass emphasizes the unity of human and divine natures in Christ from God’s point of view, as it were. The prayer over the offerings of the Mass during the Night (Midnight Mass) reverses the view, looking at the Incarnation from the human perspective. The prayer reads:

May the oblation of this day’s feast
be pleasing to you, O Lord, we pray,
that through this most holy exchange
we may be found in the likeness of Christ,
in whom our nature is united to you.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Again, the heart of the matter is found in the conclusion: “…we may be found in the likeness of Christ, in whom our nature is united to you.” This too is a very ancient prayer; it has a Latinate economy of language, and even terseness, that English cannot convey. The original Latin of this phrase is in quo tecum est nostra substantia, which literally means, “in whom our nature is with you.” But the sense of “with you” is not that of mere physical proximity or accompaniment. Rather, the sense is one of union or communion. Think of the dialogs of the Mass between priest and people: “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” When we use the word “with” in these statements, we are not expressing a prayer or wish that God is physically, or emotionally, or even morally close to us. We are expressing the prayer that we would be united with God. In this usage, we might think of the word “with” in the sense that we might say a husband and wife are “with” one another. When a man expresses the desire to be “with” his wife, we can be fairly confident that he wishes something more than just to have her in the same room as himself. In this light, the Missal’s translation “united to you” might seem barely to do justice to the original.

I have written before that the liturgy is both sacrament and prima theologia. As such, it embodies or brings into the here-and-now the realities it signifies. The prayers of the Masses of Christmas not only reveal to us the reality of the Incarnation, but they serve the liturgy’s purpose of making us present to the heavenly mysteries. The nine months between the Annunciation and Christmas point towards the reality of Mary’s motherhood and Christ’s truly human birth. The prayers of the Christmas liturgies not only point us towards, but allow us to be participants in, the mystery of God-become-man.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Adoration of the Shepherds” painted by François Boucher in 1750.

Fr. Robert Johansen

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Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds degrees in Classics and Patristics, and also has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, where he is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Sacred Theology. He has presented a number of papers on musical and liturgical subjects at academic conferences, and published articles on the same topics in several academic and popular journals.

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