This is the fifth part of a series that follows The Catechism in a Year podcast. Dr. Matthew Minerd journeys with us and presents a “travel guide” through the major themes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
By revealing himself to mankind, God has “stooped down” to meet our needs, without ever losing his transcendence. To appreciate the lengths to which God has gone in his abundant, merciful love for us, we need only look upon the Incarnation of the Word, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. When the fullness of time had come, when all the preparation of the Old Covenant was fulfilled at the moment appointed by God, a great “sending forth” took place:
“God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”Galatians 4:4–5
This incarnation of the Son proceeds without bringing any change in the all-perfect God, but through it he goes to the utter bounds of the misery of fallen man, becoming like us in all things except for sin (see Hebrews 4:15). He who was, is, and ever will be in the bosom of the Father mysteriously also “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7). In the words of the Byzantine Christmas liturgy:
“Today, the virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One; and earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable … the Eternal God is born for us as an infant child.”
Through the ages, the great mystery of the Incarnation has inspired devotion in the saints and beauty in the works of artists throughout the Christian world: St. Francis of Assisi built his creche, Italian families gather on Christmas Eve for the “seven fish,” and Poles and Slavic peoples ritually pray for their family members while offering Oplatki wafers stamped with Christmas imagery. Endless hymns are sung to the birth of God among men, and the Roman Church chants in its liturgy:
“O magnum mysterium … O great mystery!”
All of this radiates from this central truth of the faith: Mary has given birth to the Son of God.
The Divinity of Jesus
From her first days, the Church has affirmed Jesus’ divine nature, and the implication of this profound truth was grasped by the Fathers of the Church, many of whom spoke of it as an admirabile commercium, a “wondrous exchange”:
“He gave us divinity; we gave him humanity.”
Nonetheless, the articulation of this faith took centuries to come to full fruition. The early ecumenical councils of the Church were dedicated to this task, setting forth the mystery of God revealed in Christ.
A Variety of Errors
The stakes were high: If Jesus merely “appeared” to be human (Docetism), then humanity would share nothing real with him and would not have been incorporated into the divine life through grace. If he was merely the “most favored” human (Arianism), then to be “alive in Christ” would merely be to follow a superior form of morality, a new way to “save ourselves,” not a new divine life in grace. If the divine and human nature of Jesus were somehow fused together into a single nature that was neither purely divine nor human (Monophysitism), then we could not affirm that he is both God and man in one divine Person. The opposite error (Nestorianism), however, asserts that there are two persons in Christ, one human and one divine. In that case, we could not say of him, “This man is God,” for this man would be merely a human person—and the implication is that we could not say that our human nature will be truly divinized but, rather, that human perfection would consist only in obedience to God.
Finally, after several centuries of debate, the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 solemnly defined the mystery, believed by most Christians, that Jesus is one divine Person with two natures, human and divine. This is the mystery of the hypostatic union of two natures in Person of the Word Incarnate. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity did not change—for there is no change in God—but human nature was “drawn” to the Word. In the words of St. Leo the Great,
“He united humanity to himself in such a way that he remained God, unchangeable. He imparted divinity to human beings in such a way that he did not destroy, but enriched them, by glorification.”
Further clarifications would be necessary. The second (AD 553) and third (AD 680–681) councils of Constantinople made clear that not only does Jesus have a divine nature and a human nature but also a divine will and a human will. And the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) affirmed the ancient practice of venerating sacred images, for if in Jesus Christ the Godhead had become truly visible, so too can and should Christians represent the mysteries of the Faith in iconographic form.
The Mother of Christ
Now, it is in light of the profound mystery of Jesus that the mystery of his Mother Mary stands out clearly. When the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you,” (Luke 1:28), his words are best interpreted by those of the blessed Elizabeth, the mother of his precursor, St. John the Baptist:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”Luke 1:42
The first blessing flows from the second: Mary, the fulfillment of Daughter Zion, is blessed because she is the Mother of God. This divine maternity is the source of all her other prerogatives. It is her greatest title, granted her to reflect the truth that Mary is not the mother of Jesus’ human nature—for one cannot be the mother of a “nature”—but of the person of her Son, who is the Word of God Incarnate.
Because of the divine maternity bestowed upon her by God, Mary stands on the border of the human and the divine, while retaining her human condition. She is the first of the redeemed. But in her case, redemption takes on a wholly unique radiance. In anticipation of the merits of her Son, she was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her conception; there was never a moment when sin turned her away from the life of grace. Through this mystery of the Immaculate Conception, Mary becomes the new and sinless Eve, of whom the New Adam will be born (see 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). From one grace to the next, the Mother of God progressed ever more deeply in the divine life given to all who are redeemed. Like the Ark of the New Covenant, giving birth to Jesus, the true Holy of Holies, she was most truly at home in the Heavenly Zion through the whole of her life. In her, there is a most profound confirmation of the words of the Psalms:
“Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion … They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.”Psalm 84:5, 7
Standing at the foot of the cross of her Son (see John 19:25), she receives salvation for mankind and, to the end of the age, she will be the greatest of intercessors for Christians, the image of the Church, who gives birth to the faithful in all ages:
“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.”Revelation 12:1–2
Such is Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos, “the God bearer,” who is more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare to the seraphim, receiving not merely the veneration (dulia) given to the saints but truly deserving the greatest praise and honor that can be directed to any creature (hyperdulia).
The Life of Christ
Ultimately, the mystery of Mary, Mother of God, unfolds the mystery of Jesus Christ, the God-man. Indeed, all of Christ’s life unfolds the mystery of the Word of God made Flesh. In the Gospels, we are presented with numerous events for meditation on the Incarnation: the infant Jesus presented in the Temple; twelve-year-old Jesus with his parents at Passover in Jerusalem, proclaiming his Messiahship; his silent obedience to Mary and Joseph in Nazareth; his preaching and fellowship with the outcast during his public ministry; his spiritual combat with Satan, as well as with the Pharisees and Sadducees. All of this is a seamless “coat of many colors,” at once veiling and revealing the mystery of the Incarnation. In the words of Pope Innocent III,
“Each and every one of Christ’s actions are an instruction for us.”
The greatest of all the acts of Jesus is his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, the Paschal Mystery, the “hour” for which he became man (see John 12:23, 27; 17:1). Through his self-offering on the cross, Jesus the Son returns to the Father, in the loving self-offering that humanity owed to God from the beginning of time but failed, through sin, to render to him. Jesus does not merely “purchase” redemption for us; rather, the “satisfaction” he makes to God on our behalf through the Paschal Mystery is at once the full accomplishment of salvation and the wellspring from which all grace flows. As disciples of Christ, we are “baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3), so that we may say with St. Paul,
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me … and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.”Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:24
Victorious over death, the light of Christ radiates from the resurrection, inaugurating the final age of salvation history.
The Son of God did not come to earth merely to offer moral instructions. He came to give us a mystical source of grace through the Church, in the sacraments, the liturgy, and Scripture. From Jesus’ ascension to the last judgment, the Church is the abode of grace, the new vineyard of the Lord. All of human history led up to the coming of Christ, and now the remainder of history radiates with his light and life. The “last days” have already begun, for in Christ the meaning of time has found its fulfillment:
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”2 Corinthians 5:17
Christians await Christ’s glorious Second Coming, which will mark his final victory over sin and death, and the coming of a “new heaven and new earth” (see Revelation 21). When this will be, we do not know (see Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32). But we look forward to this day in hope, crying out as did the early Christians,
“Maranatha! Our Lord, come!”1 Corinthians 6:22