49. The Incarnation and History

The Annunciation, a fresco by Fra Angelico
The Annunciation, fresco by Fra Angelico, 1438–45; in the Museum of San Marco, Florence

In my second annual Christmas post, I would like to highlight for you one of my most favorite paintings of all time, entitled The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico. The Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to have the Christ child – was a common art theme in the Middle Ages. This particular depiction is a masterpiece of Renaissance art and considered one of the greatest paintings in the world. The artist, Fra Angelico, was a Benedictine monk. You can view more works by this great artist in books available through Amazon. Please see the featured book section at the end of this post.

My wife and I actually had the privilege to behold the original in the Museum of San Marco in 2019. San Marco used to be a Benedictine monastery. I had expected to find a framed piece of art hanging on the wall, but to my surprise, the painting is a fresco that greets you as soon as you enter the doorway of the monastery.

In the Fullness of Time

In the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul said:

“When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.”

God sent His Son at the right time – when the world was fully prepared to receive Him. Christianity is an historical faith, not an esoteric one. God’s revelation in the Old Testament occurred exclusively through historical events. For example, the Exodus from Egypt eventually produced the Pentateuch, and the kingship of David produced the Psalms. God reveals Himself through historical events.

God’s greatest revelation of Himself occurred in the Incarnation, God uniting Himself to human flesh. All of history – not just church history – centers on the Incarnation and the events that accompanied it, such as the death and resurrection of Christ. All history prior to the Incarnation pointed to that event, and all history subsequent to that event was and is animated and directed by that event. In other words, if the Incarnation had not happened, the world would be completely different.

Up until modern times, historians in the West had an Incarnational view of history. This view of history based around the Incarnation was finally supplanted with the work of Fredrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel replaced the Incarnation with his idea of the Geist or Spirit. With Hegel’s Geist, we get a sense of the modern concept of progress that we are all familiar with and even take for granted. History is moving or is being moved forward by the Geist, leading us to greater and greater progress. Yes, there are conflicts and opposing forces, but as each conflict is resolved, we move forward as a society and world to another level of progress.

The most poignant example of the outworking of this idea of progress through conflict is Marx’s communism.

The Hopelessness of Hegel

With Hegel’s concept of progress, the Incarnational view of history fell by the wayside, only to be replaced by an impersonal, godless, secular perspective. This is why historiography in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries centered almost exclusively, even obsessively, on this idea of how material progress shaped people,1 and even the Catholic universities fell in line with this thinking and adopted this perspective. Things indeed were looking bleak.

Hegel’s view of history produced at best a soulless life driven by a purposeless Geist, and at worst, the destructive, even demonic scourge of communism responsible for untold death and misery. It is no accident that the 20th century in the West was, at the same time, the most secular and the most bloody century in history.

Well, this does not seem like a very encouraging Christmas message! Yet, we must face the bad news before we can understand the importance of the good news of the Gospel. The Christmas season has turned into frenetic purchasing and stress with a little pinch of saccharine sentimentalism. Even those who attempt to “keep Christ in Christmas” do not clearly communicate why we need a savior. The operative question is: Saved from what?

We all need to take a serious look at the carnage of the 20th century. We have over 100 million dead from communism and we have the staggering death toll from abortion – between one and two billion babies globally since the 1972 Supreme Court decision.2 Both of these scourges are a result of a godless, materialistic worldview accompanied by the pseudo-purpose of history bequeathed by Hegel and Marx. The rippling effect of this has been a profound alienation and nihilism captured so well by the likes of Nietzsche with his famous “God is dead” declaration. For Nietzsche, this was not so much a metaphysical statement as it was an assertion that if man’s creative power is to be unleashed to create a new society, then Christian religious and spiritual inclinations and traditions need to be cast aside.

Indeed, the 20th century did move forward without God and created not a new society of positive creativity, but a nightmare unlike the world had ever seen. And unless something changes, it looks as though we are poised to experience another round of tyranny. Brace yourselves because this second round will be worse than the first. The first was an industrial-based tyranny whereas this second will be a techno-tyranny affording tyrants far more control than Hitler, Stalin, or Mao ever dreamed of. How ironic that the very technology that we worship may become the instrument of our slavery.

The Hope of the Incarnation

Don’t be discouraged because in the midst of the deepest darkness, the bright light of the Gospel shines for those who have eyes to see it. There is great hope for those individuals, families, and nations that turn or return to Jesus Christ. There is no sin, individual or societal, so great that God cannot forgive. The fact that God became a man, a true historical event, gives us such hope.

The chasm between finite, fallen man and the infinite, holy God is insurmountable. Of course, God can be found within the created order. I have written extensively about that in this blog. It is the beauty of creation that can draw us back to Him. But in order for the gap to be fully bridged, the God of the universe had to enter history as a man: the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is the perfect mediator. Being fully God, he represents God to us, and being fully man, he represents us to God.

By taking on human flesh, he also took upon human weakness as well as our transgressions against God. Although innocent, he was put to death because of our sins, the very sins that lead to the darkness and death I described above. The Resurrection indicates his suffering and death were not in vain, for through his travails, God purchased for Himself a people comprised of every nation. The great mystery is that He still lives incarnationally through His Church on earth, and has for the last 2000 years of history.

The odd thing for me to understand is that with all the misery we have produced, and considering the current state of affairs, why, as a society, do we continue to wallow in the filth of our own making? When is the last time you heard a politician admit that we cannot solve our problems and that the only thing left to do is to repent and turn to God through Jesus Christ? The politicians, in their monumental hubris, continue to ask us to look to them for the answers, for “progress.” Rather, they are just as much a part of the problem as anyone else, if not more so. Yet, what is more egregious in God’s sight is the fact that as Christians, we too continue to look to these politicians as if they can save us.

The Incarnation and History

In the 20th century, amidst the abandoning of the Incarnational view of history even by the Catholic Church, a now forgotten historian by the name of William H. Carroll (1932-2011) played a vital role in the renaissance of Catholic historical scholarship. His central premise was “The Incarnation happened.”3 How’s that for a bumper sticker? In other words, we should view the Incarnation not just as an article of faith, but as an event in history as well. As Carroll states:

“If those Christian beliefs [the Incarnation] were objectively true, then the universe is almost literally turned upside down. A whole new hierarchy of values and of historical significance springs into being.”4

Early in his life, Carroll was a self-proclaimed “pagan Deist.” Later in the 20th century, he converted to Catholicism and wrote extensively on Catholic history, most notably the six-volume set on the history of Christ’s Church featured below. He was part of a movement that sought to make a sea change in how history was viewed.

History in the 19th and 20th centuries did not focus on the men and women that made it happen, but rather on this idea of progress as conceived by Hegel. Instead of people driving history, people were shaped by technological and economic progress, a dehumanizing and almost fatalistic approach. The inordinate focus on technology and economics also has its roots in Bentham’s Utilitarianism.

Rather than impersonal forces driving history, Carroll attempted to return to the idea of human and divine actions as the true cause of historical change. Instead of a mechanistic, fatalistic approach, Carroll emphasized how people can make a difference. He captured the essence of that with his powerful phrase, “One man can make a difference.”5 With this, he humanized or personalized history again and put the tools for change back into the hands of ordinary people.

And of course, the reason that people can make a difference is because God made a difference when He intervened in history by becoming a man. In other words, human beings derive a sense of worth and dignity because of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation as the Defining Event of all Human History

Carroll’s genius was in finding historic worth not only in individual people, but in the historical record as a whole due to the Incarnation. In other words, he applied the significance of the Incarnation on both a macro and micro level. The Incarnation drove the overall direction of history, but also permeated every nook and cranny of society, filling every space, going beyond just the Church.

By doing this, he sought to restore what had been lost in the West, a Christocentric historiographic tradition that regarded the Incarnation as the most important event in human history.6 This does not mean that he forced his Catholicism unnaturally into various historical events, but rather he looked at all of history through a Christocentric lens.

Consider the following quote from Carroll:

“History indeed, from a Christian point of view, has a beginning point, a central or peak point, and an end.”7

All history prior to the Incarnation pointed toward that event, and all subsequent history is an outworking of the Incarnation and looking forward to the day when the Incarnate One will make His appearance at the close of history.

In the Year of Our Lord

It is remarkable to think that our present calendar system – universally adopted throughout the world by both Christians and non-Christian countries – is referenced to the year of Christ’s birth. In the West, the designation “In the Year of Our Lord,” or the Latin Anno Domini, was ubiquitous. It was used in legal documents, legal proceedings, on plaques and inscriptions, on reliefs, and informally as well.

An example of the use of Anno Domini, using the birth year of the Christ child - the Incarnation - to reset how we order time. This would later be changed from BC/AD to BCE/CE due to 'progress.'

Throughout history, it was customary that years were marked in relation to the specific monarchs or rulers, for example, “In the fifth year of the Emperor Tiberius.” Eventually, in the West, this was replaced by the B.C. (Before Christ)/A.D. (Anno Domini) system, recognizing and dating time with reference to the Incarnation of Christ. How amazing it is that the entire world, whether they know it or not, now uses a calendar system that has as its reference point the birth of a single individual, and not just any individual – the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The designation of our calendars as such marks not only the birth of Christ but his kingship as well. For when he ascended into heaven, Jesus was crowned as the King of the universe as he took his place at the right hand of God the Father. So really, with any specific calendar year, we are marking the reign of the man Jesus Christ as well as his birth. With the entire world on the same calendar system, it is as if God is letting us know that His Son rules over us.

Sadly, slowly over time, the traditional B.C./A.D. system has been replaced by the politically correct B.C.E./C.E. system, which stands for “before Common Era” and “Common Era,” in an attempt to expunge Christ from the record. Although, there are still a few holdouts like me who will always use the old system. All this was done under the guise of “inclusiveness.” Eventually, the old system will return and Christ will be recognized as the rightful king since the truth cannot be suppressed. Christ does not cease being the king just because we, as humans, deny and ignore his kingship.

Below is a photograph of a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. Pantocrator is a Byzantine designation that means “ruler over all” or “ruler of the universe.”

Christ Pantocrator mosaic inside Cathedral of Monreale near Palermo, Sicily, Italy
 Christ Pantocrator mosaic inside Cathedral of Monreale near Palermo, Sicily, Italy, 12th century

In the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul states that when God the Father raised Christ from the dead, He:

“…made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet.”

– Ephesians 1: 20-22

In this Christmas season, we must remember that we celebrate the birth of the one who would become the king of heaven and earth. If this is the case, why should we fear when evil men rise up and darkness appears to reign? For the Lord Jesus Christ will destroy them as He has done all of the other evil rulers, dictators, and tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin.

The Hope of History

Christ’s overcoming death and now ruling as king is a sign to us that His Church will prevail, albeit through suffering and even death. As Christians, we are not triumphalist or imperialists. It is only as we humble ourselves as Christ did when he was born as an infant in lowly circumstances in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It is because we are willing to suffer that we, by faith, overcome.

Let us remember that the Church of old, the Church of the first three millennia, that suffered greatly under persecution by an all-powerful Roman Empire that sought to completely destroy her from without. The result? The Roman Empire and thus the rest of Europe were converted.

Or consider the heresy of Arianism that almost destroyed the Church from within. This heresy, which denies the divinity of Christ, lasted from the early 4th century to the 7th century. As St. Jerome said in the 4th century, “The whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.” At one point, almost all of the Catholic bishops were Arian, except one, that is – Athanasius. He reminds me of what Carroll said above, that “One man can make a difference,” for Athanasius literally stood alone against the whole world at the time. Because of that, he prevented the Church from apostatizing at that time in history. On his tombstone was written “Anastasis Contra Mundum” which translated, means “Anastasis against the world.”

There are many such examples of the near demise of the Church throughout history. A Benedictine monk once said to me:

“The Catholic Church has been on the precipice of disaster for over 2000 years.”

The Hope of the Present

In more recent times, the Church was heavily persecuted by the Marxists in the 20th century in an attempt to destroy it completely. The former Soviet Union, for example, closed most of the churches and made the practice of the Christian faith illegal. Today, in the areas of the world where the hand of the Soviet Union was the heaviest, namely Russia and Eastern Europe, we see that the Christian faiths – especially Catholic and Orthodox – are growing and thriving.

Marxism is the greatest evil that the world faces today. It has not gone away, but in fact has made a resurgence. But it is merely a counterfeit to Christianity. Rather than promising a spiritual-physical eternal kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth, it promises only a material, soulless, nihilistic existence that is ushered in through violence and bloodshed.

If the timeframe of the Roman persecutions and the Arian heresy tell us anything, Marxism may be with us for a couple hundred more years. The problem is that we Christians suffer from a spiritual myopia; we fail to see the long game and we fail to remember that we have a mighty King in heaven. What is left for us to do is to be courageous and to persevere, fighting the good fight of faith, knowing that our labors in Christ are never in vain. If we do this, God will ultimately have the victory through us and His Kingdom will prevail.

And what about all those pesky little Marxists? Like the Roman persecutors and the Arian heretics, if they do not repent, they will go to their eternal destruction and most of them will end up as footnotes in the annals of history.

If you are reading this and are not a Christian or may even be a Marxist, I invite you to become a follower of Christ and enlist yourself on the right side of the battle. It is not easy. It takes grit, fortitude, and courage to be a Christian in this world, but it is well worth it, for you will reap a bounty of temporal and eternal rewards, despite the suffering experienced in the current realm.

The Birth of a King

Finally, Carroll makes the point that ancient Israelites were the only ancient Near East civilization to survive into the modern times. Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia all fell. He draws a parallel with the Catholic Church when he states that it is the only institution that has survived since the first century. Consider this astounding quote by Carroll:

“Where are the god-kings of Egypt, the emperors of Rome? Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Does one institution, one recognizable pattern of living, one vocabulary and set of symbols, remain from the world of the year 110 A.D., when St. Ignatius and Antioch wrote and the Emperor Trajan reigned? One, and only one: the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Nothing else of all that world survives in any institutional form that anyone not an historical scholar could detect.”8

During this Christmas season, let us remember that the Kingdom of God on earth was ushered in, not through the will of men or mighty armies but through the birth of a baby. And the King of the universe, the One for whom the entire calendar would be changed, and who changed the course of human history, came into this world, not in a palace worthy of a king but in a feeding trough, in an obscure backwater town in Roman-occupied Judea. Whether we are thinking about the Incarnation or thinking about what role we can play in fighting against evil and advancing His kingdom, I think that Carroll’s words are very poignant: One person can make a difference.

Finally, rather than using the phrase “Keep Christ in Christmas,” we need to greatly expand the scope of our thinking and say, “Keep the Incarnation in history.” Merry Christmas!

Any thoughts? Please leave comments below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Deo Gratias

Featured Books:

From Amazon: “Accompanying the exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, this catalog explores one of the most important artists of the Renaissance. Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455) transformed painting in Florence with pioneering images, rethinking popular compositions and investing traditional Christian subjects with new meaning. His altarpieces and frescoes set new standards for quality and ingenuity, contributing to Angelico’s unparalleled fame on the Italian peninsula. With the intellect of a Dominican theologian, the technical facility of Florence’s finest craftsmen and the business acumen of its shrewdest merchants, he shaped the future of painting in Italy and beyond.”

From Amazon: “The Founding of Christendom is the first volume in “The History of Christendom” series. This series is the only in-print, comprehensive narration of Western history written from an unabashedly Catholic perspective. How would a historical narrative read if the author began with the first principles that truth exists and the Incarnation happened? This series is essential reading for those who consider the West worth defending.”

Footnotes:

  1. Rose, Matthew B., “‘Truth Exists. The Incarnation Happened’: Warren H. Carroll’s Catholic Historiography,” The Catholic Social Science Review 23 (2018): 125–139, p. 1
  2. Satter, David, “100 Years of Communism – and 100 Million Dead,” The Wall Street Journal Opinion, Nov. 6, 2017; Colin Mason and Stephen Mosher, “Earth Day: Abortion Has Killed 1-2 Billion Worldwide in 50 Years,” Apr 21, 2011   |   12:59PM, Washington, D.C.  
  3. Rose, Matthew B., “‘Truth Exists. The Incarnation Happened’: Warren H. Carroll’s Catholic Historiography.” p. 131
  4. Warren H. Carroll, “The History of History and the Relevance of Jesus Christ,” Triumph, March 1972, in The Best of Triumph (Front Royal, Va.: Christendom Press, 2001), 508 as cited in Ibid.
  5. Rose, Matthew B., “‘Truth Exists. The Incarnation Happened’: Warren H. Carroll’s Catholic Historiography.” p. 131
  6. Ibid. p. 132
  7. Warren H. Carroll, “The Catholic Vision of History,” (audio recording of paper presented at Christendom College Summer Institute, Front Royal, Virginia, 1991 as cited in Ibid. p. 132
  8. Warren H. Carroll, “The Divine Character of the Church in History” in Reasons for Hope, 120 as cited in Ibid. p. 134

Bibliography:

Carroll, Warren H., The Guillotine and the Cross, Christendom Press; 1st edition (October 1, 1991); This book recounts the persecution of the Church during the French Revolution

Carroll, Warren H., The History of Christendom, 6 Volume Set, Christendom Press

Carroll, Warren H., The Last Crusade: Spain 1936, Christendom Press; 1st edition (January 1, 1996); This book recounts the persecution and near destruction of the Church in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Carroll, Warren H., The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution, Christendom Press; 1st edition (October 1, 2004)

Fra Angelico, Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth, hardcover, Edited by Nathaniel Silver, Paul Holberton Publishing; Illustrated edition (February 1, 2018)

Hughes, Msgr. Philip, A History of the Catholic Church, 3 Volumes, Loreto Publications


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