The Mystery of the Incarnation

Christology, the study of Christ and the Incarnation, gets very little serious attention these days among mainstream Christians. I suspect one would be hard-pressed to find many people who held a strong and informed opinion on topics such as the hypostatic union or the distinction between Christ's human and divine will.

In contrast to modern indifference toward Christology, the Incarnation was, to say the least, of preeminent concern in the Early Church. The first six ecumenical councils of the Church were convened to refute heretical notions of the Incarnation, arguing passionately about seemingly hairsplitting concerns and linguistic subtleties. Why was the early Church so preoccupied with getting the details of Christ's humanity and divinity right? And why should we care that no one seems to care today? I think in order to understand that, it's helpful to understand the relationship between heresy, orthodoxy and mystery.

The 20th century English writer, Hilaire Belloc, observes that humans, being rational beings, are perpetually attempting to rationalize things they don't understand. That's perfectly fine when it comes to bugs, stars and stuff like that. But when it comes to the Incarnation, we’re dealing with the union of infinite divinity to finite humanity. Our mind's capacity is finite. Therefore, the Church and the great teachers of the faith consistently insist on the ineffable or indescribable nature of the Incarnation. No matter what we might say about the Incarnation (and as it turns out, there is quite a lot we can say), it is ultimately beyond human concepts and words. That is to say, the Incarnation is a mystery. As St. Augustine says, “If you comprehend it, it is not God.”

Belloc contends that it is characteristic of Christological heresy to reduce the mystery of the Incarnation to something merely rational. In other words, heresy is always an attempt to confine the Incarnation within the scope of human understanding. Heresy, one way or the other, inevitably undermines either Christ’s divinity or humanity. As we examine the Church's conciliar record, it's clear the Church is conscious of this danger. Any theological compromise on either Christ's full divinity or full humanity is judged heretical. Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly man, as revealed by God through the Scriptures. No matter how any one might try to incorrectly explain that fact, the Church would never budge on holding the two together.

And praise God that the Incarnation is mysterious, and that the early Church fought tooth and nail to protect it! If any of the rationalizing heresies prevailed in the early Church, Christianity would have certainly fizzled out along with the heresy, the Faith being reduced to some gnostic gobbledygook.

Mystery is a good thing for us. Mystery has the paradoxical effect of drawing a person into itself. It evades the grasp of the mind, and yet it captures the heart. And in an infinite mystery, such as the Incarnation, there is always something more to discover. Mystery endures. And it matters for us today, because it is actually the mysteries of our faith, particularly the mystery of the Incarnation, that inform our Christian spirituality, liturgy, and sacraments. To be a Christian is to be in Christ, to partake in the "fellowship of the mystery" as St. Paul says. So in the end, if we get Christ wrong, we will consequently get ourselves wrong and our worship wrong.

(Photo Caption: The icon Prince of Peace depicts the pre-incarnate Christ. By emphasizing the divinity of Christ, this icon in the early Church was a direct refutation of the Arian heresy, which denied full divinity to Christ. Written by Fr. Brendan McAnerney, O.P. 2021.)

Br. Cassian Smyth, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE