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The Incarnation and the Eucharist

By Father Michael Hull 

The Incarnation is one of the most profound and mysterious truths of the faith. With the Incarnation, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:14). 

Therewith, St. John testifies to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that God himself would come to save his people (Isaiah 35:4). The coming of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in the flesh not only signifies God's love for man, but also inaugurates the events that lead to the Paschal Mystery, wherein man is saved from death by one who, though God, is like man in all things save sin (Hebrews 4:14-15; cf. 2:17-18). 

Concomitant with the profundity and mystery of the Incarnation is the Mass, wherein the Word becomes flesh again and again under the appearances of bread and wine in the holy Eucharist, aptly described by the Second Vatican Council as "the source and summit of the Christian life" ("Lumen Gentium," No. 11; cf. "Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 10). Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider the relationship between the Incarnation and the Mass. 


In the mystery of the Incarnation, according to St. Athanasius, "the Son of God became man so that we might become God" ("De Incarnatione," 54.3). But why? Why would God do such a thing?

Sacred Scripture tells us that the Christ came to redeem men from their sins. The very name "Jesus" is given to the Christ in terms of his redemptive work (Matthew 1:21), the same work proclaimed by angels at his birth and announced by Simeon in the temple (Luke 2). 

Jesus himself speaks of redemption as his task when he says, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10; cf. Matthew 9:13). The very purpose of the Christ's coming into the world is to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15 and John 3:17), so that St. Augustine can say, in reference to 1 Timothy 1:15, that the sole reason for the coming of the Son of Man was to free mankind from sin ("Sermo" 174.1-2). 


In freeing mankind from sin, the largesse of God's love is manifest, and he is glorified. At the nativity of the Lord, the angels cry out: "Glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). And just after his Last Supper and before his arrest, Jesus prays to the Father saying, "I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made" (John 17:4). 

Thus, in terms of the Incarnation, the salvation of man and glorification of God are more two sides of the same coin than opposite poles. Since the Middle Ages, Thomistic theologians have laid great emphasis on the Fall as the reason for the Incarnation. They maintain that without the Fall there would have been no need for the Incarnation. Their position, "conditioned predestination," highlights man's need for redemption.

On the other hand, Scotist theologians hold that the Incarnation would have occurred whether or not our first parents sinned. Their position, "unconditioned predestination," is that the Incarnation is to God's glory and highlights the loving desire of God to bestow grace on mankind. 

In spite of the seemingly disparate emphases, the twain do meet insofar as the Incarnation accomplishes both ends. In the Incarnation, man is ransomed and God is glorified. However, the hybrid nature of God's activity does not make it less mysterious, nor does the hybrid nature of the one person of Jesus, with a human and a divine nature, make him anymore easily fathomable. 


It is not easy to comprehend the God-man who is Jesus the Christ. In a certain sense, it would be straightforward enough to deal with a distant God; in another sense, it would be straightforward enough to deal with a man; but to deal with a God-man is something else entirely. For this reason, the earliest heresies were for the most part Christological. It took the Church about 600 years to articulate her understanding of the Christ. 

Most of the early Christological heresies denied the humanity of Jesus, which was vigorously defended by St. Ignatius of Antioch and others, while subsequent heresies denied the divinity of Jesus until it was affirmed at the First Council of Nicaea (325). Later heresies denied that Jesus was one person and thought of him as two persons fused together, until the Council of Ephesus (431) affirmed Mary as the Mother of God. 


Still later heresies maintained that Jesus' human nature was obliterated by his divine nature, until the Fourth Council of Chalcedon (451) affirmed the two natures in Jesus. Finally, even after all of the aforementioned universal teachings, Jesus' humanity was still under siege until the Fifth Council of Constantinople (553), which defined the hypostatic union. 

Without belaboring the point, we see the Church at odds with so much aberrant thinking that sought to eradicate or dilute the humanity of Jesus, in whom him the eternal pre-existent Word had really become flesh. While debate and dissent over soteriology never reached a fever pitch in the early Church, Christology surely did because an earthly, fleshy Savior is difficult to comprehend. 


And on some levels, little has changed in 1,400 years. An earthly, fleshy Savior, the God-man, is still difficult to comprehend because he, though like us in all things save sin, is God. Jesus "is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15; see 2 Corinthians 4:4). But in spite of the fact that we are imbued with the "imago Dei" by God (Genesis 1:26), original sin and the consequences thereof obfuscate our recognition of God in Jesus and also cloud our credulity in a Savior so close to us in so many ways. A philosopher, sage, or prophet is more readily accepted when pointing to someone or something outside himself, especially to an abstraction. 

But Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). The Second Vatican Council reminds us that Jesus is no abstraction. Jesus "is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things save sin" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 22). For far too many, the intimacy of the hypostatic union is a scandal and the Incarnation an absurdity.

St. John reminds us that belief in the Incarnation is constitutive of the faith: "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God" (1 John 4:2). Indeed, to deny the Incarnation or to dilute it in any fashion is to deny or dilute the redemption of man and the glory of God ­- just the opposite of what we do in the liturgy, in particular the Mass. 

It is during the Mass that the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to transform ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The outward appearances, the accidents, of bread and wine remain the same, but the substance has been transubstantiated. It is through the holy Eucharist, the fruit of the Mass, that mankind continues to share in the divine life opened up for him by Jesus' incarnation and paschal mystery. 


The relationship between the Incarnation and the Mass is most closely seen in one's faith in Jesus the God-man and in one's faith in Jesus the Bread of Life. Stumbling blocks to one dogma are usually of a kind with stumbling blocks to the other. At the end of the day, it is a matter of faith. 

Faith is most beautifully expressed at Mass when the faithful give the assent of faith with their "amens" after the Creed and reception of the Eucharist. It is at the Mass that we stand within the new Jerusalem, what St. Augustine calls "the city of God," to realize the words of the heavenly voice recorded by St. John: "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them" (Revelation 21:3).

At no point in time is God closer to his people than in the Eucharistic sacrifice. It is the eyes of faith that see the God-man in Jesus and Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus' divinity did not prevent his physical degradation during his passion, as the Real Presence does not prevent desecration of the species or misunderstandings about the Mass. Just as there is great difficulty in accepting the incarnation, so there is great difficulty in accepting that the consecrated Host is Jesus' body, blood, soul and divinity. 


The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, like the incarnation, is a profound and mysterious truth of faith. And, like the Incarnation, it has had its share of detractors. The 16th century was the watershed for Eucharistic heresies. Whether the consubstantiation offered by Martin Luther or the various forms of symbolism offered by Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and others, this period marks a significant departure of many Christians from the Church's traditional Eucharistic theology articulated at the Council of Trent. 

However, the 16th century was hardly the beginning -­ and hardly the end -­ of doubts about the Eucharist. One of the earliest and most acute is the lack of faith among some of Jesus' first disciples. 


St. John reports that Jesus said, "Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). The statement caused unrest among Jesus' disciples who said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (6:60). And, even after much explanation on the part of the Lord, St. John reports: "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (6:66). 

To be sure, it is a hard saying, and many have drawn back and no longer go about with Jesus because of it. As with the Incarnation, the difficulty is rooted in the earthliness, the fleshiness, if you will, of the matter. It is no easy thing to accept a God who comes so close, a God who makes his very self real food and real drink for his creatures. 


But that is the very thing that Jesus did at the Last Supper. The accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20) point to Jesus' special wish to celebrate it with his disciples and to have his disciples celebrate it thereafter. 

In Matthew, Jesus is emphatic that what they eat is his body and what they drink is his blood, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

In Mark, Jesus is emphatic that what they eat is his body and what they drink is his blood, which is poured out for many.


In Luke, Jesus is emphatic that what they eat is his body and what they drink is his blood, and that they should continue to do so in remembrance of him. 

The same scenario is recorded by St. Paul as a rite which he passed on to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). And St. John, though he does not record the words of institution but the washing of the feet at the Last Supper (13:1-20), renders more Eucharistic references throughout his Gospel than any of the synoptics. 

It is clear from Sacred Scripture that Jesus intended to inaugurate the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper in such wise that it be carried out continually thereafter by his disciples. And that is exactly what St. Paul, like so many others in the early Church, was doing when he brought the Mass to Corinth. The Mass is Jesus' greatest legacy to the Church. It is in the Mass that we eat the bread and drink the cup and, thereby, "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). 

Within the analogy of faith, we see how important it is to relate the Incarnation with the Eucharist, the two "moments" when God becomes so close to us by becoming one of us and by giving himself to us for food under the guise of bread and wine. It is surely no accident that a tradition arose in the Middle Ages for the priest to read John 1:1-18 at the end of Mass as an act of private devotion. 

Pope St. Pius V incorporated the verses into his Missale Romanum (1570), where they became known as the "Last Gospel." Praying for a deeper understanding of the incarnation and the Mass brings us closer to Jesus, the Word made flesh, from whose "fullness have we all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16).

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