Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?
Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series
Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph
When I used to be a math tutor, I helped elementary school students who were struggling with arithmetic. As a physicist, I was knee deep in very difficult and advanced mathematics and realizing that some children had difficulty with addition and subtraction initially took me aback. Basic arithmetic had become so familiar to me that it took some time to figure out how to teach and explain it. I took it so much for granted that I forgot how odd it must seem to a child coming across it for the first time.
In a similar way, we could look at today’s “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” question: “What does the word ‘Incarnation’ mean?” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the Church calls ‘Incarnation’ the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it.”(CCC 461) While this is not easy language it is something that most Catholics are used to hearing and may not think twice about. When we realize that most of the disagreements in the first five centuries of the Church revolved around this doctrine, we may be surprised. What, exactly, is the big deal? In these arguments, the big deal was our salvation.
Since the original sin, mankind had cut itself off from friendship with God. Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins and restore us to communion with God. The theological question was this: if Christ came to save us, what did He have to become in the Incarnation? Jesus Christ saved us by becoming like us in all ways but sin.
The first major Christological heresy, Arianism, claimed that Jesus Christ was not really God, just a very godlike creature. Arius didn’t want to admit that God could become man—it might imply that God wasn’t perfect and transcendent. But St. Athanasius argued fiercely against him. Only God can bridge the infinite gap between us and Him. If Jesus wasn’t really and truly God, then Jesus couldn’t save us from our sins. This is why we say in the Creed that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father.”
The heretic Nestorius split the unity of Christ’s Person. Can we really say that Mary is the “Mother of God?” Nestorius thought this was pious nonsense. How can the eternal and perfect God have a mother, or be born in time? It seemed safer to say that two persons existed in Christ. This, of course, is deeply wrong. The same Person who died on the Cross had to be God, for us to be saved from our sins. God died on the Cross. Only as God did He offer something infinitely worthy to God, and only as man could He suffer on our behalf. By splitting the unity of Christ’s Person, Nestorius would tear asunder the unity of Christ’s saving work. Thus the Church found itself confessing that Jesus Christ was “True God and True Man.”
When we dive into the details, we find that the mystery of the Incarnation is far from straightforward, and sorting out the details takes a lot more than simple arithmetic. But the mystery of the Incarnation opens up to us the mystery of divinization, “for this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might becomes sons of God.”(CCC 460)
Join us on December 27th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.
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