CNEWA Connections: The Annunciation

Every year on 25 March, the church celebrates the Annunciation. The ancient feast is celebrated in both the East and the West. In the East it is considered one of the “feasts of the Lord,” with the stress being on the conception and Incarnation of Jesus, which it seems was connected very early with the spring equinox on 20 March. In fact, there is some indication that Christmas was calculated as nine months after the Annunciation, and not the other way around. When the monk Dionysius Exiguus developed a calendar in 525 based on the birth of Christ, it seems the Annunciation was already a known feast.

In the Middle East, where CNEWA has worked for nearly a century, the Arabic word for Annunciation is bišāra. Annunciation is a common name of many churches and cathedrals in the Arab-speaking world. It is also the root of the first names of the current Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, and of the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda.

Although in the West there is strong emphasis on the role of Mary in the Annunciation, elsewhere and historically the stress has been on the Incarnation of Christ. The latter has been especially true in Eastern churches.

Historically, one of the hardest verses in the Bible for Christians to take really seriously is connected with the Incarnation. Four words in John 1:14 state the truth of the Incarnation clearly: ho logos sarx egeneto, “The Word became flesh.” These four words express the central mystery of Christianity, namely, that the eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, took flesh and became human in every way but sin (cf. Heb 5:14). Almost from the beginning of Christianity, some Christians found this too hard to take.

“Our response to the Incarnation should not be horror and repulsion that Christ would be like us, but joy and gratitude that by becoming like us in all things but sin, Christ has empowered us to become like him.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Within decades of the first Easter, a group called the Docetists held that Christ was not really human with a truly human body, but only seemed — appeared — to be human. Their name came from the Greek word dokein, “to seem, appear.” Clearly, though thoroughly misguided, the Docetists thought they were honoring Christ. They thought it was unworthy of Christ to have a material, human body. They thought they were sparing him from the messiness of what it means to be human. The Docetists thought matter and the body were evil and would somehow pollute the Son of God.

The majority of Christians at the time instinctively felt the Docetists were wrong. Deep down, they knew the message of the gospels — and pre-eminently the message of Easter Sunday — was that, in Christ, Divinity had become human, material, like us in all things but sin.

For almost 500 years the church struggled against the attempt to “honor” Christ by denying his humanity. Christian theologians tried to understand and explain this central mystery of how divinity and humanity existed in Christ. They clearly recognized it as a mystery the human mind could never fully understand. However, they were driven to explain it as best they could with the resources available to them. For the most part, they succeeded, recognizing that no explanation is totally adequate and that the Incarnation remains a mystery at its root.

However, some theologians developed a very helpful principle: Whatever was not assumed in the Incarnation was not saved. For them, it was clear: The only thing about humanity that was not saved was sin. Everything else about humanity, with all our weakness and messiness, was transformed by the divine — by grace — in the Incarnation of Christ.

It is no wonder that the gospels speak of good news, that the Eastern churches speak of the “divinization” of humanity — Christ became one of us that we might become like him.

Although Docetism, strictly speaking, is no longer an issue in Christianity, one cannot say that it is completely gone. Whenever a misguided piety attempts to see Jesus as less than fully human or sees him as some kind of a superhero, who is “not really like us,” it is a type of Docetism. Any time we think matter or the human body is dirty and evil, it is a type of Docetism. In this, we show Christ no honor. In fact, we deny the Incarnation.

In a sense, it is a shame that in the West the feast of the Annunciation is often “buried” in the middle of the week and most often overshadowed by Lent. The Annunciation recalls and celebrates something essential and central to who we are as Christians. Our response to the Incarnation should not be horror and repulsion that Christ would be like us, but joy and gratitude that by becoming like us in all things but sin, Christ has empowered us to become like him.

It is indeed very good news.

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