“Caro cardo salutis,” the flesh is the hinge of salvation.
Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh VIII.2
The Annunciation by John William Waterhouse
Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation achieves the central truths of the Incarnation, as it is here God becomes flesh and thus redeems the fallen children of Adam. Sections §457-60 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] provides four main consequences of Our Lady’s fiat.
The first is the reasoning from the forfeited goodness brought about by our disobedience: “The Word became flesh for us ‘in order to save us by reconciling us with God’”(1 Jn 4:10), who “loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:14); “the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world,” and he was revealed to take away sins. Then, quoting Gregory of Nyssa: “Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us” (§457).
The second reason (§458) is more epistemological in nature: the Son became human to manifest the otherwise invisible love of God to our senses. “The Word became flesh so that we might know God’s love: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4:9).
Thirdly, the Word became flesh so as to become a model of holiness, a new model for the Beatitudes, and the norm of the new law. “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). “This love implies an effective offering of oneself, after his example” (§459).
Finally, “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (2 Pet 1:4), to deify us, and elevate our human nature into God’s own life. Or as St. Athanasius put it most pithily: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”(On the Incarnation §52 as at CCC §460).
While these four main reasons are treated so succinctly and systematically here, the effects of our Lady’s “yes” are difficult to extinguish. Without doubt, the Incarnation is a most extraordinary event. Yet, given its familiarity, have we forgotten what it accomplished? St. Paul writes that Our Lord came to “restore all things” (Eph 1:10). What did Our Lord restore? Why did God become a man? What do we celebrate at the Nativity? Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (cf. 1 Jn 3:8). We wish to enumerate, yet even more, reparative effects wrought by the Divine Physician.
To liberate us from the enemy’s bondage
After the Fall, man was in bondage to the enemy (cf. Heb 2:14; CCC §407). St. James rejoices since, by God becoming man, we are made heirs of the kingdom (cf. Jam 2:5; Rom 8:14-17). No longer does the enemy have the last word. We also know that this privilege was now expanded to all persons (cf. Mt 8:5-13; Eph 2:11-22). In this “new plan of salvation,” the “Son of God has taken flesh…that he might in the mysteries of his flesh free man from sin” (Lumen Gentium §55).
To restore our human nature, created originally to the image and likeness of God
Original sin wounded the original glory of our human nature. Because of our divine aversion, our intellects were dimmed, and our wills weakened. So significant was the Fall, that the dignity of the human person was lowered, and human nature was wounded. However, God’s beneficence is greater than the devil’s malice. Pope Pius XI teaches that, the Incarnation raised man’s dignity to a greater state than prior to the Fall, capturing both the effect of the Incarnation on man, and on creation: “…it is easy to conclude that the entire aggregation of human beings and earthly creatures has, by the mystery of the Incarnation, been invested with a dignity greater than can be imagined, far greater than that to which the work of creation was raised.” 1
Knowledge of the Father was lost
We emphasize a corollary to the above, namely, that man no longer had knowledge of the Father. St. Athanasius poses a series of questions as to what God was to do in light of the turning away from God. In one, he explicates one of the Divine response: “What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew his Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him?” 2
Loss of union with the Father—by making man a son by adoption, Christ has effected reconciliation with the Father
Our Lord’s Incarnation restored “full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man, and the end of human life; for Augustine says in a sermon (s. 127) on the birth of Our Lord: God was made man, that man might be made God.” 3 This is affirmed and augmented by Pope St. Leo the Great: “Christ’s inexpressible grace gave us blessings better than those the demon’s envy had taken away.” 4 Indeed, to the point of St. Paul’s teaching, we “receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4, Rom 6:3).
Man becomes purposeless
Of course, this union with God—the very purpose for man being created—was thwarted by the Fall. The Incarnation became the avenue by which this purpose was re-acquired. “He took pity on them, therefore, and did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of himself, lest their very existence should prove purposeless. For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?” 5
Loss of Divine indwelling, sanctifying grace
As taught by St. Thomas, a formal effect of original sin is the loss of Divine indwelling. St. Paul reminds us, in many places, that we are now a new creation, since by baptism, the Holy Spirit dwells in us as in a temple (cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 1 Cor 6:19). So much has our identity changed that we are no longer our own (1 Cor 3:22-23, 1 Cor 15:28, and Eph 4:6).
Sanctifying grace in the soul is the created effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Man’s state of sin, after the Fall, is equivalent to the loss of sanctifying grace. No longer, like Adam and Eve, would the newly created human person be in a state of grace. Sacraments give grace, and are available to all, as St. John notes in his Prologue (cf. John 1:14, 16). Indeed, grace, available now more abundantly because of the Incarnation, enables us to act as a child of God (cf. CCC §420)!
The Fall separated man from God on earth, and precluded man from enjoying God’s presence for all eternity. Our Lord came to restore the possibility of man attaining the beatific vision. By the Paschal Mystery, Christ opened the gates of heaven (Cf. CCC §637, 661, 1026; Heb 9:15).
Hermeneutic of suspicion arose between husband and wife
Another effect of the Fall, with long-reaching consequences, is that the divinely-willed harmony between husband and wife was severed. A very hopeful truth is that, through grace, selfless charity between spouses is again possible. “In Christ, the mutual opposition between man and woman—which is the inheritance of original sin—is essentially overcome.” 6
Four material effects of original sin
Traditionally, in addition to the loss of sanctifying grace (a formal effect), four material effects of the Fall, and how Our Lord remedied each, are:
Bodily integrity lost and concupiscence introduced, meaning the will was weakened in choosing the good.
Grace enables man to choose the good, to overcome the passions.
Bodily immortality lost; death entered the world.
Because of the Resurrection, the soul will be united with the body on the last day.
Infused knowledge lost.
St. Paul repeatedly teaches of the importance of apprehending divine truths, that our “hearts and minds be in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).
Freedom from suffering forfeited.
In light of the Paschal Mystery, suffering has a redemptive element (Col 1:24).
Faculty of reason itself impaired
Not only was infused knowledge foregone by the Fall—that knowledge “produced directly in a created mind by some angelic or divine illumination,” 7 but also a great intellectual darkness enveloped man. Recurring throughout Scripture, is the idea that, after the Fall, man is very much groping in darkness, a penetrating symbol indicating that, ontologically, man is far below what he is called to be. Moreover, he cannot provide a remedy on his own, so great is the consequence of sin. Frequently, Our Lord is portrayed as bringing to creation a light which allows man to leave the centuries of dwelling in the intellectual, and, in a sensus plenior, or spiritual dungeon (Cf. Lk 2:32, Jn 1:9, Is 9:1-2, 1 Pt 2:9, Eph 5:8).
False worship resulted from loss of sanctifying grace
Since man lacked grace, he lost sight of God. As “children of wrath,” as St. Paul summarizes, we were prone to false worship. Since our “knowledge and experience” of God was obscured after the Fall, creatures became of prime importance to man. So deceived was man, that creatures were often worshipped (Rom 1:21-23). Pope Benedict reminds us that this tendency continues, only now with modern labels.
You might think that in today’s world, people are unlikely to start worshipping other gods. But sometimes people worship “other gods” without realizing it. False “gods”, whatever name, shape or form we give them, are nearly always associated with the worship of three things: material possessions, possessive love, or power. 8
Jesus came to restore grace, to allow us to know the Father, which leads to proper worship. St. John is very clear: Jesus came to reveal the Father (“He manifested himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the mind of the unseen Father”), 9 doing so with a primary purpose: “This is eternal Life: that they may know thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3).
Incarnation is a definitive reminder that we cannot save ourselves
Despite the historical record that man’s nature has been harmed (as outlined above), and that man has never been able to repair it, not infrequently, there arises the false idea (no doubt a form of pride) that now, man has progressed to such a degree, that salvation is now within his all-powerful grasp. Perhaps, the most common reason that Scripture provides for the Incarnation is that of salvation. “A faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Man by himself cannot undo the cosmic consequences his actions.
Inability to gain merit
Recent strain in modern thought is that man is not responsible for his actions. More precisely, he is not responsible for his immoral actions. What is often overlooked, is the moral truth that, after the loss of original justice, and before grace, man was incapable of performing an action which pleased God. Merit is not attainable. Certain privileges depend on previously meeting certain conditions. When not in a state of friendship with God, one cannot please him.
The Incarnation is a “gift of gifts.” Pope Leo XIII concisely provides a summary worthy of meditation:
For he healed the wounds which the sin of our first father had inflicted on the human race; he brought all men, by nature children of wrath, into favor with God; He led to the light of truth men wearied out by long-standing errors; he renewed to every virtue those who were weakened by lawlessness of every kind; and, giving them again an inheritance of never-ending bliss, he added a sure hope that their mortal and perishable bodies should one day be takers of immortality and of the glory of heaven. 10
- William J. Doheny, C.S.C, and Joseph P. Kelly, S.T.D., Papal Documents on Mary (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1954), 171. Emphasis added. Quoting Pope Pius XI, Lux Veritatis, December 25, 1931. ↩
- St. Athanasius, Dei Incarnatione Verbi, Translated and Edited by a Religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 41. Emphasis added. ↩
- From ST III, Qu. 1, art. 2, resp., 7. Emphasis in the original. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994 ed., no. 412, (Manhaw, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1994). ↩
- St. Athanasius, Dei Incarnatione Verbi, 38. ↩
- Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 11. ↩
- Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, s.v. “Knowledge,” Catholic University of America, 2003. ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with a Group of Disadvantaged Young People of the Rehabilitation Community of the University of Notre Dame, Church of the Sacred Heart, Sydney, Australia, July 18, 2008; www.vatican.va…. ↩
- St. Athanasius, Dei Incarnatione Verbi, 93. ↩
- The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (Arcanum Divinae), (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books & Publishers, Inc., 1995), 58. ↩