The Incarnation is the epicenter of a transformative explosion that swept through the cold and barbaric ancient world, spawning new revolutions of thought and practice that lifted humanity to new heights. These revolutions were met with resistance from those outside the Church—and, sadly, even from some of those within. The ancient world, nevertheless, was transformed.
The revelation of Christ shattered pagan misconceptions about the divine. Christ’s arrival in history displaced the myth and folklore of pagan mythology and supplied the missing answers raised by the god of the philosophers. It affirmed the transcendent God, who is beyond and above all things, while affirming the Creator’s intimate connection with creation. These points overtook the errors of animism, which identified God with the world or cosmos, ever changing and repeating, and the idea of a cold, transcendent “One” who is unknown and unknowable.
Our radical union with Christ in one body manifests the inherent dignity and value of each person. Applying this one body in Christ idea to concrete circumstances revolutionized how people saw one another. You encounter situations where a master and his slave both become Christian. How is the master to relate to his slave? Is he not supposed to treat him as he would Christ? Suddenly, the slave was looked upon no longer as a thing to be used by the master, but as a brother in Christ.
Things become even more odd when one considers that those who were baptized had the right to receive the sacraments, including holy orders. If a slave became a priest (usually with the master’s permission), the master must now go to his slave to have his children baptized, or to receive the Eucharist, or have his sins forgiven. In fact, two popes, Pius I (d. c. A.D. 155) and Callixtus I (d. 222), were former slaves. Christianity didn’t abolish slavery as much as it upended it. The process was long and imperfect, but ultimately, unjust title servitude became abhorrent and was abandoned, at least for a time.
Marriage and family also underwent a transformative revolution through the spread of Christianity. This revolution of thought can be appreciated only by understanding how the ancient non-Christian world understood it. We have become so familiar with Christian marriage and family that we suppose that all people everywhere experienced the same thing. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
For example, Roman marriage and family life were bereft of love. Here’s how Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea describe the institution in their book Seven Revolutions:
To a Roman man, a wife was property, just as children were property. . . . If no man owned her, she was nobody at all. Children were no better off. Traditionally, a Roman father retained the legal right to execute his children if he judged them guilty of a crime, even into adulthood. They were his children; they belonged to him. . . . From the point of view of Roman tradition, the single most revolutionary thing in Christianity was Paul’s startling instruction “Husbands love your wives.” . . . After centuries of Christianity we find it hard to imagine that there was a time when husbands weren’t supposed to love their wives. Yet, in ancient Rome, a gentleman who obviously loved his wife was sneered at. His wife was his property, not his equal.
The love expressed in Christian marriage transformed the status of women and children by recognizing them as persons, not property. But this is only one aspect of the genius of the Christian revolution.
The unity of Christ, head and body, revolutionized how we look at each other. The love within the Church overflowed to all the needy, the downtrodden, the marginalized, even the enemies of the Faith. It transformed the old view of individual merit into a network of love. Since we are all united to Christ, it is no longer we who perform acts of charity, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20). Therefore, when God crowns our merits, he is crowning his own gifts, as paragraph 2006 of the Catechism puts it.
Christian charity was utterly foreign to the worldview of the ancient Romans and Greeks. Although ancient people placed hospitality at a premium, giving to the poor and helpless was seen as idiocy, unless there was something in it for the donor. Why feed those who are fated to be poor? Christian charity is quite different—done out of love for God and best done in secret (see Matt. 6:2-4).
The Church, being a visible, structured society, could coordinate its charitable efforts, especially to alleviate suffering after a natural disaster.
Another revolution happened in the realm of government. The pagan Roman Empire had been kept together by its superior strength and its cultic unity. In the ancient world, every city had its own protector god or gods. Honoring these gods ordered not only public celebrations, but also the city government.
When the Roman empire took over a city, the Romans didn’t suppress its cults or destroy its temples. Instead, the city gods were incorporated into the Roman panoply. The Roman emperor, too, was counted among the deities and given a divine title.
At first glance, the claim to be a god and demand worship is the twisted byproduct of an overactive ego, but it reveals something else about the emperor. In paganism, the gods did whatever they liked. They were amoral, bloodthirsty, fickle, and imperious. There was no higher law for the gods to obey. Their will was their law. So too with the governments of the ancient world. Outside certain conventions or traditions, there were no demands on how a ruler should rule.
Christians cannot offer sacrifice to Caesar or give him the title of lord and god because he isn’t the one true God, the Creator of all, whose laws reflect reality. This means that neither the State nor its sovereign is the highest law of the land. Unjust actions of the State are not made just simply because the State says so. There is a higher immutable law that everyone, including the State, ought to follow because it is embedded in the fabric of reality by the one just God.
Christians prayed for the emperors (even those who persecuted them), and they obeyed the laws of the land so far as conscience allowed. But they insisted that all people, including the emperor, have a higher law that must be obeyed.
God, the legislator and Creator of all, humbled himself and became man to serve, rather than to be served. The pagan State existed for the preservation of the country and its power, not to serve its citizens. Leadership fell to the victorious. In this era, cutthroat politics and backstabbing were literally that: cutting throats and stabbing backs, although poison seemed to be the preferred method. Government was a power-grab.
But the Incarnation inverted man’s expectations. The ruler was to be the servant, and the strong were to be the caretakers of the weak.
In short, the Incarnation introduced a highly realistic view of the world as well as nature’s goodness and intelligibility. But the sheer brilliance of God made man, and its implications of this momentous act, were too much for some to grasp, even within the Church. And so, in the ancient world and on into the modern one, heretics would seek to downgrade Christ and his plan for mankind.
This article is adapted from Gary Michuta’s new book, Revolt Against Reality, available now at the Catholic Answers Shop.