In Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation, Mary listens to the golden words of Gabriel while the word of God—the Scripture she’s been reading—lays open on her lap. God’s word is about to become God’s Word; he’s about to take flesh in this young virgin.
If it weren’t for Luke recording this scene in his gospel, how would we know?
Setting aside that God surely would have found another way to get across what Pope Benedict XVI called “the greatest event in our history” (Our Lady of Loreta Square homily, Oct. 4, 2012)—it’s worth thinking, on this Feast of the Annunciation, about why the Incarnation matters. This homey scene of the angelic encounter tells us that Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, was conceived by the Holy Spirit — and thus is human and divine.
“Yeah,” we think. “I know. What’s the big deal?” We’ve heard it so much, we rarely pause to question. But this was a huge issue for several centuries. Who is Jesus? How is he God and man? Heresies arose one by one, among them these:
— Jesus only seemed to be human (Docetism).
— Jesus might be a great prophet, but he’s the natural son of Mary and Joseph (Ebionitism).
— Jesus is God’s first and greatest creation, not from the beginning with God and therefore not God (Arianism).
— Jesus is a human body with a divine soul and psyche—so not fully human (Apollinarianism).
Against these and other wrong understandings of the nature of Jesus, the Church fought vigorously to proclaim the truth: that Jesus of Nazareth is truly and fully God and truly and fully human, both at the same time.
So what difference does that make?
If the Holy Spirit did not overshadow Mary such that the child conceived in her was in fact the Son of God:
1. We would know God only through Creation and his written revelation.
2. We would know God only as a power “up there” somewhere, remote and unreachable. He would be something, not someone.
3. We would not know God as someone who can relate to us in every way including temptation and suffering.
4. We would not know God as Father-Son-Holy Spirit.
5. We would not know God personally as Father.
6. We would not know God as someone who loves us to the point of giving up everything and suffering and dying so we might live with him forever.
7. We would not have seen God in his Son or know–based on Jesus’ words and example–how to truly live.
8. We would not know it is possible for God to be conceived in us – that we might become his children (“for that is what we are!” – 1 Jn 3:1).
And most of all:
If Jesus was not truly God and truly man, he could not have bridged the chasm between us and God. His death would have been a tragedy, his resurrection no more effective for us than the resurrection of Lazarus.
Jesus could only do what he did because he is who he is.
The truth is, the son of God became a man so that we might become children of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460)! And he did that through the humble “yes” of Mary.
This year, we celebrate the Annunciation in the days leading up to Holy Week. As we prepare to remember what Jesus accomplished for us in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, let’s remember what made that all possible.
God, who willed that your Word should take on the reality of human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, grant, we pray, that we, who confess our Redeemer to be God and man, may merit to become partakers even in his divine nature. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Collect for March 25, Feast of the Annunciation)
FOR FURTHER READING:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a readable overview of the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation in the section “The Son of God Became Man,” nos. 456-483.
© 2015 Sarah Christmyer