(Letter to Verne A. Kiular, continued)
Continuing with the Creed, “By the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary” becomes “By the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” So what’s the difference between born and incarnate? Aren’t you following the news these days? Jesus didn’t become man on the day he was born, (man being the usual inclusive word for human). He became man the moment he was conceived in the Virgin-Mother’s womb. You’re human from the moment of conception, not from the moment you’re born. The same was true of our incarnate Lord Jesus.
There was a curious heresy called docetism, which held that God would never take on flesh. It would diminish Him. Instead He appeared among us a kind of ghost or apparition that left no footprints and cast no shadow. He may have been born, but was not ever truly flesh and blood. This idea was held by gnostics (gnostic comes from, the Greek word meaning knowledge). The gnostics claimed to have a secret knowledge of Christ given only to special people, The best simple definition of gnosticism, I’ve ever heard is that one is saved by theology, usually one’s own private theology.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote about the gnostics in his letter to the Smyrnaeans (100-110AD) “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not hold the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
Interesting. That means a disciple of St. Peter who had become a Christian perhaps 50 or 60 AD and was bishop of Antioch by 67 AD believed that the Eucharist was flesh and blood. That puts literal belief in the Real Presence back to at least 20 years after the Resurrection. Of course, I would put it at a few days before the Resurrection, namely the first Holy Thursday. But in the letter of St. Ignatius, we have documentary evidence outside the Bible for the belief in the Real Presence.
Where was I? Oh Yes. Gnostics.
To say that Jesus is born is quite different from saying that he was incarnate. Ideas are said to be born. To be incarnate is to be flesh and blood. It is to say that a man was truly God and that God was truly man. It is to say that nine months before the first Christmas, the Infinite and all Powerful Creator of the universe became flesh and blood in the shrine of the Virgin’s womb. God became what progressive moderns call an unimportant blob of tissue, that can be legally and easily disposed of, if found to be in any way an inconvenience. God became flesh and dwelt amongst us. If you can believe in the Incarnation, you can believe in the Resurrection. You can even believe in Transubstantiation and the Real Presence. It is His incarnation that cause wonderment, not simply His birth. Not only was it flesh that God became, but in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, He suffered the fate of all humanity. He truly died. Those same people who denied that Christ came in the flesh denied that He died a true death in the flesh. These range from Muslims who believe that Barabbas was substituted for Our Lord Jesus on the cross and that Jesus was taken away to heaven to await the final judgment.
(By the way, Barabbas is called a “lestes” or “bandit” in the Greek text of the New Testament. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, uses that word to mean revolutionary. Barabbas was probably a revolutionary guerilla and seems to have been later re-arrested by the Romans and eventually did suffer execution). Then we have the loons that espouse the swoon theory that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, but was revived by His disciples after He had been taken down from the cross.
We Catholics have believed from the first days that He was really human and really died. That He really rose from the dead in real flesh and that He remains with us in the flesh by His Real Presence, which is why in addition we are changing the words “He suffered, died and was buried” back to the more accurate “He suffered death and was buried.” He didn’t just suffer and die. He suffered death, which is the great leveler and the great question. Why do we live only to die? It is the fear that clouds all of human life. He didn’t avoid it. He embraced it. He was fully human. The gnostics and the skeptics can’t bring themselves to believe in a God so humble that He would endure the absolute weakness of death. They say “Absurd!” We say, “What wondrous love is this, oh my soul!”
Next week: “This guy isn’t even half way through!”