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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

The Litany of the Incarnation

A schematic sketch of the "Incarnational vision"
expressed in the Documents of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

I must begin, however, by apparently contradicting myself as I go on to say that while the Incarnation is the vehicle for understanding the works of God, it does not follow that it can be understood in exactly the same way in the case of each of the different works of God; however, I hope that nevertheless it will be evident how the Incarnation is at work as an influence on our understanding of even the works of God to which it seems the least likely to apply.  For through the Word 'all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him' (Jn 1: 3).

In a logical order the first work of God is creation.  In its unity and diversity it could be said to mirror (cf Rom 1: 20) the fundamental mystery of God as the Blessed Trinity: 'the transcendent Exemplar of unity-in-diversity.

Pope John Paul II says in his Letter To Families: 'Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine We.  From this mystery the human being comes forth by an act of creation: God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gn 1: 27)'332.

This leads to the possibility that there are three 'types' of incarnation: the 'mirror' of creation: a divine idea is embodied in a living artifact; the 'pattern' of Christ: the Word is made flesh; and the 'inspiration' of the Spirit: 'God is the author of Sacred Scripture'333.

The Catechism Of The Catholic Church says of God's creation of man: 'The word of God and his Breath are at the origin of every creature ...'334; and, in the words of St. Irenaeus: "God fashioned man with his own hands [that is, the Son and the Holy Spirit] and impressed his own form on the flesh he had fashioned, in such a way that even what was visible might bear the divine form"335; and again the Catechism says: 'Disfigured by sin and death, man remains "in the image of God," in the image of the Son, but is deprived "of the glory of God," of his "likeness"'336.  This idea is then brought to its full development in the following sentence: 'The promise made to Abraham inaugurates the economy of salvation, at the culmination of which the Son himself will assume that "image" and restore it in the Father's "likeness" by giving it again its Glory, the Spirit who is "the giver of life"'337.

Dare we conclude, therefore, that just as the Son is the Father's "image," as the Spirit is the Father's "likeness" , and man, whom God created 'male and female' (Gn 1: 27), who is made 'in our image, after our likeness' (Gn 1: 26) is both a 'manifestation of God'338 in his singularity and a manifestation of the Mystery of God as the Blessed Trinity.  For just as 'it is only through the duality of the "masculine" and the "feminine" that the "human" finds full realization'339., so is it only through the "image" of the Son and the "likeness" of the Sprit that the 'divinity' finds 'full' expression?  Furthermore, dare we conclude that the specificity of the man is an image of the Son and the specificity of the woman is a likeness of the Spirit?

Pope John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, applies his understanding of this mystery to the human race and to the person.  He says of the human race: 'God is love (1 Jn 4: 8) and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion.  Creating the human race in his own image ... God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation ... of love and communion'340.

One of the footnotes to this passage is from Gaudium et Spes.  I will therefore juxtapose two thoughts from the article to which he refers: 'man was created "to the image of God"' and 'This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons' (art 12)341.  For what the Pope then does in his own work is to connect more explicitly the following two mysteries with the axial principle that the one is made in the 'image' of the other: 'God ... lives a mystery of personal loving communion,'342 and 'This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons'343.

If one returns to Familiaris Consortio the Pope proceeds, as it were, from the identification of the inter-personal communion of the Blessed Trinity as the reality of which 'the human race'344 is the 'image,' to the application of a certain sense of incarnation to the intra-personal nature of the human individual: 'As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality'345.

In Pope John Paul II's Address On The Interpretation Of The Bible In The Church , he says: 'It is true that putting God's words into writing, through the charism of scriptural inspiration, was the first step towards the incarnation of the Word of God'346.  This 'first step towards the incarnation of the Word of God' is defined by Dei Verbum, in the following words: 'the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men'347.  Thus the nature of the Scripture is, as it were, revealed in the light of the nature of Christ; and so begins the great interpretation by God of his own deeds.  In other words the divine-human deed of the coming of Christ, of God made man, is the reality through which to understand the nature of the deeds that God does for our salvation.

The ancient words of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD are a formal beginning to our understanding of St. John's expression of this mystery of the Incarnation in his immortal words: 'The Word became flesh' (Jn 1: 14).  In the following excerpt from the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon on the mystery of the Incarnation we have, perhaps for the first time348, the modern doctrine of the person as it is articulated through the Church's reflection on the mystery of Christ: 'The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis'349.  In other words if Christ himself is constituted, as it were, by the very mystery in which God became man, the very mystery in which God made man in the image of God, then this mysterious union of the two different natures could be said to be the archetypal union of man and God.  In other words, as has been said many times already, the mystery of the Incarnation is fundamental to the mystery of man as the following words of Gaudium et Spes says: 'In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear'350.

The Second Vatican Council also applied this mystery to the Church.  In Lumen Gentium, the fathers of the Council351 say in the course of a long and fascinating statement on this theme: 'the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches ... comes together from a human and a divine element.  For this reason the Church is compared, in a powerful analogy, to the mystery of the incarnate Word'352.

Now at the beginning of Lumen Gentium the Church is also said to be 'in the nature of sacrament'353.  And so it is almost as if the mystery at the very heart of her nature, the mystery which brings together 'a human and a divine element,' is a mystery that begets, as it were, the nature of the particular sacraments of the Catholic Church: each of which participates in that mystery of the bringing together of a human and a divine element354.  This particular aspect is well, indeed perfectly expressed in the words of St. Augustine: "The word is brought to the material element, and it becomes a sacrament"355.

This doctrine of the Incarnation, which seems to apply in all directions, is also applied to the mystery of the Church's mission.  This Document of the Council is called the Decree On The Church's Missionary Activity, and is otherwise known as Ad Gentes Divinitus.  This document refers to the Incarnation in two places.  The first reference to it is at the beginning of chapter two, which is entitled 'Missionary Work:' the Church 'must implant itself among all these groups in the same way that Christ by his incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among who he lived'356.  This thought is then subsequently amplified in their second reference to it when they say: 'just as happened in the economy of the incarnation, the young churches, which are rooted in Christ and built on the foundations of the apostles, take over all the riches of the nations which have been given to Christ as an inheritance (cf. Ps 2: 8)'357.

This Litany of the Incarnation comes to a close with two further quotations from Gaudium et Spes.  The first one pertains to the beginning of this mystery, as it began with the coming of Christ: 'by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man'358.  The second and last quotation from Gaudium et Spes could almost be said to pertain to the beginning and the end of the eschatological fulfilment of the first act of Christ's Incarnation.  For the Council father's say: 'the Lord Jesus, when praying to the Father "that they may all be one ... even as we are one" (Jn. 17: 21-22), has opened up new horizons closed to human reason by implying that there is a certain parallel between the union existing among the divine persons and the union of the sons of God in truth and love'359.

In a rather simple imitation of the structure of Lumen Gentium, the last word in this litany of the incarnation goes to women and, in particular, to Mary.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the author applies some of the words of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, to Mary: 'Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church's mystery as "the bride without spot or wrinkle"' (Eph 5: 27)360.  The text then goes on to say: 'This is why the "Marian" dimension of the Church precedes the "Petrine."'  The footnote to this second sentence is to article twenty seven of John Paul II Apostolic Letter on The Dignity Of Women, otherwise known as Mulieris Dignitatem.  In the very last sentence of article twenty seven, the Pope says: 'Holy women are an incarnation of the feminine ideal ...'361.  This particular use of the word 'incarnation' raises a fascinating possibility: is the unity of the Church in holiness a particular expression of the unity in God?  For is not holiness that attribute of God which, in one sense, was what at one time defined God as God: as "wholly other": as holy362?  In other words, does this mean that what the Pope elsewhere calls the "motherhood of God," of which the 'nun's charism ... is a visible sign,'363 is in some way especially revealed in the vocation of the woman, eminently in the vocation of the woman religious and pre-eminently in the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary, precisely because the woman is a manifestation of the unity of the creature before God?  Does the woman, therefore, "mirror" the unity-in-holiness of the most High?  'For she is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God's active power, and image of his goodness' (Ws 7: 26).

It may, however, be a mistake to centre the question of the image of the unity of God on the image of the woman, too precisely, because, as the Pope says in his Letter To Women: 'It is only through the duality of the "masculine" and the "feminine" that the "human" finds full realization'364.  Thus if one does dwell, as it were, on the unity in God in the 'image' of the Motherhood of God, then one has to do so in relation to the diversity in God as expressed in 'images' of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  I therefore freely admit, at this point particularly, a considerable difficulty in arriving at any satisfactory synthesis of these two images: on the one hand the Motherhood of God and on the other hand God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

But lest this last part of the discussion be misconstrued as a form of mariolatry, let me just say that my speculation on the meaning and implicaton, if there is any implication, to the idea that 'Holy women are an incarnation of the feminine ideal,' is not a speculation that denies that Mary is a creature of God; it is a speculation, however, that is influenced by the Council's perception that 'in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph. 5: 27) ...'365.  Thus the perfection of Mary is the definitive perfection of the creature to which all men are ordered, through the Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection of our Blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ - even if the degree of Mary's perfection is a wholly unique gift of God to her366.


It could be said that the theme of the seed with which this discussion begins, and the second part of it on the theme of the incarnation with which it continues, are an unlikely juxtaposition of ideas; however, it is significant that it is just this combination that can be found at the beginning of article twenty two of the Council's document on the missionary activity of the Church: 'The seed which is the word of God grows out of good soil ...  So too indeed, just as happened in the economy of the incarnation, the young churches ... take over all the riches of the nations which have been given to Christ as an inheritance (cf. Ps. 2: 8)'367.  This juxtaposition brings to light the humility of God and, as it were, the place in the plan of God of the gift and the task368 entrusted in the power of the Holy Spirit to human beings: the gift and the task of magnifying the work of the Lord (cf. Lk 1: 46).

Secondly, the purpose of this systematic presentation of the use of the term 'incarnation' is to signal up its singular use in the doctrine of the Church, particularly in recent times.  This is not intended to be an exhaustive discussion on the particular aspects of the pattern of the incarnation which come to light, so much as an indication of the sense in which the term is used in each particular case and, occasionally, a speculative suggestion in relation to it.

Finally, if it can be said that what happens to Christ, happens, as it were, to the Incarnation, then through the Paschal mystery one can perhaps speak of the transfiguration of the Incarnation:a transfiguration of Christ and of all who accept the gift and the task of their incorporation in him.  It is perhaps this transfiguration of the creature in Christ which is celebrated in the final mystery of the Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary: 'The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Heaven and the Glory of all the Saints'369.  Thus it is almost as if one can speak of a divinely ordained "hierarchical structure"370 of holiness: an 'antecedent' order of holiness which complements371 the ordinary and divinely ordained 'hierarchical structure' of the Church: indeed it is as if the Apostolic-Petrine order of the Church is itself ordered372 to the 'holiness' of the Church as to its root, principle of growth and crowning blossom.  Thus the Church incarnates, as it were, the holiness of God - the Spirit of Holiness: the Holy Spirit - and so the Fathers of the Church compared the work of the Spirit in the Church 'to the function that the principle of life, the soul, fulfils in the human body'373.  If, then, the mystery of the incarnation of Christ could be re-expressed in language which did not betray its essential meaning, then it would be to say that the coming of the Son of God in human flesh (cf. Jn 1: 14) was the ontological condition for God giving His holiness to man: the final fulfilment of which is what the book of Revelation calls 'the bride that the Lamb has married' (Rev 21: 9).

Thus it may be necessary to admit not only my difficulty of making human sense of the work of the Three Persons In One God, but also the necessity of a type of understanding that preserves the relations between things.  For while there is One God, the One God is not a solitary being but the essentially social being of the Blessed Trinity: the Three Persons in One God.

332 Page 3 of an unpublished work by Fr. R. Conrad OP: Is one human person, or a community such as the family, the better image or model of the Holy Trinity?    Back
333 CCC, art 105, page 31.    Back
334 CCC, art 703, page 186.    Back
335 CCC, art 704, page 186.    Back
336 CCC, art 705, page 186.    Back
337 CCC, art 705, pages 186-187.    Back
338 EV, art 34, page 60.    Back
339 LTW, art 7, page 12.    Back
340 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
341 Gaudium et Spes, art 12, page 913 of VCII.    Back
342 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
343 Gaudium et Spes, art 12, page 913 of VCII.    Back
344 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
345 Ibid.    Back
346 This address was given on the 23rd of April, 1993, and appears in the publication: The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation Of The Bible In The Church, Vatican translation, (Sherbrooke, Quebec: Editions Paulines, 1994), page 12.  Abbrev IBC.    Back
347 Dei Verbum, art 13, page 758 of VCII.    Back
348 Cf. Henri de Lubac's attribution of this idea to Etienne Gilson in the essay by Henri de Lubac entitled On Christian Philosophy, Communio, Vol XIX, No 3, (Fall 1992), pages 480-481.    Back
349 The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, edited by J Neuner SJ and J Dupuis SJ, (New York: Alba House, 1982), pages 154-155.  Abbrev TCF.    Back
350 Gaudium et Spes, art 22, page 922 of VCII.    Back
351 From now on, read 'Council' to refer to the Second Vatican Council.    Back
352 Lumen Gentium, art 8, page 357 of VCII.    Back
353 Lumen Gentium, art 1, page 350 of VCII.    Back
354 Cf. The Declaration On The Admission Of Women To The Ministerial Priesthood, otherwise known as Inter insigniores, art 5, page 339 of VCII, Vol II, (New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1982); and cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church on sacramental theology, particularly articles 770-776, pages 203-205, and article 1210, page 311.    Back
355 St. Augustine, In Jo. ev. 80, 3: PL 35, 1840., as quoted in footnote 33 to article 1228 on page 315 of the CCC (the footnote numbering begins again with Part Two).    Back
356 Ad Gentes Divinitus, art 10, pages 824-825 of VCII.    Back
357 Ad Gentes Divinitus, art 22, page 839 of VCII.    Back
358 Gaudium et Spes, art 22, page 923 of VCII.    Back
359 Gaudium et Spes, art 24, page 925 of VCII.    Back
360 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994), art 773, page 204.  Abbrev. CCC etc.    Back
361 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, (Dublin: Veritas, 1988), art 27, page 103.  Abbrev MD.    Back
362 John L. McKenzie, SJ, Dictionary of the Bible, (New York: MACMILLAN PUBLISHING COMPANY, 1965), page 365: Holy.    Back
363 John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, (London: CTS [Do 634], 1995), art 9, page 19; cf. also John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, (London: CTS [Do 636], 1995), art 102, page 114; cf. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, (London: CTS [Do 616], 1993), art 120, page 178; cf. John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, (London: CTS [Do 627], 1994), articles 47-48, pages 60-61; and, finally, cf. Lumen Gentium, art 65, page 420 of VCII: 'Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith ...' etc.    Back
364 Pope John Paul II, Letter Of Pope John Paul II To Women, (London: CTS [Do 638], 1995), art 7, page 12.    Back
365 Lumen Gentium, art 65, page 420 of VCII.    Back
366 Cf. Lumen Gentium, articles 66-69, pages 421-423 of VCII.    Back
367 Ad Gentes Divinitus, art 22, page 839 of VCII.    Back
368 I apply to another context a phrase used by Pope John Paul II, in Gift And Mystery, (co-published by Doubleday, a division of Transworld Publishers Ltd and the Catholic Truth Society, 1997), page 79.    Back
369 A Simple Prayer Book, (London: CTS [D96], first published in 1886), page 36.    Back
370 Cf. this phrase as it occurs in the context of article 27 of MD, pages 99-103.  The Pope gives the footnote reference to Lumen Gentium, 18-29.    Back
371 Cf. footnote 55 of MD on page 101.    Back
372 Ibid.    Back
373 Lumen Gentium, art 7, page 356 of VCII.    Back

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