Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

‘Incarnation’: A needed neologism

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Much ink has been spilt in recent years about the new translation of the Roman Missal. For some, the language and phrasings are both unfamiliar and unintelligible.

One example often cited is the new phrase we now use when professing the Nicene Creed. We previously said, “… he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Now, however, with the new translation we profess: “… he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” The word “incarnate” is a bit strange to our hearing. It is not a word we use in any other context, nor with any regularity.

Admittedly, incarnate is a more accurate and literal rendering for the Latin phrase incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto. Some might object that literalism is no virtue in this case, since incarnate is an unfamiliar word that needs to be explained to most people. Why should we use such strange language, language that has to be explained?

It is worth pointing out that its unfamiliarity is due to the fact that incarnatio is a neologism, a newly created or coined word. The Fathers of the Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. wanted to fully express what we read in John 1:14, “the Word was made flesh.” The mystery we profess in this phrase is about more than the birth of Jesus. Rather, it expresses a belief that the preexistent Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Word through whom all things were made, took on our flesh.

To communicate this central truth of our faith, the Fathers of the Church combined two Greek words, en (in) and sarx (flesh), to create ensarkosis. This combination was eventually replicated in Latin, creating the word incarnatio from in and caro (flesh). Thus, the new translation, “by the Holy Spirit he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary” is an intentional correction of “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary.”

Yes, “incarnate” is strange to our hearing. “Incarnate of the Virgin Mary” is not a familiar phrase. However, that is because it expresses something totally different from our experience. We have no other point of reference of an incarnation in the human experience. Yet, we miss something very important in translating this important article of faith as “he was born,” just because it is more familiar to us. What we miss is the ancient faith of the church that Jesus is the preexistent Son of God, who humbled himself to take on our lowly nature, our human weakness. John the evangelist says the word became flesh. St. Paul tells us that he “emptied himself,” becoming like us in all things, save only sin. The fathers at Nicea professed, as we do, “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

It is noteworthy that the church expresses this fuller understanding of the incarnation, which we celebrate in these days, through the readings chosen for the Christmas feast. At the morning Mass of Christmas, the Gospel is not taken, as one would expect, from the infancy narratives of Luke or Matthew. We hear nothing of the birth in the stable, the shepherds, Mary or Joseph or the Magi. Rather, we proclaim the mystery of the incarnation with a text from the first chapter of John, telling us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

Remember that this Christmas and, of course, as we profess the Nicene Creed in the new translation that expresses the ancient faith that, “he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

While it is not always the case, there are times when new can be an improvement.


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