On this solemnity which celebrates the high-water point in the history of salvation, permit me to explore with you three Latin expressions.
The first is, verbum caro factum est: “The Word became flesh.” We find this line, of course, in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, and the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is God’s last and definitive Word—a word spoken in the flesh. The doctrine of the Incarnation is the central teaching of Christianity, however, if one were to survey Catholics leaving churches on Sunday mornings by asking, “When did the salvation of the world occur?” the vast majority would give the Protestant answer by saying, “Calvary”. And they would be wrong, as are Fundamentalists and many other Protestants today, because our salvation began at the Annunciation when “Verbum caro factum est.” Indeed, the whole Christ-event is salvific: From His conception in the womb of His holy Mother to His ascension to His heavenly Father’s right hand. We are saved by the flesh, the Body of Christ. As we heard to today’s Second Reading, “a body you have prepared for me.” Here we come to the second:
Caro cardo salutis—”The flesh is the hinge of salvation,” as Tertullian informs us. What saved the world once continues to do so. The body is good because it was created by God and even more clearly so since the divine plan made it the very means of our redemption. Because of that, the body—and all material reality—takes on even greater significance. The Father made it good, indeed, very good. And Jesus His Son made it holy. Hence, all that has been redeemed— the entire universe—can be marshaled into the on-going work of redemption. A “catholic” instinct, if you will, then, explains our use of water, bread, wine, oil, and natural things to lead us to experience the supernatural. Similarly, man’s creative genius, especially in the arts, gives us access to the holy. So,
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Thirdly, in the Creed, we profess our faith in the communio sanctorum, usually translated as the “communion of saints,” but that is only one meaning. The Latin phrase is deliberately multivalent, like any good symbol. So, it means “communion of saints,” yes, but also “communion in holy things”—that is, the sacraments. In other words, our membership in the mystical Body of Christ on earth—the communio sanctorum—is initiated, sustained and brought to completion by that communio sanctorum which is the Church’s sacramental life. And that leads to the consummation of it all in the communio sanctorum which is a participation in the beatific vision for all eternity. That participation will still be embodied/incarnate participation. Remember: Our Lord and Our Lady presently have bodies—glorified bodies—in heaven, and so will we. Therefore, the mystery of the Incarnation continues into eternity.
What are some attitudes we should form as a result of these truths of faith?
Firstly, Catholics are not Gnostics or Manichaeans or Albigensians or Jansenists who, in various times and places, have made it the heart of their religious convictions to despise the human body. We realize the profound insight of the glorious Te Deum which charmingly almost reminds the Son, Non horruisti Virginis uterum: “Thou didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb.” The Eternal Word of the Father took His flesh from that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thereby declaring all flesh sacred. At the same time, we are not libertines who do what we please with our bodies. We cannot forget that our bodies are just what St. Paul said they are, “temples of the Holy Spirit,” bodies destined for eternal glory. Abuse of the body, then, spits in the face of the Incarnate Word, putting the lie to our theological conviction.
Catholics are not Puritans, either sexually or artistically or sacramentally. If the material universe has been brought into the great dialogue of redemption, everything human must form a part of that dialogue. The old pagan Roman poet Terence understood this in a very Christian way when he asserted, Nil humanum mihi alienum est: “Nothing human is foreign to me.” Because the Puritans had a truncated appreciation for the mystery of the Incarnation, they were terrified of that part of man which is so bodily and so human—sexuality. But true Christians are proud and happy to share in the inheritance of the Song of Songs, which celebrates human love in the covenant of marriage, as Pope John Paul II never tired of teaching the Universal Church for nearly three decades. Nor are true believers in the Incarnation skittish about harnessing man’s creative energies to produce beautiful art, music and architecture to adore the God of all beauty and to help raise our minds and hearts to Him, Who gave such magnificent talents to human beings. And, most especially, Christians recall that when Jesus worked His wonders, He did not hesitate to use even spittle to heal; how much more, then, should we value those works of creation to which He has assigned a saving meaning in His Church—the sacraments, those signs that creation is graced by the Triune God and the promises that our participation in them graces us, too.
As we think back on how the greatest event in human history occurred, we stand in awe of the fact that the omnipotent God wanted and awaited human cooperation. God the Father made His plan for our salvation contingent on a human being’s saying “yes”. And so, Our Lady stands as a constant reminder of the great things that can happen when the human person cooperates with the divine initiative. But what she did and what God did through her was not a kind of one-day sale; the Lord intends that this happen in the life of every believer. As St. Augustine put it so powerfully, “the God Who created you without you will not save you without you.” Our participation is crucial for our salvation. We don’t buy into that Reformation notion of “imputed righteousness,” which holds that God “makes us right,” even though we really aren’t. No, God makes us right because we want to be right, because we respond to His grace to become right, and therefore, do in fact become right in His sight. The Mother of the Word Incarnate is our model in this endeavor, but also our faithful intercessor before the throne of her Divine Son.
We also learn how to cooperate with the Lord from the Church, which is—as Sacred Scripture teaches—both Christ’s Bride and our Mother. Holy Church, like Holy Mary, always says “yes” to her Bridegroom; good children always follow their Mother’s good example.
Last but not least, today’s solemnity etches into our consciousness an indefatigable awareness of the sanctity of human life—from conception to natural death. God began the work of our redemption at the very moment when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary as the Eternal Word began His life on earth in her womb, “pitching His tent among us,” as St. John poetically has it. This fact of life and faith makes Christians a people of life, ready to promote the cause of life at every turn and equally ready to do battle with a culture of death. Those who want to kill babies in their mothers’ wombs and those who want to kill the sick and the elderly cannot know the meaning of the Incarnation and cannot hope to benefit from its saving effects.
Today’s celebration, then, stands at the center of the drama of salvation: Without today, no cross and resurrection; without today, no Church or sacraments; without today, no eternal life on high with God. In a marvelous even if fanciful recreation of the Angel’s visit to Our Lady, St. Bernard of Clairvaux caught the essence of what was really at stake on that first Annunciation Day: The whole of creation was waiting to be redeemed, hanging on the response of the Virgin of Nazareth. He says:
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God Who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response, we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. That is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.
Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the Angel, or rather through the Angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.
Then St. Bernard speaks even more urgently: “Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.” That same encouragement is given to each of us as well—to be true sons and daughters of the woman who enabled God to become Man. She said, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum: “Let it be done to me according to Thy word.” With what result? Verbum caro factum est: the Word became flesh.
If we take seriously this foundational doctrine of our holy Faith—as we must—and live its implications to the full, we can do no less than to echo our Mother’s response of loving cooperation: “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” And the mystery of the Incarnation is repeated all over again in our lives and in our world.
Image: Aix Annunciation attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck