Today, March 25, is the Feast of the Annunciation. Falling on the calendar exactly nine months before Christmas Day and the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the annunciation celebrates the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit when the Word became flesh and first began to dwell among us. Today’s feast, however, often gets overlooked, despite the importance of what it celebrates–the Incarnation.
The Incarnation is what makes Christianity distinct among other religious traditions. The Christian God is not one who is remote or indifferent, but a God who so loved the world and the humans he created that God became flesh, sharing completely in our humanity.
The Incarnation bears significantly on the ways Christians do ethics, that is, the way Christians reflect on how to live and act well in the world. The Incarnation is an antidote to flesh and world-denying tendencies we sometimes call “gnostic,” tendencies which deny the goodness of the body and advocate for a radical spiritualization of religion. It would be naive to claim that Christians have always done a great job affirming the goodness of the body, but the Incarnation serves to reground whatever gnostic tendencies we may have in the understanding of God who took on flesh. In light of an incarnate God, flesh-denying tendencies are always identified as heretical and antithetical to basic principles of Christian theology.
The Incarnation also grounds Christian ethical reflection in what is sometimes called a “preferential option for the poor.” God, though all powerful, did not come in power, but rather “in the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:6). God, in coming to earth, did not descend from on high, but rather was born of a woman, and as Aquinas says, grew in acquired knowledge in the same ways that we do (III, Q. 9). Just as the Incarnation must lead us to conclude the goodness of the body, so too does it call us to realize the special love that God has for the poorest among us, since that is who God-made-flesh became.
Finally, the Incarnation cannot be mentioned without also mentioning the role of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel came saying “Hail, favored one. The Lord is with you.” It is through Mary’s cooperation that we get the Incarnation, as Mary consents to God’s call, despite her doubt and fear, and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Just as their is a body-denying tendency that exists in Christianity, there is also, at times, a woman-denying tendency. Mary, however, calls us back, beginning in the Incarnation, to recognize the particular dignity and divine favor which women possess. The Gospel of Luke will continue to emphasize the critical role that women play as disciples of Jesus, with Mary foremost among them as the paradigmatic disciple, the only one consistently worthy of emulation.
Finally, the celebration of the Annunciation to Mary and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ has significance for the larger season in which this feast is celebrated–the Lenten Season. The Nicene Creed tells us that “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born (became incarnate) of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” The Incarnation happened in order to reconcile us to God, whom we are separated from by sin. In reflecting on the Incarnation, Thomas Aquinas tells us that it was possible for God in God’s absolute power to save humanity from sin in other ways other than becoming incarnate, but it was especially fitting for redemption to take place through the Incarnation in order to reveal to us the goodness of God: “It belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others, as is plain from Dionysius. Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by ‘His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three–the Word, a soul and flesh,’ as Augustine says. Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate” (III, Q.1, art. 1). By becoming flesh, God allows us to become partakers in the divine nature, no longer calling us servants, but rather friends.
So on this feast of the Annunciation, let us pray that God may continue to shape us in this Lenten season into the likeness of our Redeemer who became flesh out of love for us.