Incarnation, which literally means enfleshment, refers to the conception, and live birth of a sentient creature (generally human) who is the material manifestation of an entity or force whose original nature is immaterial. Incarnation should be carefully distinguished from the phenomenon of apotheosis, which is the temporary manifestation of a divine or archetypal force, entity or energy within and through a human being during the course of ritual, religious exercise, meditation, or other spiritual activities.
While Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism are perhaps the most widely-known traditions to employ this concept within the context of their respective belief systems, they are by no means the only ones to do so.
As used in the Christian tradition
The doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ is central to the traditional Christian faith as held by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants.
Briefly, it is the belief that the Second Person of the Christian Godhead, also known as the Son or the Word, "became flesh" when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. In the Incarnation, the divine nature of the Son was perfectly united with human nature in one divine Person. This person, Jesus Christ, was both "truly God and truly man." The incarnation is commemorated and celebrated each year at the Feast of the Incarnation, also known as Christmas.
Importance of the doctrine
In the early Christian era many divisions broke out concerning the true nature of Christ. Christians believed that He was the Son of God. But how was He both Son of God and truly man?
These disputes gave birth to certain heresies, the most serious of which were the Gnostic heresy, which stated that Jesus only appeared to be a true man; the Arian heresy, which taught that Jesus was a created being, less than God; and the Nestorian heresy, which implied that the Son of God, and the man, Jesus, shared the same body but retained two separate personhoods.
The final definitions of the incarnation and the nature of Jesus were made by the early church at the Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon. These councils declared that Jesus was both fully God, begotten from the Father; and fully man, taking His flesh and human nature from the Virgin Mary. These two natures, human and divine, were hypostatically united into the one personhood of Jesus Christ.
The full definition of the Incarnation is summed up in the Athanasian Creed.
The significance of the Incarnation has been extensively written about throughout Christian history. It is perhaps nowhere more beautifully summed up than in the Hymn to the Only Begotten Son in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom used by Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic believers:
- O only begotten Son and Word of God,
- Who, being immortal,
- deigned for our salvation
- to become incarnate
- of the holy Theotokos† and ever-virgin Mary,
- and became man without change;
- You were also crucified,
- O Christ our God,
- and by death have trampled Death,
- being One of the Holy Trinity,
- glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit --
- Save us!
† Literally, "God-bearer." In the Western tradition usually translated "Mother of God." See Theotokos.
The Incarnation means that the all-mighty God of Abraham, the God who was intimately involved in the lives of God's people, took the big step of taking on the limitations of time and place and of a body, to be with us. Such is God's solidarity and love that God came to us to live out life as we do, growing up, walking, eating, sweating, speaking, practicing spirituality through prayer and fasting, and suffering humiliation and crucifixion death from our own hands. Christians believe that this was done so that even our worst sin could not stand in the way and even death would not be the End, that we could become citizens of a new Kingdom, a new way of living, by Jesus' transcending death (the Resurrection/Easter) and coming back among us. And once his physical presence was gone, Jesus did not leave us abandoned : he sent the Holy Spirit to stand with us and in us, and he called on each of his followers to build each other up with love and God's gifts to each and all.
See also: Avatar
In the Buddhist tradition, an incarnation is a person believed to be the next rebirth of someone deceased, in most cases a lama or other important master/teacher. This concept differs however from reincarnation, since Buddhist teachings imply that there is no fixed soul that could move from one life to another.
See also: Rebirth (Buddhist)
For discussion of the incarnation concept in Hinduism, see avatar.
For the Rastafarians Haile Selassie is God incarnate in flesh, much in the same way as seen by Christians with Jesus, and dealing with the same problem of how someone can be human and God at the same time. For Rastas Selassie is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13