As we continue—or for those of us observing the Old Calendar Feast, as we begin—to meditate on the Incarnation of Christ, following our celebration of His Nativity, we can find a luminous source of insight in the typology and prophetic power of Psalm Eight. Fr Patrick Henry Reardon’s classic work, “Christ in the Psalms,” shows us how not only this psalm, but the entire Book of Psalms needs to be understood “through the lens of Christ,” precisely because “the voice in the Psalms is Christ’s own voice.” Fr Patrick’s commentary on this psalm, then, follows our rendering of the text itself.
By Fr Patrick Henry Reardon
(A Psalm of David)
O Lord, our Lord,
how sublime is Your name in all the earth,
for You have set Your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings
You have brought forth perfect praise1
because of Your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I behold the heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and stars which You have fixed in place,
what is man that You are mindful of him,
or the son of man that You care for him?
You have made him a little lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
You made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet:2
Sheep and cattle all together,
and also the beasts of the plain;
the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea,
and the things that pass through the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how sublime is Your name in all the earth!
From the very earliest translations of the Creed into the English language, the mystery of the Incarnation has been expressed in a rather puzzling way, even if our long familiarity with the words has reduced our sense of their grammatical enigma. We say of the Son of God that He “became [or ‘was made’] man.”
The puzzle posed by this construction is exactly how to classify the predicate nominative “man” in this instance. Is the sense of the expression indefinite—“a man,” much as we might say that “Fred became a farmer”? But if so, why didn’t the translators simply say that? “He became a man” would not only make sense; it would be both grammatically and theologically correct.
Or is the meaning of the expression merely descriptive—“he became human,” much as we might say “Fred became agrarian”? Here again, the translators could easily have said this, if that is what they meant, because God’s Son most certainly did become human.
No, neither of these translations was deemed adequate. Rendering very literally from the underlying Latin (and not directly from the original Greek, by the way), the translators said that He “became man,” leaving us with this stylistic puzzle. One can hardly think of an occasion, after all, in which we might properly say “Fred became farmer.”
What the translators gave us here is an idiom, which is to say a form of expression unique to a particular setting and standing outside of expected usage. On reflection, their recourse to idiom in this case is hardly surprising, for the event under discussion, the Incarnation, is itself “idiomatic” in the extreme, in the sense of being completely unique, utterly unexpected, and standing free of normal patterns of acquiescence. How better, after all, to speak of an incomparable and unparalleled event than by recourse to an idiosyncratic improvisation?
God’s Son did not only “become human,’ though it is true that he did. Nor did he simply “become a man,” though this likewise is a correct statement of the fact. He “became man,” rather, in a sense defying grammatical precision as thoroughly as it confounds also the expectations of biology, psychology, metaphysics, and other aspects of the human enterprise, thereby [left] shocked and reeling, all its vaunted resources strained and overcharged at the infusion of unspeakable glory.
The most correct formulation of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.”
The wise English translators of the Creed were taking their cure here from Psalm 8: “What is man (‘enosh) that you are mindful of him? Or the son of man (adam) that You care for him? According to Hebrews 2, which is our oldest Christian commentary on Psalm 8, the word “man” in this text refers to Christ our Lord, and the entire psalm is a description of his saving work.
By the Incarnation, our psalm says to God, “You have made Him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with honor and glory,” in explanation of which Hebrews replies that “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor.” (2:9)
When God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8. “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”
Christ is no afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity. Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man. Again in the words of Nicholas Kavasilas: “It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented. We were given a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.”
The mystery of the Incarnation is the theme of Psalm 8. Christ is the reason for our singing out: “O Lord, our Lord, how sublime is Your name in all the earth, for you have set you glory above the heavens.”
Source: Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, CA: 2000), Conciliar Press, pp. 15f.
1. Mt. 21:16.