There is an ancient formula that goes like this: Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est; which is, being interpreted, “and was incarnated by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; and was made man.”

These words, at least the English of them, are familiar to any Christian whose church still recites the Nicene Creed. But even a Christian who has not come across this exact wording will be familiar with the doctrine it expresses. It is plain orthodoxy. All Christians believe it. The formula passes the test brought to bear by another ancient formula, the Vincentian Canon: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est:—“what has everywhere, always, and by everyone, been believed.” Here Mennonite and Byzantine, Salvationist and Latin, agree.

The difficulty with familiar formulas like this is, often, just that: they are familiar. We need to be jogged now and again so that what we are saying does not slip off into mere slogan. This is especially true of the affirmation in question here, for in this doctrine of the Incarnation we speak of the point at which the mightiest mysteries touch our ordinariness. The whole thing was brought down to a point at our feet, as it were. “Eternity shut in a span,” one seventeeth-century poet called it.

In these two short clauses we find an enormous amount of biblical teaching crisply summed up for us. And the point in the whole drama of redemption which is bespoken here is one which, despite our fierce orthodoxy, we may miss: “… and was incarnated … and was made man.”

In the early Church, people kept coming up with ideas as to how this teaching could be made more plausible. The notion of God becoming ...

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