The Tension of the Incarnation

By: Fr. Scalia

For an introduction on this series on paradoxes, read more here.

“A paradox is contrast and not contradiction.”  This quote from Cardinal Ratzinger gets quite nicely to the heart of this series.  A paradox does not violate the principle of non-contradiction.  It involves an apparent contradiction that contains a deeper truth. A contrast but not a contradiction.

Think of it as tension.  Now, we usually consider tension to be a bad thing.  We do not like tense situations or to feel tense.  We try to avoid tension in meetings, in conversations, etc.  But tension often serves very good purposes.  Tension bends the bow to make the arrow fly.  It tugs the sailboat forward and raises bridges over the water.  If we allow the tension to slacken, then the arrow falls short, the boat is dead in the water, and we are stranded on the far shore.

So it is with paradox: two seemingly contradictory things tug at one another. In the tension between them lies the truth.  The tension makes it work. If you resolve the tension in favor of one pole or another, you lose the paradox and the truth with it.  For the paradoxical truth to endure, the tension must remain.

nativityThe fundamental and paradigmatic paradox in Catholic thought is, of course, the Incarnation.  In theological terms, the “hypostatic union.” Jesus of Nazareth is God made man…fully divine and fully human, true God and true man.  Not partly divine and partly human, like some Greek demigod.  He is a divine Person who possesses both a divine and a human nature.  Clearly, this is a paradox, a tension: how can one person be both things? But to receive the truth of Who and What He is, we must allow these seemingly opposed truths to tug at one another.  We must allow the tension to remain.

The desire to reduce the tension between the human and divine has led many theologians to ruin.  The frustration with this paradox and the attempts to “solve” it characterize the first millennium of the Church.  Some reduced the divine in favor of the human (Arianism; Nestorianism).  Others reduced the human in favor of the divine (Docetism; Monophysitism).  But whichever direction they may have favored, their fundamental error was always the same: eliminating the tension…and losing the truth.  The glory of Catholic doctrine is to define the Incarnation without violating its mystery.

Jesus Christ cannot be tamed, reduced to our comfort level.  He is always dangerous because He calls us beyond our own way of thinking.  He will not allow the truth of Himself to be grasped fully by us, lest we think we control Him.  Indeed, this is the constant temptation: to make Jesus comfortable, more to our liking, easier to manage. The paradox of the Incarnation reminds us that we cannot claim to know Him entirely.  We must instead bow down before this mystery of faith.

The Incarnation is not one of many paradoxes; it is the pattern of others.  In the Catholic faith we discover again and again this tense union of the divine and the human. It is the common thread that helps us understand the Church, doctrine, Scripture, and ourselves.

Next: the paradox of the Church.


One thought on “The Tension of the Incarnation

  1. I think that we should try to get to know God better by being better people – by confessing our sins more often and by sinning less often. The closer we are to God, the more we will be able to understand – God willing.

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