Five Remedies for Sorrow from St. Thomas Aquinas

One doesn’t usually go to the St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica for advice on emotional matters. But for the feast of St. Thomas we shall indeed go there to seek advice on sorrow and consider some of St. Thomas’ remedies for it. (His advice is contained primarily in the Prima Secundae questions 35 – 37.)

St. Thomas follows some of the Eastern fathers in naming four kinds of sorrow (cf I IIae 35:8): anxiety, torpor, pity, and envy. Let’s look at each before examining some of the remedies he suggests:

1. Anxiety – This is a kind of sorrow that emerges when the mind is so weighed down by something that escape seem impossible. St. Thomas’ definition is likely rooted in the Latin word angustia, which is a narrow pass or straight. And thus anxiety tends to arise when we experience stress over a situation and find no room to maneuver, no way out. Anxiety tends to pertain to the future, in contrast with pain, which generally pertains to the present. With pain, one can suffer about a situation in the moment yet recognize that it will pass. Anxiety arises when we sense no definitive end to the painful situation.

St. Thomas calls anxiety a form of sadness. In modern culture we often link anxiety and depression. This is because anxiety, as a sorrow, weighs us down. And just as joy and hope tend to expand and lighten, the sorrow of anxiety tends to crush and turn us inward. It makes us feel limited, hemmed in, confined, and heavily weighed down.

Someone once said that depression is anger turned inward. This makes sense because anger results from fear and anxiety, and anger that cannot be expressed or managed becomes like a heavy weight or depression.

2. Torpor – This word is not used very frequently today. Literally, it refers to slowness of movement. When one is sorrowful or depressed, one is less motivated to move. St. Thomas says, “If, however, the mind be weighed down so much, even the limbs become motionless, which belongs to ‘torpor’” (I IIae 35.8). Even ordinary conversation with others, which is a kind of movement, can seem difficult. The sorrow we call torpor slows us down and makes us feel rundown and sluggish.

Inactivity tends to build. The less motivated we feel, the less we move; the less we move, the less motivated we feel. It’s a kind of downward spiral.

This is why those who are experiencing depression are often encouraged to find friends that will make them move, make them go places—even if they don’t feel like it. This helps to stave off the downward spiral that torpor can cause.

The second two types of sorrow (pity and envy) relate more to our experience of other people’s circumstances.

3. Pity – This is the sorrow that we feel for the evil or misfortune endured by another person. But it is deeper than mere regret or perturbation. Pity is experiencing the misfortune of another as though it were our own.

Pity, therefore, implies a felt relationship. Perhaps it involves a close friend or family member, but it can also be the felt relationship of common humanity with the one who suffers.

Of itself, pity is a proper and good sorrow born out of love. And yet, like any common human emotion or passion, it can be tainted by sinfulness. For example, sometimes pity results more from egotistical needs, wherein one develops a sort of condescending attitude, needing to see others as beneath him or worse off than he is.

And thus what masquerades as pity is too easily merely the drive to be in a superior position with respect to another person. Patronizing attitudes are a misguided form of pity such that we do for people what they should rightfully do for themselves, thus robbing them of their dignity and their call to live responsible lives.

Hence pity, like any sorrow, has to be moderated and helped by reason and by the understanding that it is not always possible or even helpful to assist everyone in every circumstance simply because we feel sorrow for their condition. Sometimes the best we can do is to listen to them and pray for them.

Properly understood, pity is a very beautiful emotion rooted in love for others.

4. Envy – On the other hand, envy is a very dark sorrow and is rooted in sin. I have written more extensively on envy here: Envy Is a Diabolical Sin. For this reflection, however, I will just summarize by saying that envy is a form of sorrow or anger at the excellence of another person, because I take it as lessening my own.

Envy is a particularly dark sin because it seeks to destroy the goodness in others rather than to celebrate it. If I am jealous of you, you have something I want. But when I am envious of you, I seek to destroy that in you which is good. That is why St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin.

While discussing these four types of sorrow, St. Thomas also discusses some ways to overcome them. We will look at remedies for all four of them. Because envy stands apart from the other sorrows due to its sinful quality, the remedies for it are quite different. The remedies for envy are the gifts of joy and zeal. When someone else possesses goodness or excellence, the proper response is to rejoice with them and for them, as members of one body. When one member is praised, all members are praised; when one member is blessed, all members are blessed. This is rational and reasonable; we should seek from God the gift of joy at the goodness or excellence of another person. We should also seek from God the virtue of zeal, wherein we seek to imitate, where possible, the goodness or excellence we observe in others.

Remedies As for the other forms of sorrow (anxiety, torpor, and pity), St. Thomas advises some of the following remedies:

1. Weeping – St. Thomas makes the very interesting observation that where there is laughter and smiling there is increased joy. But weeping, rather than increasing sorrow, actually diminishes it. How is this? He says, “First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened” (I IIae 38.2). Thus tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow. For when we weep, we release sorrow. Tears have a way of flushing it from our system.

It is a rather beautiful and freeing insight, especially for some of us who were raised with more stoic sensibilities. Many of us, especially men, were told not to cry, not to show our emotions. But of course such an approach seldom works, for the more we shut up our sorrow, the more the mind ruminates on it. Better to weep and let it run out through our tears.

2. Sharing our sorrows with friends – Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccl 4:10-11). Aristotle also said, “A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.”

The danger to avoid in sorrow is turning in on ourselves. We often need the perspective of others. And even if they don’t have many answers to give us, simply talking to them about our sorrow is itself a form of release. St. Thomas also adds, when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure… [and] every pleasure assuages sorrow (Ibid).

3. Contemplating the truth – The word philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom,” and for those schooled in it, it can provide great consolation. St. Thomas says, the greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth. Now every pleasure assuages pain … hence the contemplation of truth assuages pain or sorrow, and the more so, the more perfectly one is a lover of wisdom (I IIae 38.4).

This is even more so with the contemplation of sacred truth, wherein we are reminded of our final glory and happiness if we persevere. We are given perspective and reminded of the passing quality of sorrow in this life, that “trouble don’t last always,” and that the sufferings of this world cannot compare with the glory that is to be revealed.

4. Pleasure – We have already seen that St. Thomas says, “pleasure assuages pain.” If one is physically tired, then sleep is a solution. If one is in pain or sorrow, pleasure is also helpful remedy.

In sudden and heavy loss or sorrow, some period of quiet convalescence maybe called for. But there comes a time when one must go forth and savor the better things in life once again.

The Book of Psalms says, When sorrow was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul (Ps 94:19). In the midst of pain, God will often send consoling pleasures, which should be appreciated and savored (with proper moderation, of course).

As a priest, I sometimes minister to those who have suddenly lost a spouse or other beloved family member. In these situations, I find that some of those who mourn feel almost guilty about venturing out into the world again to enjoy the better things: laughter, good company, entertainment, etc. But for the survivors to cease living does little to honor those who died. There comes a time, after a suitable period of mourning, when one must go forth and reclaim the joy of life again.

5. A warm bath and a nap – This is a rather charming remedy recommended by St. Thomas. And it is actually very good advice, for we are not simply soul; we are also body. And our body and soul interact with and influence each other. Sometimes if the soul is vexed, caring for the body will bring soothing to both body and soul. St. Thomas says, Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it (I IIae 38.5).

We live in a culture that tends to overindulge the body. And yet to do so is not really to care for it. Frankly, some of our overindulgence actually stress the body, which thereby vexes the soul.

Surely what St. Thomas has in mind here is the proper care of the body. Whether that means a warm bath, a leisurely walk, or a nap, the soothing care of the body can help to alleviate sorrow.

Sorrow! It does find us. But in the midst of it, there are still some gifts. Learning these simple truths can be a gift:  that tears are the soul’s way to exhale, that we ought to reach out and stay in communion with others who can help us, that meditating on eternal truth is important, and that proper soothing care of ourselves has its place.

Sorrow also reminds us that this world is not our home, that we ought to set our gaze on the place where joy shall never end, even as we must journey through what is often a “valley of tears.” And finally, the Book of Revelation reminds us to regard what the Lord will do for those who die in Him:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev 21:4).

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Five Remedies for Sorrow from St. Thomas Aquinas

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

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.

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.

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.

What Is the Meaning of Christ’s Circumcision?

The feast for January 1st is designated as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Although that is its most ancient title, for many centuries it was the Circumcision of the Lord; it is still celebrated under that title on the calendar of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

Yesterday we meditated on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God; today we will ponder the meaning of the Feast of the Lord’s Circumcision. In so doing we will follow the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. The words of St. Thomas are presented below in bold, black italics, while my commentary appears in plain red text.

As his focal question, St. Thomas asks,

Whether Christ should have been circumcised? (Summa Theologica III, Q 37, Art 1). He answer yes, and for the following reasons: 

First, in order to prove the reality of His human nature, in contradiction to the Manicheans, who said that He had an imaginary body: and in contradiction to Apollinarius, who said that Christ’s body was consubstantial with His Godhead; and in contradiction to Valentine, who said that Christ brought His body from heaven.

The sacrament all touch and/or involve the body in some way. For example, we do not simply pray that a person be freed from original sin, we pour water upon the body. To be human is to be both body and spiritual soul.

There has long been a tendency toward a kind of dualism that seeks to make the body a container and locates the self purely in the soul. But Christ, in taking on human nature, took not only a likeness to us, but became fully human. As such, He truly had a body; His body was not a mirage or something uniquely crafted out of His divinity in order that He appear human. He was like us in all things except sin.

Circumcision emphasizes the importance of the body to us because it cuts the very sign of the Covenant into the body. All the sacraments of the New Covenant (to which circumcision points) touch the body in order to have effects on the soul.

Secondly, in order to show His approval of circumcision, which God had instituted of old.

Although the New Covenant no longer requires circumcision, the sacraments do not dishonor circumcision; they fulfill it.

Thirdly, in order to prove that He was descended from Abraham, who had received the commandment of circumcision as a sign of his faith in Him.

Fourthly, in order to take away from the Jews an excuse for not receiving Him, if He were uncircumcised.

Recall that St. Paul had Timothy circumcised for a similar reason (see Acts 16:3). Although Paul was clear that the Judaizers who insisted on circumcision as necessary for salvation were wrong, he made a pastoral and prudential decision to sidestep fruitless debate with them. St. Paul wrote elsewhere about his approach in matters such as this: To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the Law I became like one under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law), to win those under the Law. (1 Cor 9:20).

Fifthly, “in order by His example to exhort us to be obedient” [Bede, Hom. x in Evang.]. Wherefore He was circumcised on the eighth day according to the prescription of the Law (Leviticus 12:3).

Until such time as the New Covenant was fully inaugurated, the Old Law still held. Hence obedience is demonstrated for us. If even the Son of God, who did not need the law’s effects (for He was sinless and law is for the weak), subjected Himself to the standing law and lawful authority, how much more should we be willing to do so.

In a similar matter, Jesus advised the apostles, The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matt 23:2-3).

To those who argue that circumcision ceased at the birth of Christ (since He Himself is the New Covenant), St Thomas answered, … we are freed by Christ’s Passion. Consequently, this figure was not completely fulfilled in Christ’s birth, but in His Passion, until which time the circumcision retained its virtue and status. Therefore, it behooved Christ to be circumcised as a son of Abraham before His Passion.

St. Thomas also cites the objections of some in his time who said that obedience in circumcision is not a fruitful example to us since we are under no obligation to be circumcised; then he adds this insight: Christ submitted to circumcision while it was yet of obligation. And thus His action in this should be imitated by us, in fulfilling those things which are of obligation in our own time. Because “there is a time and opportunity for every business” (Ecclesiastes 8:6).

Sixthly, “that He who had come in the likeness of sinful flesh might not reject the remedy whereby sinful flesh was wont to be healed.”

Though the Law could not of itself cure sin, it was a remedy in that it prepared us for Christ and help lead us to Him.

Seventhly, that by taking on Himself the burden of the Law, He might set others free therefrom, according to Galatians 4:4-5: “God sent His Son … made under the Law, that He might redeem them who were under the Law.”

Indeed, the Law had many burdens and punishments associated with it and did not contain the grace to accomplish it. Thus, the Lord took up these burdens and fulfilled them, accomplishing them in full so as to free us and give us the grace to live the new Law of Love. St. Paul says elsewhere, For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-4).

Here, then, are some teachings on the circumcision of the Lord. Even if the matter may seem arcane to us, to the Christians of the first generation it was a matter of great importance and something to be understood carefully. Through St. Thomas, the Lord gives us much to ponder.

Tomorrow we will consider another aspect of the eighth day of Christmas: the naming of Jesus.


Learning the Latin of the Hymns for Benediction and Adoration

I sometimes get requests for help in understanding the Latin texts of the very familiar hymns for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction. The O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo, though familiar to many Catholics remain only vaguely understood in terms of a word-for-word translation. Most know the poetic English renderings (“O Saving Victim Opening Wide” and “Humbly Let us Voice our Homage”) but this does not necessarily facilitate a word-for-word understanding as the Latin is sung. What I hope to do here,  and in greater detail in the attached PDF files, is to give a very literal rendering that preserves the word order of the Latin so that one can understand the Latin precisely. In the PDF I also give a brief word study of each word in both hymns. It is my hope to bring these hymns more alive for the faithful who sing them who may not be highly skilled in Latin.

1. The O Salutaris – The Author is St. Thomas Aquinas. These are the last two verses of a longer hymn Verbum Supernum Prodiens (The heavenly Word, going forth) which was composed for Lauds (Morning Prayer) of the Divine Office of Corpus Christi. The meter is Iambic Dimeter, accentual with alternating rhyme. This hymn was said to so please even the hostile Rousseau that he would have given all his poetry to be its author.  I propose here to record the Latin text to the left and then a very literal English translation to the right which also preserves the word order for easy comparison:

    • O salutaris Hostia    (O saving victim)
    • quae caeli pandis ostium    (who of heaven opens the gate – i.e. who opens the gate of heaven)
    • bella premunt hostilia    (wars press hostile – i.e. hostile wars press)
    • da robur fer auxilium    (give strength, bear aid)
    • Uni Trinoque Domino    (To the One and Threefold Lord)
    • sit sempiterna gloria    (may there be eternal glory)
    • qui vitam sine termino    (who life without end)
    • nobis donet in patria    (to us may he grant in the Fatherland)

I have prepared a printable and more thorough word study here: Study the O SALUTARIS

2. The Tantum Ergo– The author is St. Thomas Aquinas. It was composed for Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is trochaic tetrameter catalectic, rhyming at both the caesura and at the end of the line. These two verses are the last two of the full hymn Pange Lingua.  There is here a wonderful union of sweetness of melody with clear-cut dogmatic teaching. I propose here to record the Latin text to the left and then a very literal English translation to the right which also preserves the word order for easy comparison:

    • Tantum ergo sacramentum   (So great therefore a sacrament)
    • veneremur cernui    (let us venerate with bowed heads)
    • et antiquum documentum    (and the ancient document)
    • novo cedat ritui    (to the new, give way, rite    i.e. gives way to the new rite)
    • Praestet fides supplementum    (may supply faith a supplement  i.e. may faith supply a supplement)
    • Sensuum defectui.    (of the senses for the defect  i.e. for the defect of the senses)
    • Genitori Genitoque    (To the One who generates and to the one who is generated (i.e. Father and Son)
    • Laus et jubilatio    (be praise and joy)
    • Salus, honor, virtus, quoque    (health, honor, strength also)
    • sit et benedictio    (may there be and blessing)
    • Procedenti ab utroque    (to the One proceeding from both)
    • Compar sit laudatio    (equal may there be praise  i.e. may there be equal praise)

I have prepared a printable and more thorough word study here: Study the TANTUM ERGO.

I hope that this may be of some help along with the printable PDF word studies. Venite Adoremus (Come let us adore).

Here is setting of the Tantum Ergo by Mozart which I paired with some video footage I found: