Christmas Wrap-up: Some Less-Obvious Questions about the Incarnation

Flight to Egypt – Francesco Mancini

Welcome to Epiphany-tide. In this week we transition from Christmas to the public ministry of Christ, with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord scheduled for this coming Sunday. Before we leave Christmas altogether, we do well to ponder certain less-obvious questions about the Lord’s incarnation and birth. These questions are taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain red text.

Whether Christ was born at a fitting time? (Summa Theologica III, q. 35, art. 8)

There is this difference between Christ and other men, that, whereas they are born subject to the restrictions of time, Christ, as Lord and Maker of all time, chose a time in which to be born, just as He chose a mother and a birthplace. And since “what is of God is well ordered” and becomingly arranged, it follows that Christ was born at a most fitting time.

This argument is based on the authority and sovereignty of God. Simply put, God was free to choose a time; whatever He does is properly ordered and best, therefore the time He chose was most fitting.

Moreover, at that time, when the whole world lived under one ruler, peace abounded on the earth. Therefore, it was a fitting time for the birth of Christ, for “He is our peace, who hath made both one,” as it is written (Ephesians 2:14). Wherefore Jerome says on Isaiah 2:4: “If we search the page of ancient history, we shall find that throughout the whole world there was discord until the twenty-eighth year of Augustus Caesar: but when our Lord was born, all war ceased”; according to Isaiah 2:4: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”

St. Thomas’s claim that the world was at peace at that time is rather sweeping and bold. Does he mean that there was peace everywhere, even within households? We need not interpret it in such absolute terms. Instead, the claim can be understood more generally to mean that there were no known military campaigns underway nor were any necessary at that time. During the roughly 200-year Pax Romana (27 B.C. – 180 A.D.) it is not that there were no threats to peace and no civil disturbances anywhere in the Roman Empire.

Again, it was fitting that Christ should be born while the world was governed by one ruler, because “He came to gather His own [Vulgate: ‘the children of God’] together in one” (John 11:52), that there might be “one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16).

This is another surprising and sweeping claim, at least to modern ears. We tend to think of “one shepherd” as a reference to a religious leader, e.g., the Pope. Remember, though, that today’s sharp distinction between secular and sacred leaders was largely unknown in the Middle Ages and earlier; back then, faith and governance were quite intertwined. Further, in saying that “the world” was governed by one ruler, St. Thomas has in mind the Roman Empire. He does not use “world” in a literal and absolute sense, but rather refers to a large section of the known world.

Whether Christ should have been born in Bethlehem? (Summa Theologica III, q. 35, art. 7)

It is written (Micah 5:2): “And thou, Bethlehem, Ephrata … out of thee shall He come forth unto Me, that is to be the ruler in Israel.”

Christ willed to be born in Bethlehem for two reasons. First, because “He was made … of the seed of David according to the flesh,” as it is written (Romans 1:3); to whom also was a special promise made concerning Christ; according to 2 Samuel 23:1: “The man to whom it was appointed concerning the Christ of the God of Jacob … said.” Therefore, He willed to be born at Bethlehem, where David was born, in order that by the very birthplace the promise made to David might be shown to be fulfilled. The Evangelist points this out by saying: “Because He was of the house and of the family of David.” Secondly, because, as Gregory says (Hom. viii in Evang.): “Bethlehem is interpreted ‘the house of bread.’ It is Christ Himself who said, ‘I am the living Bread which came down from heaven.’”

Whether Christ’s birth should have been made known to all? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 1)

Our modern egalitarian notions demand that the answer here be yes, but St. Thomas says no. He does so for three reasons, each of which amounts to the argument that telling everyone about the birth of Christ and who exactly He was would have short-circuited or prematurely ended some important events and truths that save us.

It was unfitting that Christ’s birth should be made known to all men without distinction. First, because this would have been a hindrance to the redemption of man, which was accomplished by means of the Cross; for, as it is written (1 Corinthians 2:8): “If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.”

This is a daring claim: St. Thomas says that some ignorance was necessary for Christ’s crucifixion (by which we are saved) to occur.

Secondly, because this would have lessened the merit of faith, which He came to offer men as the way to righteousness. according to Romans 3:22: “The justice of God by faith of Jesus Christ.” For if, when Christ was born, His birth had been made known to all by evident signs, the very nature of faith would have been destroyed, since it is “the evidence of things that appear not,” as stated, Hebrews 11:1.

Saving faith would have been jettisoned because faith is not needed for things that are evident.

Thirdly, because thus the reality of His human nature would have come into doubt. Whence Augustine says (Ep. ad Volusianum cxxxvii): “If He had not passed through the different stages of age from babyhood to youth, had neither eaten nor slept, would He not have strengthened an erroneous opinion, and made it impossible for us to believe that He had become true man? And while He is doing all things wondrously, would He have taken away that which He accomplished in mercy?”

If the whole world had known from the start that Jesus was Messiah and Lord, He could never have lived an ordinary life in Nazareth, laboring and living among us. But these ordinary years were important indicators of His coming and living as true man.

Whether those to whom Christ’s birth was made known were suitably chosen? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 3)

Salvation, which was to be accomplished by Christ, concerns all sorts and conditions of men: because, as it is written (Colossians 3:11), in Christ “there is neither male nor female, [Note that the preceding portion of the citation is in reality from Galatians 3:28] neither Gentile nor Jew … bond nor free,” and so forth. And in order that this might be foreshadowed in Christ’s birth, He was made known to men of all conditions. Because, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (32 de Temp.), “the shepherds were Israelites, the Magi were Gentiles. The former were nigh to Him, the latter far from Him. Both hastened to Him together as to the cornerstone.” There was also another point of contrast: for the Magi were wise and powerful; the shepherds simple and lowly. He was also made known to the righteous as Simeon and Anna; and to sinners, as the Magi. He was made known both to men, and to women—namely, to Anna—so as to show no condition of men to be excluded from Christ’s redemption.

In effect, St. Thomas teaches here of the catholicity (universality) of the Church.

Whether Christ’s birth should have been manifested by means of the angels and the star? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 5)

Yes, this was appropriate, because when teaching we begin by moving from what is known to what is unknown. Different audiences (Jews and Gentiles) were called, so different approaches made sense, as each group was differently endowed with knowledge.

As knowledge is imparted through a syllogism from something which we know better, so knowledge given by signs must be conveyed through things which are familiar to those to whom the knowledge is imparted. Now, it is clear that the righteous have, through the spirit of prophecy, a certain familiarity with the interior instinct of the Holy Ghost, and are wont to be taught thereby, without the guidance of sensible signs. Whereas others, occupied with material things, are led through the domain of the senses to that of the intellect. The Jews, however, were accustomed to receive Divine answers through the angels ….

And the Gentiles, especially the astrologers, were wont to observe the course of the stars. And therefore Christ’s birth was made known to the righteous, viz. Simeon and Anna, by the interior instinct of the Holy Ghost, according to Luke 2:26: “He had received an answer from the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” But to the shepherds and Magi, as being occupied with material things, Christ’s birth was made known by means of visible apparitions. And since this birth was not only earthly, but also, in a way, heavenly, to both (shepherds and Magi) it is revealed through heavenly signs: for, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (cciv): “The angels inhabit, and the stars adorn, the heavens: by both, therefore, do the ‘heavens show forth the glory of God.”

Moreover, it was not without reason that Christ’s birth was made known, by means of angels, to the shepherds, who, being Jews, were accustomed to frequent apparitions of the angels: whereas it was revealed by means of a star to the Magi, who were wont to consider the heavenly bodies. Because, as Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.): “Our Lord deigned to call them through things to which they were accustomed.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Christmas Wrap-up: Some Less-Obvious Questions about the Incarnation

Don’t Be a Liar

Rest on Flight to Egypt, by Caravaggio (1597)

At Christmas we celebrate the Word becoming Flesh, but what does this mean for us today? Fundamentally, it means that our faith is about things that are tangible. As human beings, we have bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual, but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence, it is never enough for our faith to be only about thoughts, philosophies, concepts, or ideas. Their truth must touch the physical part of who we are. Our faith must become flesh; it has to influence our behavior. If that is not the case, then the Holy Spirit, speaking through John, has something to call us: liars!

Therefore, away with sophistry, rationalizations, and intentions. Our faith must become flesh in the way we act and move.  God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and touched.  The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of a book or in the recesses of our intellect. They must leap off the pages of the Bible and the Catechism and become flesh in the way we live our life, in the decisions we make, and in the way we use our body, mind, intellect, and will.

Consider the following passage from the liturgy of the Christmas Octave:

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3ff).

Note some teachings that follow from it:

Faith is incarnational. What a practical man John is! Faith is not an abstraction; it is not merely about theories and words on a page. It is about a transformed life; it is about truly loving God and making His commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about loving our neighbor. True faith is incarnational. That is to say, it takes on flesh in our very “body.”

Too many people spout the phrase, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional absence is understandable but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Showing up physically and doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must include a physical, flesh-and-blood dimension.

Keeping the commandments is a sure sign. John said that The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith; it is the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love; it is its fruit.

In Scripture, “knowing” refers to than an intellectual understanding. It refers to deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person. It is one thing to know about God; it is quite to “know the Lord.”

In this passage, John is saying that in order to be sure we have deep, intimate, personal experience of God, we must change the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord, will change our behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with Him. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. Theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.

For a human being, faith cannot be a mere abstraction. In order to be authentic, it must become flesh and blood. In a later passage, John uses the image of walking: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:6). Although walking is a physical activity, it is also symbolic. The very place we take our body is physical, but it is also indicative of what we value, what we think.

Liars John went on to say, Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. This is strong language! Either we believe and thus keep the commandments, or we are lying about really knowing the Lord and we fail to keep the commandments.

Don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully? John seems so “all or nothing” in his words, but his point is clear. To know the Lord fully is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). If we know him imperfectly, we still experience sin. Hence, the more we know him (remember the definition of “know”) the less we sin. If we still sin, it is a sign that we do not know Him enough.

It is not really John who speaks too absolutely; it is we who do so. We say things like “I have faith,” “I am a believer,” “I love the Lord,” and “I know the Lord.” Perhaps we would be more accurate if we said, “I am growing in faith,” “I am striving to be a better believer,” or “I’m learning to love and know the Lord better and better.” If we do not, then we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.

Many in the Protestant tradition reduce faith to an event such as answering an altar call or accepting Christ as “personal Lord and savior.” We Catholics do it too. Many Catholics think that all they need to do is be baptized; they don’t bother to attend Mass faithfully as time goes on. Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics yet dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we make.

Without this harmony between faith and action, we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. The bottom line is that if we really come to know the Lord more and more perfectly, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments, and be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our claim to have faith will be the truth, not a lie.

Faith and works cannot be separated. This passage does not claim that salvation is by works alone. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving or of real faith. Properly understood, the keeping of the commandments is the result of saving faith actively present and working within us. It indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.

The Protestant tradition erred in dividing faith and works. In the 16th century, Protestants claimed that we are saved by “faith alone.” Faith is never alone. It always brings effects with it.

Our brains can get in the way here and tempt us to think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can do so in reality, but that is not always the case.

Consider, for a moment, a flame. It has the qualities of heat and light. We can separate the two in our mind but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame from its light. They are so interrelated as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a flame are distinguishable theoretically, but they are always together in reality.

This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically, but the works of true faith and faith itself are always together in reality. We are not saved by works alone or by faith alone; they are together. John teaches here that knowing the Lord by living faith is always accompanied by keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.

Therefore, faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. Similarly, our own faith must become flesh in us, in our actual behavior.

Enjoy this incarnational Christmas carol:

Verbum caro factum est                      The Word was made flesh
Porque todos hos salveis.                   for the salvation of you all.

Y la Virgen le dezia:                           And the Virgin said unto him:
‘Vida de la vida mia,                          ‘Life of my life,
Hijo mio, ¿que os haria,                     what would I [not] do for you, my Son?
Que no tengo en que os echeis?’        Yet I have nothing on which to lay you down.’

O riquezas terrenales,                         O worldly riches,
¿No dareis unos pañales                     will you not give some swaddling clothes
A Jesu que entre animals                    to Jesus who is born among the animals
Es nasçido segun veis?                       as you can see?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: cathstan.org/posts/dont-be-a-liar

Why Was Christ Born of a Woman Instead of Appearing on Earth by His Own Power?

Madonna and Child, Theophanes the Greek (1380)

On this Christmas Eve we ponder the approaching mysteries. A question so basic that it does not occur to some to even ask is this: Why did the Lord choose to come to us through a woman, Mary, when He could have come in any manner He pleased?

He could have bypassed conception, gestation, birth, infancy, and youth entirely. He could have appeared suddenly on earth as a grown man — but He did not. Why not?

Remember, too, that although He chose to come through an earthly mother, he bypassed the participation of an earthly father (in the physical sense). If the biological role of a human father was bypassed in His taking flesh, why was the role of a human mother not similarly bypassed?

St. Thomas Aquinas pondered this question in his Summa Theologiae (part III, question 31, article 4) and set forth three reasons. St. Thomas’ commentary is shown below in bold italics, while my poor remarks appear in plain red text.

[Firstly,] Although the Son of God could have taken flesh from whatever matter He willed, it was nevertheless most becoming that He should take flesh from a woman. First because in this way the entire human nature was ennobled. Hence Augustine says (QQ. lxxxiii, qu. 11): “It was suitable that man’s liberation should be made manifest in both sexes.”

So, in this manner both sexes were ennobled. The male sex was ennobled because the Word became flesh and was male. The female sex was ennobled because it was from Mary that Christ took His humanity.

Secondly, because thus the truth of Incarnation is made evident. Wherefore Ambrose says (De Incarnation vi): “Thou shalt find in Christ many things both natural, and supernatural. In accordance with nature he was within the womb … but it was above nature that a virgin should conceive and give birth: that you may believe that He was God, who was renewing nature …”

Both the natural and the supernatural are evident in Christ’s conception and incarnation. St. Thomas emphasized the elevated need for the natural so that we might avoid the heresy of thinking that Christ’s humanity was not real due to its wholly supernatural origin.

And [as] Augustine says (Ep. ad Volus. cxxxvii): “If Almighty God had created a man formed otherwise than in a mother’s womb, and had suddenly produced him to sight … would He not have strengthened an erroneous opinion, and made it impossible for us to believe that He had become a true man? … But now, He, the mediator between God and man, has so shown Himself, that, uniting both natures in the unity of one Person, He has given a dignity to ordinary by extraordinary things, and tempered the extraordinary by the ordinary.”

So, it was fitting that Christ should be born of a woman, Mary, so as not to lose the natural in the supernatural, to show that both the natural (because He is true man) and the supernatural (because He is true God) should balance and complete each other.

Thirdly, … the first man was made from the “slime of the earth,” without the concurrence of man or woman: Eve was made of man but not of woman: [though since], other men are made from both man and woman. So [it] …. remained as it were proper to Christ, that He should be made of a woman without the concurrence of a man.

In other words, it seems fitting or proper that because Adam and Eve were both created outside of the usual order of things, the New Adam, Christ, would be made in a unique manner. Eve was made without the help of another woman, but rather was drawn by God directly from the man, Adam. In a kind of balancing parallelism, God made the New Adam directly from the woman, Mary, without the help of a man.

St. Thomas seems to point to a kind of poetic balance, not a necessary one.

So, here are some interesting insights as to why Christ chose to be born of a woman. Note well however, that these are arguments pointing to fittingness, not necessity. Saying that something is fitting does not mean that it is required, only that it is well suited to the situation. On the one hand, something can be fitting because, by it, we humans can more easily understand it. On the other, something can be fitting because it best suits God’s own purposes.

Why Was Jesus Born When and Where He Was?

The Nativity, Lorenzo Monaco (1414)

In preparation for the coming of Christmas, we have been discussing some of St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings. In this last installment we’ll be looking at his commentary on the time and place of Jesus’ birth.

We live in a culture that tends toward a kind of temporal pride. We think that we have come of age, that we are smarter and wiser than our forebears. Scientific, technical, and medical knowledge are more highly developed to be sure, but there is more to life than what falls into those realms.

The religious version of temporal pride is expressed in this utterance: “If Jesus lived in our times, He would …” The sentence is then completed with any view we favor or consider to be “enlightened” and “modern.” Jesus did not choose to live in our time, however, and there may well be good reasons for that. As God, He could have chosen any age—and He did not choose ours.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century, pondered the reasons for the time and place of Jesus’ birth in his Summa Theologica. In it he addressed some of the questions and objections raised during his era.

The time of the Lord’s birth – St. Thomas discussed this in his Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 35, Article 8. He used as his starting point St. Paul’s attestation to the fittingness of the time of Christ’s birth: When the fullness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). Here, the “fullness of time” is understood to mean “at the designated or determined time.” St. Thomas wrote,

Whereas [other men] are born subject to the restrictions of time, Christ, as Lord and Maker of all time, chose a time in which to be born, just as He chose a mother and a birthplace. And since “what is of God is well ordered” and becomingly arranged, it follows that Christ was born at a most fitting time.

St. Thomas responded as follows to objections raised in his day regarding the time of Christ’s birth:

Some objected that because Christ came to grant liberty to His people, it was not fitting that He came at a time when the Jewish people were subjected to Roman occupation and the Herodian dynasty (Herod was not a true Jew). St. Thomas answered that because Christ came in order to bring us back from a state of bondage to a state of liberty, it was fitting that He be born into bondage with us and then lead us out. We can grasp this logic in a wider sense when we consider that He assumed our mortal nature in order to give us an immortal nature; He died in order to restore us to life. St. Thomas, referencing Bede, wrote that Christ submitted Himself to bondage for the sake of our liberty. He also added that Christ wished to be born during the reign of a foreigner so that the prophecy of Jacob might be fulfilled (Genesis 49:10): The scepter shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till He come that is to be sent. The bondage was not to be ended before Christ’s coming, but after it and through it.

Others objected that the time of year, near the winter solstice, was not fitting for Christ’s birth. They argued that it was not fitting for the Light of the World to be born during the darkest time of the year. Thomas replied that Christ wished to be born at a time when the light of day begins to increase in length so as to show that He came to draw man back to the light, according to Luke 1:79: To enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

The place of Christ’s birth – St. Thomas discussed this in the Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 35, Article 7.

Christ willed to be born in Bethlehem for two reasons. First, because “He was made … of the seed of David according to the flesh,” as it is written (Romans 1:3); … Therefore, He willed to be born at Bethlehem, where David was born, in order that by the very birthplace the promise made to David might be shown to be fulfilled. The Evangelist points this out by saying: “Because He was of the house and of the family of David.” Secondly, because, as Gregory says (Hom. viii in Evang.): “Bethlehem is interpreted ‘the house of bread.’ It is Christ Himself who said, ‘I am the living Bread which came down from heaven.’”

St. Thomas responded to some objections to Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth.

Some argued that Christ should have been born in Jerusalem because it is written (Isaiah 2:3) that “The law shall come forth from Sion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” and that because Christ is the very Word of God, made flesh, He should have come into the world at Jerusalem. St. Thomas answered that Christ, as the Son of David, fittingly echoed David’s priestly/kingly role. King David was born in Bethlehem and finished his ministry as priest/king in Jerusalem, so it was fitting that Christ as King be born in Bethlehem and, as true High Priest, die in Jerusalem.

Others argued that Bethlehem was too poor and unseemly a place for the Christ to be born. Thomas responded, [The Lord] put to silence the vain boasting of men who take pride in being born in great cities, where also they desire especially to receive honor. Christ, on the contrary, willed to be born in a mean city, and to suffer reproach in a great city. Thomas added, [And] that we might acknowledge the work of God in the transformation of the whole earth, He chose a poor mother and a birthplace poorer still. He cited Scripture: “But the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Still others argued that because Scripture (Matthew 2:23; Isaiah 11:1) said “He shall be called a Nazarene,” Christ should have been born in Nazareth. Thomas easily dispatched this objection by observing that one is not always born where one is raised. He also added (referencing Bede), He wished to be born at Bethlehem away from home…in order that He who found no room at the inn might prepare many mansions for us in His Father’s house.

With St. Thomas to guide and teach us, we have pondered over the past few days some aspects of the incarnation and birth of our Lord. May you who have read and I who have presented be enriched by the teachings of the Lord through the great St. Thomas Aquinas.

Below is a link to an organ prelude on the hymn “Bethlehem of Noblest Cities,” also known as “Earth Hath Many a Noble City.” It is accompanied by beautiful art related to Bethlehem. Here are the words to the hymn:

Earth hath many a noble city;
Bethlehem, thou dost all excel:
out of thee the Lord from heaven
came to rule his Israel.

Fairer than the sun at morning
was the star that told his birth,
to the world its God announcing
seen in fleshly form on earth.

Eastern sages at his cradle
make oblations rich and rare;
see them give, in deep devotion,
gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth their God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
myrrh his sepulcher foreshows.

Jesus, whom the Gentiles worshiped
at thy glad epiphany,
unto thee, with God the Father
and the Spirit, glory be.

Would Jesus Have Come If Adam Had Not Sinned? Why Did He Wait So Long Before Coming?

Reproduction of image by Georg Cornicelius (1888)(original destroyed)

Continuing our series of questions related to the Incarnation, we next ponder whether Jesus would have come at all had we not sinned in the garden. We also consider why He waited thousands of years before coming to our rescue.

Would Jesus have come if Adam had not sinned?

St. Thomas Aquinas (in his Summa Theologica) first states that there are different opinions on the matter. He also notes that God’s power is not limited and therefore God could have become incarnate even if sin had not existed. However, St. Thomas believes that if man had not sinned then the Son would not have become incarnate. As I often do, I’ve presented St. Thomas’ words in bold italics, while my commentary appears in plain red text.

For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been (Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 1, Article 1).

While theological speculation may have its place, it is certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin. While the Incarnation offers more than is required to remedy sin (e.g., an increase in human dignity (because God joined our family), God’s visitation, the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise), Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive. In remedying our sin, God shows the greatness of His mercy because He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place. The least born into the Kingdom of God is greater that the exemplar of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist. Had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, He could have done so in other ways. It seems to me that St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.

If the Incarnation is a remedy for sin, why did God wait so long to apply it?

St. Thomas provides a sensible answer that addresses aspects of the question we might not have considered. His answer is found in the Summa Theologica (part III, question 1, article 5). First, he addresses why the Incarnation did not happen before sin:

Since the work of Incarnation is principally ordained to the restoration of the human race by blotting out sin, it is manifest that it was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Hence our Lord Himself says (Matthew 9:12-13): “They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill … For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.”

Next, St. Thomas addresses why the Incarnation did not happen quickly, soon after Original Sin, rather than thousands of years later. He sets forth four reasons:

First, on account of the manner of man’s sin, which had come of pride; hence man was to be liberated in such a manner that he might be humbled and see how he stood in need of a deliverer. … For first of all God left man under the natural law, with the freedom of his will, in order that he might know his natural strength; and when he failed in it, he received the law; whereupon, by the fault, not of the law, but of his nature, the disease gained strength; so that having recognized his infirmity he might cry out for a physician, and beseech the aid of grace.

Quick solutions to problems do not always permit proper healing to take place. Most parents know that if they solve every problem a child has, important lessons may be lost. It is often beneficial to live with our questions for a while so that the answers are more appreciated and more effective.

Indeed, it took us humans quite a while to acknowledge the seriousness of our sin and pride. Shortly after Eden, the tower of Babel indicated that human pride was still a grave problem. Even when given the Law, a good thing, the flesh corrupted it, turning its perfunctory observance into an occasion for pride. The prophets then had to keep summoning Israel and Judah back to the Lord and away from prideful self-reliance. The Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity only further illustrated the depths of our sin, so that this cry went up: “O Lord, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1).

We had to be led gradually to recognize our profound need for a savior. Otherwise, even if the remedy were offered, too few might reach for it.

Secondly, on account of the order of furtherance in good, whereby we proceed from imperfection to perfection. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 15:46-47): “Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual … The first man was of the earth, earthy; the second man from heaven, heavenly.”

There is a kind of theology of grace implicit in this answer. Grace builds on our nature, and it is our nature, physically and spiritually, to grow gradually. While sudden conversions and growth spurts have their place, the best and most typical growth is that which occurs steadily and in stages.

Thirdly, on account of the dignity of the incarnate Word, for on the words (Galatians 4:4), “But when the fullness of the time was come,” a gloss says: “The greater the judge who was coming, the more numerous was the band of heralds who ought to have preceded him.”

Here is underscored the dignity of the Son of God, that many should precede Him, announcing Him. There was also a need for us to be prepared to meet Him, so that we would not miss Him or refuse Him when He came. As Malachi says, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:5-6). Those who were prepared were able to abide the day of the Lord’s coming and heed His call.

Fourthly, lest the fervor of faith should cool by the length of time, for the charity of many will grow cold at the end of the world. Hence (Luke 18:8) it is written: “But yet the Son of Man, when He cometh, shall He find think you, faith on earth?”

This is an interesting aspect of the question that many might not consider; we typically ponder more what is good for us than what is good for succeeding generations. It is sadly true, though, that fervor, both collective and individual, can fade as a wait becomes lengthy. Therefore, St. Thomas suggests that God appointed a time for the Incarnation within human history such that the greatest possible number of people could be saved.

Four Reasons That the Incarnation was Fitting, According to St. Thomas Aquinas

Incarnation of Jesus, Piero di Cosimo (1505)

As we approach the Christmas feasts, it is good for us to ponder aspects of the Incarnation. In this post, I would like to consider what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches about its fittingness. God was not radically “required” to do everything as He did. We do well to ponder why the manner of the Lord’s incarnation is “fitting,” why it makes sense.

St. Thomas, referencing St. John Damascene, gives four reasons for the fittingness of the incarnation of Christ:

But, as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 1), by the mystery of Incarnation are made known at once the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God—“His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate …” (Summa Theologica III, 1.1)

Here are each of Thomas’ (Damascene’s) reasons, along with some less-worthy commentary from me.

I. His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork – To despise more literally means to look away or disregard something. God did not do this with Adam and Eve nor with us, their descendants, who have ratified their sinful choice. He continues to love us and call us.

Consider that even at the moment of the Original Sin, God first rebuked the devil and announced a solution that from woman would come forth a son destined to crush the power of the evil one. This protoevangelium (first good news) signals that God has not given up; He already has plans to save us. Although God would go on to announce the painful consequences of Adam’s sin, He does so only after announcing that His mercies are not exhausted, and His goodness is not altered.

Thus, God does not despise (look away from) His creation. Even His punishments are meant to heal us and to prepare us for the offer of something far greater: no mere earthly paradise, but Heaven itself. At the Incarnation, therefore, God’s goodness and fidelity to His promise is evident. Jesus, our promised Savior, is the hand extended to us in God’s goodness.

II. His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death – God, in making us free, “must” respect our free choices, not cancel them. If He canceled them, we would not have true freedom.

God does not undo our choices or remove their consequences; He builds on them. This is His justice at work.

We got into this mess through a man, a woman, and a tree. God will use these very elements to free us. The new Adam is Christ; the new Eve is Mary; the tree is the cross. Just as the first Adam and Eve were free but sinless, so Christ and Mary are sinless. While the first Adam and Eve said no in disobedience, Christ and Mary say yes in obedience.

God Himself, in Christ, joins our family and cancels the sin of Adam in a way that respects our first choice, but shows a different result. He takes the very suffering and death we chose and makes that the way back. The cross of Christ and our own share in that cross become the way back, the way to heavenly glory.

In His justice, God does not cancel our choices (and thereby our freedom). He does not “snatch us forcibly from death.” Rather, in His justice, He honors our freedom by taking our choices and their consequences (suffering and death) and making them the very way back to Him and to glory. He justly respects our choices but offers us another way.

III. His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt – A mere man, say a prophet or a holy man, could not atone for our sins. Our debt is simply too high (see Matt. 18:24ff). A man alone does not have the power to save. God alone would have nothing to do with our case. As the God-man, Jesus has both the power to save us and the brotherhood to speak and act for us. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. This shows both God’s justice and His wisdom, for He is not overcome by the conundrum of human impossibility and divine recusal. In the Incarnation, both truths are fittingly regarded and yet overcome.

IV. His power or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate – How can the infinite enter the finite? How can the eternal enter time? How can God, whom the very heavens could never contain, dwell in Mary’s womb and rest in her arms? Alpha et O matris in gremio! (Alpha and Omega sit in mother’s lap!) Here, God shows His mighty power to astonish us with His paradoxical wisdom and ways.

St. Thomas quotes St Augustine: The Christian doctrine nowhere holds that God was so joined to human flesh as either to desert or lose … the care of governing the universe … God is great not in mass, but in might. Hence the greatness of His might feels no straits in narrow surroundings (Ibid, ad 4).

God’s power is paradoxically demonstrated in the fact that He can make himself small but suffer no loss in ability or supreme power.

As the great feast of the Birth of the Lord approaches, I wish a merry and fitting Christmas to you all.

Don’t Be Liar at Christmas! A Meditation on Incarnational Faith

At Christmas we celebrate the fact of the Word becoming Flesh. But what does this mean for us today? Fundamentally what it means is that our faith is about things which are very real and tangible. As human beings we are persons with bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence it is never enough for our faith to be only about thoughts or philosophies, concepts or historical facts. While all these things our true, their truth in us ultimately must touch the physical part of who we are. Our Faith has to become flesh, it has to reach and influence our very behavior. If this is not the case the Holy Spirit speaking through John has something to call us: Liar!

 God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can actually be seen, heard and touched. But the challenge of the Christmas season is for us to allow the same thing to happen to our faith. The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of a book or the recesses of our intellect. They have to become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and Catechism and become flesh in the very way we live our lives, the decisions we make, the very way we use our body, mind, intellect and will.

Consider a passage from the liturgy of the Christmas Octave from the First Letter of John. I would like to produce an excerpt and then make a few comments.

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:3ff)

1. Faith is incarnational – Note first of all what a practical man John is. Faith is not an abstraction, it is not merely about theories and words on a page. I tcannotbe reduced to slogans or even to merely pious sayings. It is about a transformed life, it is about the actual love of God and his Commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about the actual love of of my neighbor. True faith is incarnational, that is to say, it takes on flesh in my very “body.”

As stated already, we human beings are not pure spirit, we are not intellect and will only, we are also flesh and blood. And what we are cannot remain merely immaterial. What we most are must be reflected in our bodies, what we actually, physically do as well.

Too many people often repeat the phrase, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional absence is understandable but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Actually showing up physically and actually doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must include a physical, flesh and blood dimension.

2. A sure sign – John says that The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith, it is the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love, it is the fruit of it.

Note this too, in the Scriptures, to “know” is always more than a mere intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Scriptures means, “deep intimate personal experience of the thing or person known.” It is one thing to know about God, it is another thing to “know the Lord.”

So, what John is saying here is that to be sure we authentically have deep intimate personal experience of God is to observe the fact that this changes the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord will change our actual behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with the Lord. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.

For a human being faith cannot be a mere abstraction, it has to become flesh and blood if it is authentic. John later uses the image of walking in this passage: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:6) Now walking is a very physical thing. It is also a very symbolic thing. The very place we take our body is both physical and indicative of what we value, what we think.

3. Liar? – John goes on to say Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. John uses strong language here. Either we believe and keep the commandments or we fail to keep the commandments and thus lie about really knowing the Lord.

But don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully! John seems so “all or nothing.” But his math is clear. To know the Lord fully, is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). To know him imperfectly is still to experience sin. Hence, the more we know him (remember the definition of know above!) the less we sin. If we still sin it is a sign that we do not know him enough.

It is not really John who speaks too absolutely. It is really we who do so. We say, “I have faith, I am a believer, I love the Lord, I know the the Lord!” We speak so absolutely. Perhaps we could better say, I am growing in faith, I am striving to be a better believer, I’m learning to love and know the Lord better and better. Otherwise we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.

Many Protestants have a bad habit of reducing faith to an event such as answering an altar call, or accepting the Lord as “personal Lord and savior.” But we Catholics do it too. Many think all they have to do is be baptized but they never attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics but they dissent from important Church teachings. Faithis about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we actually make. Without this harmony between faith and our actual walk we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. Bottom line: Come to know the Lord more an more perfectly and, if this knowing is real knowing, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our calimto have faithwill be said in truth, not as a lie.

4. Uh Oh! Is this salvation by works? Of course not. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving and real faith it is the result of it. The keeping of the commandments is the necessary evidence of saving faith but it does not cause us to be saved, it only indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.

But here too certain Protestants have a nasty habit of dividing faith and works. The cry went up in the 16th Century by the Protestants that we are saved by faith “alone.” Careful. Faith is never alone. It always brings effects with it.

Our big brains can get in the way here and we think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can divide it in reality. This is arrogant and silly. Consider for a moment a candle flame. Now the flame has two qualities: heat and light. In our mind we can separate the two but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame and the light of the flame. They are so together as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a candleflame are distinguishable theoretically but they are always together in reality. This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically but the works of true faith and faith are always together in reality. We are not saved by works but as John here teaches to know the Lord is always accompanied by the evidence of keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.

Faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. So too our own faith must become flesh in us, really, physically in our actual behavior in our very body-person.

Here is a largely unknown Christmas Carol to Americans, unless you are familiar with Renaissance music. It is by an anonymous composer of the 16th Century and is an early Spanish Carol. The gist of the Carol is that the Word (Jesus) has shown his love for us by becoming flesh. Mary who has real faith would do anything for Jesus but has nowhere even to lay him down. The song then rebukes this rich world for its lack of faith manifested in love and cries out in effect, “Will you not at least offer some swaddling clothes to the one you have forced to be born in a smelly stable!” And thus the world’s true faith must be manifest by its acts of love. Here is an incarnational Christmas Carol. I provide the text and translation. Enjoy.

Verbum caro factum est          (The Word was made flesh)
Porque todos hos salveis.       (for the salvation of you all
 
Y la Virgen le dezia:                 (And the Virgin said unto him)
‘Vida de la vida mia,                (‘Life of my life,)
Hijo mio, ¿que os haria,         (what would I [not] do for you, my Son?)
Que no tengo en que os echeis?’ (Yet I have nothing on which to lay you  down.)’
 
O riquezas terrenales,             (O wordly riches)!
¿No dareis unos pañales        (will you not give some swaddling clothes)
A Jesu que entre animales    (to Jesus, who is born among the animals),
Es nasçido segun veis?           (as you can see?) 
 

Paradoxes of Christmas

In the ancient Church, and until rather recently, we genuflected at the two references to the incarnation in the Mass: at the Creed and at the Last Gospel (John 1). Why did we do this? It was explained to me that the mystery was so deep that one could only fall in silent reverence.

There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the incarnation. As mysteries they cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and we bow today at the mention of the incarnation in the creed for it is a deep mystery.

As we approach Christmas I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little of them as possible, just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words, not common with me, is in reverence to the mystery and also to invite your own reflection.

  1. The Infinite One becomes an infant.
  2. An antiphon for the Christmas season says,  How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
  3. An old Latin Carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio – (Alpha and Omega, sitting in mommy’s lap).
  4. He who looks down on all creation looks up to see his mother.  The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem….ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy to recognize the face of your mother with a smile….For you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die, and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
  5. He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness.
  6. He to whom all things in heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
  7. He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice,  Scritpure says,  The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty….The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness …The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29).   Yet, this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
  8. His infant hand squeezes his mother’s finger, as infants do. From that same hand, the universe trumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
  9. He who holds all creation together in himself  (Col 1:17) is now held by his mother.
  10. He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
  11. He who is our sustainer and our food, is now hungry and fed by his mother.
  12. Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss. (Christina Rosetti “Ere the Bleak Mid Winter”).

Each of these is meant to be a meditation as Christmas approaches. Please add to this list!

Remember the word paradox means something that defies intuition or the common way of thinking. It unsettles or startles us to make us think more deeply. It comes from the Greek:  para- + dokein. Para usually meaning “beside, off to the side,” sometimes “above,”  and dokein meaning “to think or seem.” Hence a paradox is something off to the side of the usual way of seeing things or thinking about them. If you are going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox,  for God’s ways and thinking often defy and confound human ways and thinking. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform with worldly expectations.

This Christmas consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember too, mysteries are to be lived more than solved. Reverence is more proper to mystery than excessive curiosity. Here, more is learned in silence than by many words.