The literal meaning of Incarnation is enfleshment. The term refers to the DNA-encoding, 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, and must, be carefully distinguished from the phenomenon of apotheosis, which refers to 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 and Hinduism 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.
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2 Importance of the Doctrine
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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 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!