Are the terms “Christmas” and the “Incarnation” the same thing?
No. Since they are often associated together, many believe they mean the same, but they do not. Each is related to a separate passage in the New Testament and each has a distinct meaning. Both terms originate in the Gospel of Saint Luke.
In Chapter 1 of that Gospel, we read that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth to a virgin named Mary (verses 26-27). The angel says: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (verse 30). The angel continues: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (verse 31).
But Mary questions the angel as to how this could be (verse 34) and the angel said to her in reply: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God (verse 35).
This very familiar passage is often described as the “Annunciation” and marks the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary. In that encounter, the angel sets out the plan of God and invites Mary to be a part of it and Mary says “yes.” “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (verse 38)
While this account is rightly called the Annunciation, it places the emphasis on the declaration of the angel. However, the “yes” of the Virgin Mary enables the moment when the Divine Logos (Word) takes on flesh. That is why we call it the Incarnation because it describes when the Divine Logos became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Incidentally, there is a beautiful small statue in the chapel of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. where the Blessed Virgin Mary is depicted as clearly pregnant. The statues rests on a lectern from which the Sacred Scriptures are read. I have always understood the significance as that the Sacred Scriptures read there are “pregnant” with the Logos (Word) of God.
In Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Saint Luke, the birth of Jesus is described. Joseph went up from Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (Verses 4-5). While they were there, the time came for her to have her child. This event is described in liturgical texts as the “Nativity of the Lord.” The celebration of that Nativity is known as Christmas.
Thus, Christmas celebrates an event that occurred nine months after the Annunciation and Incarnation. It is the logical conclusion to those earlier texts but is clearly different from them.
In theological and devotional texts, the Incarnation is a Divine initiative that comes to be considering the free “yes” spoken by the human Mary. The birth of Jesus is the result of Divine initiative and the cooperation of a human mother and the support of her spouse, Saint Joseph.
This reality helps us to appreciate the interaction of the Divine and human in the salvation of the human race. The completion of that salvation always will be marked by that same interaction.