Circular Letter: Advent 2020
Why did God become Man?
Why did GOD become man? This is one of the perennial questions within Christianity? An initial response is quite easy, for Divine Revelation declares: “GOD so loved the world that He gave His only SON, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Hence, this divine gift simultaneously saves us from death and brings eternal life.
GOD’s Marvelous Condescension
As sinners, alienated from GOD, we could raise no claim to divine friendship: “The LORD looks down from heaven upon the human race, to see if even one is wise, if even one seeks GOD. All have gone astray; all alike are perverse. Not one does what is right, not even one.” (Ps 14:2-3). GOD’S love, however, is transcendent.
GOD proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners CHRIST died for us … While we were enemies, we were reconciled to GOD through the death of his SON, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by His life. (Rom 5:8. 10)
This marvel finds expression in the Exsultet from the Easter Vigil: “Birth would have profited us nothing, had we not been so profitably redeemed! O love, O charity beyond all telling: to ransom a slave You gave away Your own Son!” St. Anselm in his famous book from the end of the 11th century, Why GOD became Man, articulates Christianity’s deep conviction: the SON of GOD became man in order to atone for our sins and open for us the gates of heaven! St. Anselm reasoned thus: original sin was an infinite offense against GOD. No mere creature, however great, could possibly make fitting reparation to GOD. The only one capable of such a redemptive labor was GOD Himself. However, in order to make reparation to GOD, GOD would have to become man! Hence, the SON of GOD chose to assume our human nature from the very seed of Adam, so that as man, He could truly make reparation in the name of all mankind to GOD (cf. Why GOD became Man, Ch. 7).
This awesome truth was already prophetically foretold in the Proto-Gospel in Genesis, where GOD first cursed Satan, the serpent, for having deceived and tempted Adam and Eve into the first sin. Then GOD promised mankind’s redemption through the seed (offspring) of Eve:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike your head, and you will strike His heel. (Gen 3:15)
Finally, in the fullness of time, the promise came to fulfillment: The Virgin MARY gave birth to the SON of GOD at Bethlehem. JESUS, then, in the decisive hour of salvation history by His death on the Cross crushed the serpent’s head. By His Resurrection He completed the promised work of mankind’s redemption. The Incarnation and the Pascal Mystery together are the focal moments of salvation history and of all Christianity.
The Fathers of the Church, over a period of some seven centuries, articulated the two most fundamental mysteries of Divine Revelation, namely, the Mystery of BLESSED TRINITY (Three eternal and coequal persons in one GOD, FATHER, SON and HOLY SPIRIT) and the Mystery of the SON of GOD, Who became man and redeemed us from eternal damnation by His death on the Cross. This JESUS is the one Mediator between GOD and Man (cf. 1 Tim 2:5). It remained a major task for the scholastics in the Middle Ages, to offer some sort of synthetic vision which united the entire deposit of Divine Revelation. We generally tend to see this as a very cerebral work, but it would be also true to say that the synthesis was equally the fruit of the “contemplating Church” under the guiding light of the HOLY SPIRIT. The Second Vatican Council underscores this mission of the HOLY SPIRIT: “To bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation the same HOLY SPIRIT constantly brings faith to completion by His gifts” (Dei Verbum, 5). The Council Fathers explain this process:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the HOLY SPIRIT. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19:51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of GOD reach their complete fulfillment in her. (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 8)
In this way, CHRIST’s promise to his disciples is accomplished down through the centuries: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when He comes, the SPIRIT of truth, He will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:12). Consequently, the Church’s understanding of even the most fundamental truths of our faith will be constantly deepened through the enlightenment of the HOLY SPIRIT. This is particularly true of the Mystery of the Incarnation and of our understanding why GOD became man!
CHRIST, the Author of Grace of the Angels
Around the time of St. Anselm two other authors shed greater light on the purpose and ramifications of the Incarnation. Gottschalk of Limburg (11th century) distilled his intuition into a simple liturgical sequence. This song, addressed to the Blessed Virgin MARY and Mother of GOD divulges the broader purpose of the Incarnation. Paraphrasing it a bit, he invokes her: O Mediatrix of our Mediator, you begot Him, in and through Whom mankind and GOD are joined together. This was the work of the TRINITY, which the Three [Divine Persons] accomplished in and through the humanity of the SON, Who alone became man in MARY. What was the purpose of this all? Gottschalk indicates three interlinked finalities:
That the angel not fall! / that lapsed man [fallen mankind] return [to grace and divine sonship] / and that the tempter not rise!
Gottschalk was among the first to clearly state that the grace of the angels, at least, their confirming grace in the trial and therefore their eternal beatitude and ministerial powers were all a fruit of the mystery of the Incarnation of the SON of GOD!
Gottschalk died in 1098, at which time St. Bernard of Clairvaux was still a little boy. St. Bernard imbibed this mystical song and lent it greater theological clarity. Rhetorically, he declared that CHRIST ‘redeemed’ the angels. After catching his listeners’ attention, he acknowledges that the good angels had never sinned, and so could not have been redeemed in the same sense that man was redeemed from original sin. Still, he insists that “CHRIST the LORD is their redemption” – and he explains:
Listen for a moment. He Who raised up fallen man and freed him from slavery, enabled the angels not to fall by guarding them from slavery. Thus, He was equally the Redeemer of both, providing release for one [mankind], protection for the other. It is clear then that the LORD CHRIST was redemption for the angels, just as He was their righteousness and wisdom and holiness for the angels; nonetheless He was the cause of these four gifts for the sake of men, who can only contemplate the invisible things of GOD by studying the things He has made (Rom 1:20). Thus, all that He was for the angels, He became for us. (Sermons on the Song of Songs, 22:6)
So, St. Bernard of Clairvaux affirms that the reason for the Incarnation was the Redemption of man. At the same time, in order to be effective, this redemptive work reached out to the Holy angels granting them holiness and protection, since they were called for our sake to be one with us in the Church, in the Mystical Body of CHRIST! In their ministries watching over us, therefore, they are like a protective shield of CHRIST’s grace, defending us against the evil spirits, without which we could not consider ourselves secure against the attacks of the enemy. That is to say, the angels are a principal means through which CHRIST protects the Church!
Why did GOD become Man?
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the latter half of the 13th Century reiterated this fundamental doctrine on the redemptive finality of the Incarnation of the WORD of GOD. He also indicated several other ancillary motives for the Incarnation which are beneficial to us and which merit our devout consideration and gratitude. He explains:
1. The Incarnation of GOD was most fitting for us, since the invisible mysteries of GOD and the truths concerning our salvation can only really be revealed to us by means of created things. CHRIST’s own humanity is the best instrument through which GOD completes Divine Revelation and offers us abundant grace. St. Paul teaches: “the invisible things of GOD … are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom 1:20) (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol. III, question 1, art. 1; hereafter ST).
2. The Incarnation strengthens our Faith for now in CHRIST GOD instructs us through His humanity. As St. Paul declared: GOD has “spoken to us [directly] through a SON…, Who is the refulgence of His glory” (Heb 1:2).
3. The incarnate love of GOD takes hold of us with impelling force, strengthening our Hope (cf. 2 Cor 5:14). “If GOD is for us, who can be against us? He Who did not spare His own SON but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him? … What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:31b-32; 34b-35a).
4. The extreme sufferings and death which JESUS bore for us, enkindle more ardently our Love for CHRIST. St. Alphonsus de Liguori rightly affirms: “Suffering for the beloved is the most fitting way of discovering the love of the lover, and, consequently, of attracting to our self the love of the beloved” (Passion and Death of CHRIST, p. 47. 48).
5. Furthermore, CHRIST’s human life presents the supreme model for all Christian virtues in life and especially in death. The prophet Isaiah, upon receiving prophetic knowledge regarding JESUS’ redemptive suffering, exclaimed: “Who would believe what we have heard? … He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held Him in no esteem.” (Is 53:1. 3). St. Thomas shows that CHRIST’s Passion is a perfect and open book of the greatest virtues:
1) “If you seek the example of love: “Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
2 and 3) “If you seek patience and meekness, consider this: ‘when He suffered He did not threaten; He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and did not open his mouth'” (Is 53:7).
4 and 5) Humility and obedience, for JESUS “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8; cf. Aquinas, Sermon on the Passion—Liturgy of the Hours, Jan 28th).
6. Cumulatively, St. Thomas declares that through CHRIST’S redemptive intervention we attain to a “full participation of the Divinity” (ST, III q 1, art 2c). In support of this, he cites a passage from St. Augustine, “GOD became man, so that man might become GOD” (On Temperance, Ch. 13).
A “full participation in the Divinity”, first of all, regards the supernatural life of our soul, that is, sanctifying grace. St. Peter refers to this, when he affirms that we have “come to share in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). This will come to full fruition, when in glory we will behold GOD face to face in everlasting happiness!
“Full Participation in the Divinity” entails still more!
It is clear that all of the foregoing benefits – grace, the virtues and eternal happiness – have come to us through the redemptive work of JESUS. Accordingly, the question arose historically (as early as St. Augustine), “whether if man had not sinned, GOD would have become incarnate?” St. Thomas, therefore, took it up. His answer is rather concise; however, the old question is not free of ambiguity. What ought to concern us is not what might have been, but that which GOD actually foresaw. Thomas offers two parts to his arguments:
First, he observes: “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 Sacred Scripture, in which the divine will is made known to us” (ST, III q 1, art 3c). Of course, Thomas would not make this statement, unless he was convinced that it applied to the question at hand.
Secondly, on the chance that some kind of inference might be drawn from Divine Revelation that deals with “our world” – he argues exegetically:
Since everywhere in Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason for the Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of the Incarnation was ordained by GOD as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been. (ST, III q 1, art 3c)
His introductory, lead-up authorities have the tone of squelchers:
St. Augustine, expounding on Lk 19:10, “For the SON of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost”, declares: “Therefore, if man had not sinned, the SON of Man would not have come.” And on 1 Tim 1:15: “CHRIST JESUS came into this world to save sinners,” a gloss states, “There was no cause of CHRIST’s coming into the world, except to save sinners. Take away diseases, take away wounds, and there is no need of medicine” (ST, III, q 1, art 3 sed contra).
Interestingly, Aquinas limits himself to voicing a ‘traditional’ answer that was already over 800 years old in his time. Still, he tempers it with cautious circumspection, adding: “There is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin. For GOD allows evil to happen in order to bring a great good therefrom: hence it is written: “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound (Rom 5:20)” (cf. ibid. 3m).
Hence, there are two great open questions, which come down to one point: Is St. Thomas’ exegetical reading of Sacred Scripture exhaustively correct? In other words: Is the only truth the HOLY SPIRIT planted in Sacred Scripture about the motive for the Incarnation the idea of redeeming man from sin? The answer is a resounding “No!” GOD has revealed something even deeper about our world!
GOD’s original plan is much richer! We want to discuss two further fruits of our calling which are contingent upon the Incarnation. The first deals with the higher, finality of creation; the second deals with the Church’s more perfect song of praise. Under the first heading, we gather together Duns Scotus, the Franciscan School along with St. Francis de Sales. Under the second heading, we present the reflections of Matthias Joseph Scheeben, the greatest of the German theologians of the modern era.
The Absolute Primacy of the Incarnation in GOD’s Plan
The traditional concept of the Incarnation as “a remedy for a plan gone bad through sin” is incomplete and therefore, inadequate. It views the mystery of salvation in a too human fashion. GOD did not posteriorly decide on the Incarnation in order to remedy sin (thus making man’s salvation the central, focal point of creation). Rather in His infinite wisdom (paraphrasing Thomas’ thought expressed above), GOD foresaw and permitted man’s fall into sin, so that through man’s extraordinary redemption by the death of GOD(!) mankind might come to appreciate more fully the magnitude of GOD’s loving mercy and so more fittingly love and glorify GOD! The glorification of GOD, the glorification of CHRIST, namely, is the primary motive behind both the creation of the world and the Incarnation of GOD. Thus, GOD “chose us in CHRIST before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy” (Eph 1:4). “The absolute primacy of JESUS (sin or no sin) actually underscores the love and mercy of GOD precisely because JESUS freely willed it” (Fr. Maximilian, blog). Seamus Mulholland, OFM, expresses the idea admirably:
The Incarnation is the model for creation: there is a creation only because of the Incarnation. In this schema, the universe is for CHRIST and not CHRIST for the universe. Scotus finds it inconceivable that the ‘greatest good in the universe’ i.e. the Incarnation, can be determined by some lesser good i.e. man’s redemption. (Incarnation in Franciscan Spirituality)
St. Francis de Sales – seemingly independent from the Franciscan School – also saw that Divine Providence first chose and predestined the humanity of CHRIST to the Hypostatic Union for the glory of GOD. “Then having selected for this happiness the sacred humanity of our Savior, the supreme providence decreed not to restrain His goodness to the only person of His well-beloved SON, but for His sake to pour it out upon diverse other creatures, …He chose to create man and angels to accompany His SON, to participate in His graces and glory, to adore and praise Him forever” (Treatise on Divine Love, Bk II, Ch. 4). Subsequent to this original election in the order of divine providence, GOD foresaw and permitted for CHRIST’s greater glory and the greater manifestation of divine love and mercy man’s fall into sin and the work of redemption as a means to an even greater glory and outpouring of divine goodness (cf. ibid).
The Greater Song, the Greater Intimacy and Glory
Matthias Joseph Scheeben understood that creation’s liturgical glorification of GOD pertains to the very purpose of creation. However, it is also clear, that all of creation is infinitely less than GOD, even when endowed with sanctifying grace, since grace is also a created reality. By way of the Incarnation, though, the Word of GOD took up into Himself not only a single, created humanity, but also espouses creation to Himself. In this way creation suddenly raised to a new dimension of dignity. CHRIST is the High Priest of our song and glorification of GOD. He is our mystical Spouse, while the Church is not only the Body of CHRIST, but also in union with Him the ‘mystical person’ of CHRIST. Pope Pius XII teaches:
The unbroken tradition of the Fathers from the earliest times teaches that the Divine Redeemer and the Society which is His Body form but one mystical person, that is to say, to quote Augustine, the whole CHRIST (cf. Augustine, Commentary on Psalms 17:51; 90:11). Our Savior Himself in His sacerdotal prayer did not hesitate to liken this union to that wonderful unity by which the SON is in the FATHER, and the FATHER in the SON (cf. Jn 17:21-23). (St. Pius XII, On the Mystical Body)
Biblically, the covenant of GOD with His people has always been depicted in terms of marriage. Why? Because “marriage is the highest degree of association and friendship involving by its very nature a communion of goods” (St. John Paul II, Guardian of the Redeemer, 20). This means that by its spousal union with the Incarnate WORD of GOD, the Church’s song of praise –that of mankind and the angels – is raised up to a most sublime order of worthiness before GOD, because our High Priest and Spouse is GOD Himself. This great and highest good for creation could not have been achieved except that GOD become man and unite us to Himself as His living body. Scheeben calls this “indissoluble covenant between GOD and mankind … the noblest cult of worship that GOD should receive, … the supreme act by which the creature approaches GOD. We are naturally led to ascribe to that sacrifice a universal significance for the whole of creation.” And he continues:
What is more natural than to suppose that this supreme sacrificial act, which is offered in the heart of creation and enables it to achieve its ultimate purpose, is performed in the name of all creatures, and that creation in its totality share in it. Does not the dignity of CHRIST, Head of all the heavenly powers, require this? Does not the honor of the angels themselves require it, since otherwise they would have no part in the most exalted homage that is offered to GOD? To be consistent, must we not further assume that the sacrifice of CHRIST is a universal, corporate sacrifice offered for all creatures? (The Mysteries of Christianity, p. 336)
We could have been redeemed and sanctified without the Incarnation, but we could never have become the Mystical Body of CHRIST without the Incarnation; we could never have sung a fully worthy song of praise to GOD except in union with our Incarnate GOD. We could never have espoused to GOD or have consummated so intimately this union except by receiving the Eucharistic Body of JESUS CHRIST, our GOD and Savior made man. The Incarnation embraces more than simply man’s redemption; the intimacy of our divinization is immensely greater!
Fr. William Wagner, ORC
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