“… And He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…”
Incarnate literally means “in the flesh”. Here the Creed tells us that Jesus Christ, Son of God from eternity, becomes a genuine human being. We see the Latin word carne, meaning flesh or meat in another common English word, Carnival. Not everyone realizes that this word originally had a religious significance. It breaks down into carne (meat) and vale (farewell). As we know from places such as New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, to name just two, carnival is held just before the beginning of Western Lent. It means that people were saying ‘farewell to meat”. This shows that originally Western Christians gave up meat for Lent just as Orthodox Christians still do.
This doctrine tells us that the Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ and God is His father. Jesus Christ became a real human being, one who knew hunger, thirst, exhaustion, pain and ultimately death. In the early church there were some false teachers who said that Jesus Christ only ‘seemed’ human, so his humanity was only a costume, so to speak, and that He only pretended to feel hunger, thirst, etc. Some even said that he did not leave footprints in the sand when he walked. However, the church saw this as a false teaching early on. The Church realized that if Jesus Christ was not genuinely human, he could not have transformed and redeemed humanity. As St. John writes in his first Epistle:
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. (1 Jn 4:2-3)
In the Orthodox Church, the Virgin Mary is often called Theotokos. This literally means ‘the one who bore God’ or ‘the God-bearer’. The Slavonic word “Bogoroditsa” means the same thing. One of the most important Orthodox prayers expressed this teaching:
It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos. Ever-blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you.
Because Jesus Christ is genuinely human He also felt temptation although He never sinned:
“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15)
This means that Jesus Christ understands temptation and helps us in our temptations if we pray to Him. Also, Jesus Christ was obedient to His Father.
“And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8)
In the early 5th century the Patriarch of Constantinople was a man called Nestorius. He wanted to affirm Christ’s genuine humanity which we count as true. But he went too far. He would not call the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” (God-bearer). He said that a human being could not be the Mother of God, so he called her “Christotokos”, the Christ-bearer. Although Nestorius did not intend to become a heretic he asserted Christ’s humanity so much he seemed to separate Christ’s divinity from his humanity.
The church realized that this was a danger to the faith and so in 431AD a Church council was held in Ephesus which condemned Nestorius and reaffirmed that the Virgin Mary is the God-bearer.
So the church affirms that Jesus is truly human and truly divine and the Virgin Mary is truly his mother in time, although He was begotten of the Father in eternity.