Why Did the Second Person of the Trinity, Rather Than the Father or the Holy Spirit, Become Incarnate?

Trinity Dome. Credit: J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

As we await the approaching Feast of Holy Christmas, we have been pondering some of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teachings on the Incarnation. Today we will consider why it was the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became incarnate.

Most people have never even thought of this question let alone sought to answer it. God could have chosen many different ways to save us; He chose to act as He did not because it was required but because it was fitting. It falls to us to ponder, using Scripture and our own reason, why His chosen way was fitting and what we can learn from this.

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas provides rich resources for us. I present below his teaching from the Summa Theologica (part III, question 3, article 8) in bold, italics; my poor commentary appears in plain red text. St. Thomas proposed four reasons as to why it was most fitting for the Son to become incarnate.

I. First, on the part of the union; for such as are similar are fittingly united. Now the Person of the Son, Who is the Word of God, has a certain common agreement with all creatures, because the word of the craftsman, i.e. his concept, is an exemplar likeness of whatever is made by him. Hence the Word of God, Who is His eternal concept, is the exemplar likeness of all creatures. … for the craftsman by the intelligible form of his art, whereby he fashioned his handiwork, restores it when it has fallen into ruin.

When the Father created all things, He uttered a Word (i.e., Let there be light). He creates through His Word (the Logos), and the Word of God is Christ. Therefore, in speaking creation into existence by the Logos, God impresses a kind of logike (logic) on all things.

In this way the Son, the Logos, has a “certain common agreement with all creatures,” who bear something of logic or likeness to Him. If this be so, then, as St. Thomas reasons, God the Father would best repair His creation by the same Word through whom He first created it.

II. Moreover … Man is perfected in wisdom (which is his proper perfection, as he is rational) by participating the Word of God, as the disciple is instructed by receiving the word of his master. Hence it is said (Sirach 1:5): “The Word of God on high is the fountain of wisdom.” And hence for the consummate perfection of man it was fitting that the very Word of God should be personally united to human nature.

While it is true that Original Sin affected our bodily integrity, perhaps our greatest wound was the darkening of our intellect, which was (and is) our greatest gift, the distinguishing characteristic between us and brute animals. So, it is especially fitting that the Word of God, who is also the Wisdom of God, should be joined to our nature and bring healing to us in this way.

St. Paul writes, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2). Even human words can instruct; all the more, then, can the Word of God made Flesh enlighten and heal us. This shows forth the fittingness that the Word—the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity—should become flesh.

III. The reason of this fitness [of the Second Person becoming flesh] may [also] be taken from the end of the union, which is … the heavenly inheritance, which is bestowed only on sons, according to Romans 8:17: “If sons, heirs also.” Hence it was fitting that by Him Who is the natural Son, men should share this likeness of sonship by adoption, as the Apostle says in the same chapter (Romans 8:29): “For whom He foreknew, He also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of His Son.”

In other words, because it is sons who inherit, it is fitting that He who is Son by nature should become incarnate. So shall we, conformed to His image as sons through our adoption and membership in His Body, also inherit the Kingdom and glory through the healing He effects in us.

IV. [Further], the reason for this fitness may be taken from the sin of our first parent, for which Incarnation supplied the remedy. For the first man sinned by seeking knowledge, as is plain from the words of the serpent, promising to man the knowledge of good and evil. Hence it was fitting that by the Word of true knowledge man might be led back to God, having wandered from God through an inordinate thirst for knowledge.

In grasping inordinately for the wrong kind of knowledge (the knowledge of evil) and in insisting on his own right to decide what was good and what was evil, Adam sinned. In and of itself, seeking knowledge is good; it was the object that was disordered (and thus forbidden). Because humans have this thirst to know (of itself good), all the more reason that God should offer us the true Word and Wisdom of God: the Son.

For the Word to become flesh is thus more fitting. In effect, God the Father says, “Let me offer you what you were really seeking but sought inordinately.” For this reason, the Son, who is the Word, who is Truth itself, becomes incarnate.

What Was the Foundation of Jesus’ Life and Ministry?

One of Jesus’ most central qualities was that He loved His Heavenly Father and was loved by Him. To put it colloquially, Jesus was crazy about His Father. He was always talking about Him. Jesus often sought remote places in order to be able to spend extended time with His Father. Clearly He also knew and experienced His Father’s great love for Him.

Indeed, Jesus’ public ministry began with this declaration of the Father: You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22). Clearly, the Father loves and takes great delight in His Son, Jesus. While we ought not to project our own needs and wounds (such as the “father wound”) into Jesus’ human nature — as if He desperately needed the affirmation of the Father — it seems clear that one of the greatest joys of Jesus’ life was the Father’s love for Him. It supported Him and encouraged Him. It was the foundation, the center, of His identity. Jesus is the beloved Son of the Father.

At one point the disciples, who had admired the powerful love and prayer of Jesus for His Father, asked that He teach them how to pray. Jesus began, “When you pray, say, ‘Father’” (Lk 11:2). He was overheard in the Garden of Gethsemane to say, Abba! Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will (Mk 14:36). Yes, Jesus loved His Father and experienced great love from Him.

We have few in the way of lengthy descriptions of Jesus’ prayer, but it would seem that words were seldom needed between Him and His Father. It was Cor ad Cor loquitur (heart speaking to heart); it was what words could never describe nor lips utter.

It is especially in John’s Gospel that we get glimpses of Jesus’ experience with the Father. Jesus discloses His experience of the Father through brief aspirations, attestations, and in his High Priestly prayer. We see a deep relationship of Jesus with His Father that is one of love, trust, confidence, and an unfailing expectation of vindication from the Father. In Jesus there is a joyful obedience and an experience that He is never alone:

  1. I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me (Jn 8:16).
  2. He who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world. … The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone … I always do what pleases him (Jn 8:26, 28-29).
  3. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence (Jn 8:38).
  4. I honor my Father, but you dishonor me. … My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word (Jn 8:49, 54-55).
  5. Father, … I know that you always hear me (Jn 11:41-42).
  6. I do exactly what the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Get up, let us go on from here [to the cross] (Jn 14:31).
  7. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you (Jn 15:9).
  8. Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son … glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. … Then the world will know that you sent me and that I have loved them even as you have loved me. … Father you loved me before the creation of the world. … Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you (John 17: selected verses).

Even though on the cross Jesus cried, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1), we must recall that this psalm is one of hope, not despair. Among its laments come verses of confidence and trust:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. …

… But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

And I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.

Yes, even on the cross there is trust and confidence in the Father’s love; there is a firm conviction that this love will vindicate and rescue. There is also Jesus’ loving willingness to fulfill his vows to God before the people, even if it brings suffering and scorn.

Thus, the Father’s love is greater than any other force in Jesus’ life. It is His foundation, His joy, and His sure defense. If He but has the Father’s love, He has all and conquers all.

What of you and me? Do you experience the Father’s love for you as the foundation of your life and your deepest strength? For too many, the Father seems distant, perhaps even angry. Jesus’ deepest work in your life is to bring you into the heart of the Father so that you will not just know, but experience that the Father loves you; He even likes you! The Father loves you and there’s really nothing you can do about it. You are His beloved!

While we are not sinless, as was Jesus, the Father does not cease loving us. It is His very love and the experience of that love that will drive out sin and usher in holiness. If you love me, you will keep my Commandments (Jn 14:15).

Jesus would have you turn now and see across the distant field that the Father is running toward you (Luke 15:20). He would have you hear him pleading for you to enter the feast (Luke 15:28). If you take one step toward Him, God the Father will take two steps toward you and then come running.

Let the Father’s love be the foundation of your life. As it was for Jesus perfectly, may it be so for us with increasing perfection.

When you pray say, “Father!” (Lk 11:2)