Detail from "Annunciation" (1425-28) by Fra Angelico [WikiArt.org]
On this solemnity which celebrates the high-water point in the history
of salvation, permit me to explore with you three Latin expressions.
caro factum est
[The Word became flesh]. We find this line, of course, in the
Prologue to St. John's Gospel, and the Epistle to the Hebrews tells
us that Jesus is God's last and definitive Word a word spoken in
the flesh. The doctrine of the Incarnation is the central teaching
of Christianity; however, if one were to survey Catholics leaving
churches on Sunday mornings by asking, "When did the salvation
of the world occur?" the vast majority would give the Protestant
answer by saying, "Calvary". And they would be wrong, as
are Fundamentalists and many other Protestants today, because our
salvation began at the Annunciation when "Verbum
caro factum est."
Indeed, the whole Christ-event is salvific: From His conception in
the womb of His holy Mother to His ascension to His heavenly Father’s
right hand. We are saved by the flesh, the Body of Christ. As we
heard in today’s Second Reading, “a body you have prepared for
[The flesh is the hinge of salvation], as Tertullian informs us.
What saved the world once continues to do so. The body is good
because it was created by God and even more clearly so since the
divine plan made it the very means of our redemption. Because of
that, the body and all material reality takes on even greater
significance. The Father made it good, indeed, very good. And Jesus
His Son made it holy. Hence, all that has been redeemed the
entire universe can be marshaled into the on-going work of
redemption. A "catholic" instinct, if you will, then,
explains our use of water, bread, wine, oil, and natural things to
lead us to experience the supernatural. Similarly, man's creative
genius, especially in the arts, gives us access to the holy. So,
In the Creed, we profess our faith in the "communio
usually translated as the "communion of saints," but that
is only one meaning. The Latin phrase is deliberately "multivalent"
like any good symbol. So, it means "communion of saints,"
yes, but also "communion in holy things" [that is, the
sacraments]. In other words, our membership in the mystical Body of
Christ on earth ["communio
is initiated, sustained and brought to completion by that "communio
which is the Church's sacramental life. And that leads to the
consummation of it all in the "communio
which is a participation in the beatific vision for all eternity.
That participation will still be an embodied/incarnate participation.
Remember: Our Lord and Our Lady presently have bodies glorified
bodies in heaven, and so will we. Therefore, the mystery of the
Incarnation continues into eternity.
are some attitudes we should form as a result of these truths of
Catholics are not Gnostics or Manichaeans or Albigensians or
Jansenists who, in various times and places, have made it the heart
of their religious convictions to despise the human body. We realize
the profound insight of the glorious Te
which charmingly almost reminds the Son, non
horruisti Virginis uterum
[Thou didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb]. The Eternal Word of
the Father took His flesh from that of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
thereby declaring all flesh sacred. At the same time, we are not
libertines who do what we please with our bodies. We cannot forget
that our bodies are just what St. Paul said they are, “temples of
the Holy Spirit,” bodies destined for eternal glory. Abuse of the
body, then, spits in the face of the Incarnate Word, putting the lie
to our theological conviction.
Catholics are not Puritans, either sexually or artistically or
sacramentally. If the material universe has been brought into the
great dialogue of redemption, everything human must form a part of
that dialogue. The old pagan Roman poet Terence understood this in a
very Christian way when he asserted, “nil
humanum mihi alienum est”
[nothing human is foreign to me]. Because the Puritans had a
truncated appreciation for the mystery of the Incarnation, they were
terrified of that part of man which is so bodily and so human
sexuality. But true Christians are proud and happy to share in the
inheritance of the Song of Songs, which celebrates human love in the
covenant of marriage, as Pope John Paul II never tired of teaching
the Universal Church for nearly three decades. Nor are true
believers in the Incarnation skittish about harnessing man’s
creative energies to produce beautiful art, music and architecture to
adore the God of all beauty and to help raise our minds and hearts to
Him, Who gave such magnificent talents to human beings. And, most
especially, Christians recall that when Jesus worked His wonders, He
did not hesitate to use even spittle to heal; how much more, then,
should we value those works of creation to which He has assigned a
saving meaning in His Church the sacraments, those signs that
creation is graced by the Triune God and the promises that our
participation in them graces us, too.
As we think back on how the greatest event in human history
occurred, we stand in awe of the fact that the omnipotent God wanted
and awaited human cooperation. God the Father made His plan for our
salvation contingent on a human being’s saying “yes”. And so,
Our Lady stands as a constant reminder of the great things that can
happen when the human person cooperates with the divine initiative.
But what she did and what God did through her was not a kind of
one-day sale; the Lord intends that this happen in the life of every
believer. As St. Augustine put it so powerfully, “the God Who
created you without you will not save you without you.” Our
participation is crucial for our salvation. We don’t buy into that
Reformation notion of “imputed righteousness,” which holds that
God “makes us right,” even though we really aren’t. No, God
makes us right because we want to be right, because we respond to His
grace to become right, and therefore, do in fact become right in His
sight. The Mother of the Word Incarnate is our model in this
endeavor, but also our faithful intercessor before the throne of her
also learn how to cooperate with the Lord from the Church, which is
as Sacred Scripture teaches both Christ’s Bride and our Mother.
Holy Church, like Holy Mary, always says “yes” to her
Bridegroom; good children always follow their Mother’s good
Last but not least, today’s solemnity etches into our
consciousness an indefatigable conviction on the sanctity of human
life from conception to natural death. God began the work of our
redemption at the very moment when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the
Virgin Mary as the Eternal Word began His life on earth in her womb,
“pitching His tent among us,” as St. John poetically has it.
This fact of life and faith makes Christians a people of life, ready
to promote the cause of life at every turn and equally ready to do
battle with a culture of death. Those who want to kill babies in
their mothers’ wombs and those who want to kill the sick and the
elderly cannot know the meaning of the Incarnation and cannot hope to
benefit from its saving effects.
celebration, then, stands at the center of the drama of salvation:
Without today, no cross and resurrection; without today, no Church or
sacraments; without today, no eternal life on high with God. In a
marvelous even if fanciful recreation of the Angel’s visit to Our
Lady, St. Bernard of Clairvaux caught the essence of what was really
at stake on that first Annunciation Day: The whole of creation was
waiting to be redeemed, hanging on the response of the Virgin of
Nazareth. He says:
have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have
heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel
awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God Who sent him.
We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence
of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.
price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at
once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be,
and behold, we die. In your brief response, we are to be remade in
order to be recalled to life.
Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in
their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the
other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell
in the country of the shadow of death. That is what the whole earth
waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on
your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive,
freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of
Adam, the whole of your race.
quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the Angel, or rather through
the Angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God.
Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing
word, embrace the eternal Word.
St. Bernard speaks even more urgently: “Arise, hasten, open. Arise
in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.”
That same encouragement is given to each of us as well to be true
sons and daughters of the woman who enabled God to become Man. She
mihi secundum verbum tuum”
[Let it be done to me according to thy word]. With what result?
caro factum est.
If we take seriously this foundational doctrine of our holy Faith
as we must and live its implications to the full, we can do no
less than to echo our Mother’s response of loving cooperation, “Let
it be done to me according to thy word.” And the mystery of the
Incarnation is repeated all over again in our lives and in our world.