The Effects of Christ's Incarnation
The Miracle of the Incarnation, Part 2
Today, we are diving deeper into the miracle of the Incarnation. What were the effects of the Incarnation on Christ and on us? How did the world fundamentally shift 2,000 years ago?! If you have not yet listened to part 1 of this two-parter, I highly recommend beginning there. I went over some fairly deep theology of what the Incarnation means and what the Hypostatic Union of the divine and human natures of Christ in one Divine Person is.
The Fittingness of the Incarnation According to Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas asks a series of really cool questions about the Incarnation in question 1 of the third part of the Summa. In this section, he focuses entirely on what he calls the “fittingness” of the Incarnation. When Aquinas speaks of fittingness, he is juxtaposing this term with necessity. In other words, is an event or action in theology strictly necessary or simply fitting? In the first two questions, he explores this query..
Is it fitting for God to become incarnate?
First, Aquinas asks: “Is it fitting for God to become incarnate?” We know that God is good; this is one the realities of His essence. God exists and He is the truth, the good, the beautiful, and the ground of being itself. Aquinas argues that because of His great and perfect goodness, He desired to share His goodness in the highest manner possible to His creature. So, St. Thomas concludes that it is “manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate (ST III, q. 1, a. 1, co.)”
Was it necessary for the restoration of the human race?
Even though it is a tremendous mystery that God would condescend to become one of us, it was fitting because of His great goodness. But what about necessary? “Was it necessary for the restoration of the human race?” asks Aquinas. He answers that:
“What frees the human race from perdition is necessary for the salvation of man. But the mystery of Incarnation is such; according to John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.’ Therefore it was necessary for man's salvation that God should become incarnate (ST III, q. 1, a. 2, s.c.).”
So, because of the sin of Adam and Eve, it was necessary that God should become incarnate. As God, He can reconcile us to Himself; as Man, He can do so on our behalf!
If there had been no sin, would God have become incarnate?
This leads to St. Thomas’ next question: “If there had been no sin, would God have become incarnate?” This question is one of my favorites to contemplate. It was actually the topic of a great conversation for me and my coworkers at lunch a couple weeks ago.
In Romans, St. Paul shows us that all men were made sinners through the disobedience of Adam and it was through the one Man, Jesus Christ, that many will be made righteous. In the first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22).” Jesus Christ is, thus, the “new Adam” or the “second Adam.” As St. John Henry Newman wrote in his hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the height”:
“O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.”
It is clear that Scripture teaches that the reason for the Incarnation is the sin of Adam. So, how does Aquinas answer this question: “If there had been no sin, would God have become incarnate?” He says,
“... the word of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin had not existed, Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate (ST III, q. 1, a. 3, co.).”
Whether God became incarnate in order to take away actual sin, rather than to take away original sin?
God could have become incarnate, even in the absence of human sin. But, as it is, Adam did sin and the incarnation allowed for the stain of original sin to be washed away. But what about personal sin, or as the Church calls it: “actual sin.” St. Thomas asks: “Whether God became incarnate in order to take away actual sin, rather than to take away original sin?”
He answers directly that the principle reason for the incarnation was to take away original sin. But he adds:
“It is certain that Christ came into this world not only to take away that sin which is handed on originally to posterity, but also in order to take away all sins subsequently added to it; not that all are taken away (ST III, q. 1, a. 4, co.).”
Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate in the beginning of the human race?
On the next question: “Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate in the beginning of the human race?” Aquinas has a lot to say, but we can summarize it thusly:
“... God became incarnate at the most fitting time; and it was not fitting that God should become incarnate at the beginning of the human race (ST III, q. 1, a. 5, s.c.).”
Whether Incarnation ought to have been put off till the end of the world?
In God’s timing, the incarnation was unfitting to happen right after the sin of Adam and Eve, but St. Thomas asks “Whether Incarnation ought to have been put off till the end of the world?” He answers:
“It is written (Habakkuk 3:2): ‘In the midst of the years Thou shalt make it known.’ Therefore the mystery of Incarnation which was made known to the world ought not to have been put off till the end of the world (ST III, q. 1, a. 6, s.c.).”
Put simply: the incarnation happened exactly when and where was best, in God’s Providence and with His perfect knowledge and planning.
The Effects of the Incarnation on Christ Himself
The Incarnation of Christ was fitting and necessary for the salvation of man. But what were the effects on Christ Himself? First, we can think of our own body and soul. We are limited and finite. We have inclinations to sin and imperfections. We are sinful and sorrowful. We are intrinsically good and capable of wonderful things, by God’s grace. But we are also capable of great evil. As we discussed last time, the human nature of Jesus Christ is perfect and perfectly subordinate to His Divinity. He is incapable of sin and acts in the perfection for which mankind was originally made.
What does that look like? Perfection. Living in accord with the Will of the Father, perfectly. What is possible? The great St. Athanasius, discussing the Incarnation, says this:
“And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvelous, and wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, and be struck with exceeding great awe (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.4-5).”
The Incarnation is a Miracle and our Blessed Lord is the perfect Man. He shows us what God intended from the beginning for mankind. So, let us take a moment to zoom in: what effects did the Incarnation have on the human body and human soul of Christ?
On the Body of Christ
Jesus Christ had a human body, as we do. He knows our human limitations and is like us. In Hebrews 4:15, we hear: “We have not a high priest, who cannot have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.” Before His Resurrection from the dead, the Body of Christ was subject to all the bodily weaknesses caused by original sin, which we are all subject: He experienced hunger, thirst, pain, fatigue, and death. These are all natural results of human nature which He assumed.
There are a couple of things in the body, however, which Christ did not necessarily experience. It is possible that He had no bodily deformities (until His Passion) and never got sick. St. Athanasius persuasively argues this by saying that it would be “unbecoming that He should heal others who was Himself not healed (P.G., XX, 133).”
On the Human Soul of Christ
When speaking of the human soul of Christ, there are a few areas worth mentioning: His intellect, will, sanctity, and likes and dislikes.
In the Will
Jesus was entirely sinless. Thomists following after St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Francisco Suarez, and the Society of Jesus all argue that sin is incompatible with the Hypostatic Union. It is safe to assume that this is the case simply on the merits of Dominicans and Jesuits being in agreement (just a joke). Those following the teaching of Duns Scotus say that the sinlessness of Christ is not due to the Hypostatic Union but due to a special Divine Providence similar to the way that it is impossible for the blessed in Heaven to sin.
No matter which theological avenue you take, it is an article of faith, to be held definitively, taught at the Council of Ephesus, that Christ never sinned. Jesus Christ is a Divine Person and God cannot turn away from Himself.
We also want to take great care to acknowledge the total liberty of Christ, in His human will. After the Incarnation, the will of Christ remained. If this were not the case, then in the matter of death, Christ could not have merited nor satisfied the justice of God for us. St. Thomas Aquinas not only believed in the total liberty of the human will of Christ, but he also provided seventeen different explanations for why this is true!
In the Intellect
Let us now turn to the human intellect of Christ. Every time the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord comes around, I brace for the incredibly ridiculous homilies in which the deacon or priest (or God, help us, bishops) explain that it was at this moment that Christ realized His mission. They hold that it was at the Baptism of the Lord, when the Spirit descends like a dove, that Christ receives His anointing, grace, and His mission. I want to say unequivocally that this is heretical and nonsensical garbage. The soul of Christ was endowed with the Beatific Vision from the beginning of its existence. For the first moment in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the Hypostatic Union came into being, the human soul of Christ beheld the Godhead in its fullness.
Like Adam and Eve, Christ had infused knowledge. God the Father revealed many things to Jesus in His humanity all at once, as needed. He also acquired human knowledge through His senses and imagination. The human soul of Christ had a beginning and is not, therefore, infinite as God is infinite. But by the grace of union, His human soul (intellect and will) was most perfect and embraced the widest range possible.
Sanctity of Christ
From the first moment, in the Hypostatic Union, Jesus Christ enjoyed the grace of union. As St. Augustine teaches:
“When the Word was made Flesh then, indeed, He sanctified Himself in Himself, that is, Himself as Man in Himself as Word; for that Christ is One Person, both Word and Man, and renders His human nature holy in the holiness of the Divine nature (Augustine, In Johan. tract. 108, n. 5, in P.L., XXXV, 1916).”
St. John also tells us in the prologue of His Gospel that the Word was “full of grace (Jn. 1:14).” And, so, in the human soul of Christ, there was a fullness of sanctifying grace. This is the same grace of the sacraments that we receive at our Baptism and in each of the seven sacraments.
Likes and Dislikes
In the Hypostatic Union, Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. This glorious union, however, does not deprive the human soul of Christ of the human reality of likes and dislikes. There were certain foods that Jesus preferred. He likely had a favorite game or sport, a favorite joke or turn of phrase, a favorite way to recline at a table that He found most comfortable, and the list goes on.
We see in the Gospels that Christ was angry, fearful, sad, happy, and experienced the sensible affections of hope, desire, and joy. After all, He is like us in all things but sin. His likes and dislikes, however, were under complete control by His human will subordinated perfectly to His divine will.
The God-Man and the “Communication of Idioms”
How we speak about Christ matters, if we are to avoid error. Our words will never fully penetrate the deep mysteries of the Person of Jesus Christ, but there are certain ways of phrasing things that are just plain wrong. In the last part of this two-parter, we discussed a few different Christological heresies that can serve as an illustration of this.
How then can we speak about the interaction of deity and humanity in the Divine Person of Jesus Christ? The Church gives us the concept of the communicatio idiomatum (Latin: communication of properties or communication of idioms). There are difficulties that require such a convention. What properties belong to Jesus in His human nature? What properties belong to His divine nature? Is it possible that these properties are shared or mingled between the two natures?
Jesus did many things physically which are attributed to His divine power. For example, He healed the sick, forgave sins, walked on water, changed water into wine, and rose from the dead. Though Jesus Christ, the God-man did all of these things, because of the communicatio idiomatum, we can safely say that God did all these things. God healed the sick. God walked on water. God changed water into wine. We are not saying that the properties of Christ’s divinity become the properties of His humanity, or vice versa; they are already deeply united by grace. But we rightly say these things because Jesus Christ, even in His humanity, is a Divine Person.
So, whatever is affirmed of the Divine Person, the Son of God, the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, after the incarnation, in His human or divine natures is attributed to the one Person. This is why St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the “blood of God” and the “suffering of God.” God the Father has no blood nor did God the Spirit suffer, but the Eternal Word of God, God the Son, assumed Flesh. This is why we can rightly say that Mary is the Theotokos (the God-bearer) rather than merely the Christotokos (the Christ-bearer).
There is an excellent summary of the “rules” of the communicatio idiomatum on encyclopedia.com, of all places. You can check that our here, if you are interested in reading further. <https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/communication-idioms>
The Adoration of the Humanity of Christ
The Greek word dulia refers to veneration. This is the type of respect that is due to the saints and angels on account of their holiness and closeness to God. The next step up is hyperdulia; this is the preeminent veneration and devotion due to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. Finally, we arrive at true worship and adoration, in Greek: latria. Latria is due to God alone. In fact, giving latria to anyone other than God would be the grave sin of blasphemy.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
“The human nature of Christ, united hypostatically with the Divine nature, is adored with the same worship as the Divine nature. We adore the Word when we adore Christ the Man; but the Word is God. The human nature of Christ is not at all the reason of our adoration of Him; that reason is only the Divine nature (CE).”
We do not worship the human nature of Jesus Christ. Yet, we affirm that because of the Hypostatic Union, the divinity and humanity of Christ cannot be separated. And, most importantly, there is only one Person in Jesus Christ, which is the Divine Word of God. So, according to the whole Person rather than the parts, we truly adore Jesus Christ, the God-man, with all the devotion, love, and worship due to Almighty God!
Effects of the Incarnation on Us
Finally, we come to the big question, for us: why did the Word of God become Flesh? How did the Incarnation affect us?
In Order to Save Us
First, as we acclaim in the Nicene Creed: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he came incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” The Word became Flesh for us “in order to save us by reconciling us with God (CCC 456).” Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world, both original and personal, though He Himself was without sin. He did this in our place as the Son of Man and He did this perfectly as the Son of God.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Eastern Church Fathers, explains:
“Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator. Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Orat. catech 15: PG 45, 48B.)?”
That We Might Know God’s Love
Second, the Son of God incarnated that we might know God’s love. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, it was fitting that God should become man in order to show us the depths of His love and the heights of His goodness. The Incarnation is a tremendous miracle and mystery. The fact that Almighty God, containing all things and yet uncontained Himself, became a baby. He depended on the love and care of His Holy Mother and St. Joseph. In His unfathomable humility, the Lord shows us the lengths God was willing to go to in order to bring us back from sin and death. Of course, we see His loving action on full display, bearing the Cross for our sakes. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).”
To Be Our Model for Holiness
Third, Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, shows us the model for holiness. By His holy example, we can follow Him in all things, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There is an old blessing that speaks of discipleship: “May you be covered in the dust of the Master.” By following so near to Jesus, we are covered in the dust which His holy feet kick up as He leads us. If we listen to His holy words and holy example, we will be beckoned closer to sharing eternal life with Him in Heaven.
To Make Us Partakers of the Divine Nature
St. Peter begins his second letter in this way:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3-4).”
The chief of the Apostles reveals to us another reason why the Word became Flesh. He came to make us “partakers of the divine nature.” As St. Irenaeus said,
“For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God (St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 19, 1: PG 7/1, 939.).”
The great St. Athanasius put it even more succinctly: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God (St. Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B.).” And lest we think that this notion is peculiar to the first millennium, St. Thomas Aquinas said,
“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods (St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. 57, 1-4.).”
Receiving Sanctifying Grace
The primary means of receiving sanctifying grace in our soul and sharing in the divine nature is through the Sacrament of Baptism. We enter the sacramental life through the door of Baptism and God comes to dwell within us as in a Temple. We receive an infusion of the divine life and have the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity operative in our soul. This initiation, begun in Baptism, is perfected and strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Our initiation is complete when we receive the Lord’s own Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments. The same Flesh born of Mary, the Word of God Incarnate, comes to us under the veil of a sacrament at Holy Mass in what looks like bread and looks like wine. But this is no ordinary food. It is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ who desires to make Himself our supersubstantial bread and come into intimate communion with us. This foretaste of Heaven leads us as a pledge of future glory to our eternal home.
The Incarnation goes beyond the cave in Bethlehem, beyond the home in Nazareth, beyond the Temple in Jerusalem, beyond the wood of the Cross, and beyond the empty grave. In the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, the Incarnation is extended. Just as we are body and soul, the Lord commanded that His Church should be visible and invisible. Our invisible God has taken on visible Flesh. So too, the Church celebrates in sensible signs the invisible wonders of God’s overwhelming grace. The most amazing part of all of this is that He invites us to respond and take part in these saving mysteries and realities. Praise be to God for such a gift!
I will end with the words of Pope St. Leo the Great:
Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom.