Advent, Incarnation, and Visibility
Since the season of advent is right around the corner, I thought I’d offer a personal reflection on the Incarnation from a newly Catholic perspective, as well as suggest areas where I think Catholicism exhibits the dynamic of the Incarnation more faithfully than Protestantism does.
Consider first the realm of ecclesiology (which is related to Christology most obviously because the Church is the Body of Christ). In Protestantism, there is no single visible church, there is no single visible entity that can serve as an analogue to the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth. While the people of Galilee and Judaea could have pointed their fingers and said, “That is Jesus Christ, right over there sitting under that tree, see him? No, not that guy, the one to his left. Yeah, him.” Protestants today cannot point to anything and say, “This is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church right here. No, not that one, this one.” In Protestantism, the church becomes more or less visible depending on the circumstances, fading in and out, as it were, of one’s field of vision:
This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them (WCF xxv.4).
Like the siblings in Marty McFly’s family photograph in Back to the Future, Protestantism’s so-called visible church can begin to disappear one minute only to start to reappear the next, depending on how faithfully Reformed it is at any given moment. But of course, there is no analogue in the physical and visible world of flesh and bone of this kind of phenomenon, which, I think, calls into question how literally and seriously this ecclesiology takes the dogma of the Incarnation. I mean, if the “visible” church is the only visible thing that acts in this way, is it truly visible?
Moreover, while the Catholic insists that every single recipient of the Eucharist truly receives the very body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ in Communion (since by the power of the Spirit the elements have been transformed into heavenly food and drink), Protestantism teaches that Christ is only received by those who are “worthy partakers”:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified. . . . Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby. . . . (WCF xxix.7-8)
Like Protestantism’s sometimes-visible church, Christ is only sometimes-truly-present at the Table. And what makes the difference as to his being more or less visible and more or less present is, again, the faithfulness of the believer.
Finally, absolutely central to the Catholic understanding of the Incarnation is Christ’s ongoing humanity, primarily because the final goal of our salvation is our deification. The whole point of Christ’s assuming human flesh and a human nature was so that he could glorify mankind in his own flesh so that, through our baptismal union with him, we participate in the divine nature by means of the flesh of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist. The whole thing is ontological and participatory: “Christ became Man so that man could become Gods,” and all that.
When we contrast this with the forensic and imputational focus of Protestant soteriology, the question arises (but is not “begged”), “Why is it necessary for the Son to retain his human nature? Why couldn’t he have simply risen again, shed his skin, and ascended as a non-corporeal being like he was before?” Furthermore, if Adam’s obedience could have been imputed to us his offspring (had be passed his probation), thereby accomplishing the very salvation that the second Adam in fact accomplished, one might be tempted to wonder aloud why the Incarnation was even necessary in the first place.
Of course, Catholics are not the only ones who affirm and celebrate the Incarnation. But it seems to me that this mystery is far more central to our overall system than it is to any of Protestantism’s. When one couples together the observations above with other issues such as the Protestant suspicion toward images of Christ, relics, the veneration of the Host, and anything that smacks of ontological participation of the human in the divine, well, let’s just say that the season of Advent is much more meaningful to me now than it ever was before.