Circular Letter: Advent 1995
Why God Became Man
Christmas is approaching. Spiritually, it comes to us only in the measure that we approach it interiorly preparing ourselves. Christ’s birth is the source of Christian life, hope and joy. It is the cause of lasting joy in as much as a source of light: “The angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plain], and the light of the Lord shone round them. The angel said to them, “I have tidings of great joy for you,.. a Savior has been born to you” (Lk 2,10). Lasting joy is spiritual joy that does not pass away. Such joy is inseparable from salvific truth, which we ponder and savour in our hearts like Mary.
To better prepare our hearts for this greatest of all miracles in which God becomes man, let us ponder why God became man. God, of course, was entirely free; He did not have to become man in order to save mankind. He could have forgiven and restored us to sanctifying grace in some other way. Still, the Incarnation was the most fitting and helpful way in which our salvation could be accomplished both with respect to our advance in grace, virtue and in the truth, and with respect to our being freed from the evils of sin, death and ignorance. Let us first consider the positive side of the question, “Why did God become man?”
Because God is Good
Why did God choose to become man? It belongs to the very nature of goodness to communicate itself, to share itself with others. Is it not the mark of all good persons to be generous? Even in the order of nature, the goodness is communicated on all sides. The sun sheds its light and warmth on all, the goodness of air and water is shared with all living creatures. How much more, then, is it fitting for God, the Supreme Good, to communicate Himself abundantly to creatures? This He has done, first, by giving us a share in existence and natural life. In addition, He also freely created men and angels in the life of grace thus calling us to share intimately in His own Trinitarian Life. In order that our share in Divine Life be still more perfect, God, in His excessive love, also resolved to communicate the plenitude of His being to a created human nature in such wise that it become the Son of God in Person. As St. Paul expresses it: “Christ, the Mystery of God,… in Whom the plenitude of the divinity dwells corporally” (Col 2,2.9). In the Christ Child, therefore, we witness the total gift of God: Christ is God and Man, one Divine Person in two distinct natures, divine and human.
Because He Loves Us
By the Incarnation, God proclaims most solemnly His love for mankind and the permanence of His salvific will, for the Son became man not only for 33 years, nor merely for the history of the world, but the Son became man for all eternity: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever!” (Heb 13,8). No greater expression of God’s desire for union with mankind can be found than the mystery of the Incarnation. That is to say, God’s love for Jesus Christ, does not end with Him but necessarily embraces us as well. Recall that Jesus Christ, while wholly human, while like us in all things in His humanity, is nevertheless a divine person; He is not a created human person. Now the union desired by love is a union of persons! Therefore, the Incarnation of the Son of God is not itself the end, but is the means to the end: the union of created persons with God in and through Jesus Christ: “Father, may they all be one, as You are in Me and I in You, may they all be one is us” (Jn 17,21).
So that Believing We Might Have Life
We can only achieve this goal of divine union through Christ in Faith: “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn 14,6). “This is the work of the Father that you believe in Him, Whom He has sent” (Jn 6,25). Advent and Christmas, therefore, are a time of faith: the invisible God Whom no one has ever seen has become flesh, has become visible in our own nature and can speak to us of the Father and all the mysteries of faith (Jn 1,18).
The strength and efficacy, the sureness of faith depends on the authority of Him Who speaks. Living the truths of faith demands great renunciations and sacrifice. Accordingly, we do not want to base our faith and hope on hearsay or mere opinions. We want an infallible guarantee of the truth and promise for which we are committed to sacrifice everything else. “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11,2). If our faith were based on mere hearsay, if our hope were only for this world, then as St. Paul attests, ours would the most deplorable and pitiable state of all men (1 Cor 15, 19). But as it is, Truth itself has become man and given witness. “The only begotten Son Who rests on the bosom of the Father, has revealed Him” (Jn 1,18). This is why He came, “to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18,37), so that believing in Him we might have eternal life.
Faith is made more accessible for us by the Incarnation: now God can speak to us in a human way through His Son (cf. Heb 1,2); He Who is meek and humble of heart can reveal the love of the Father to us and the path of life.
To Strengthen our Hope and Charity
The Feast of Christmas is also the great anchor and flowering of our hope. St. Augustine declared, “Nothing was so expedient for the raising up of our fallen hopes than that God demonstrate how much He truly loves us. And what could have been a more certain demonstration of this love than that the Son of God enter into a permanent communion with our nature?” (On the Trinity, Bk. 12). “If God is for us, then who is against us? He, Who did not even spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us, will He not grant us all things with Him?” (Rom 8,31f).
The divine gift of the Christ Child is the greatest help for loving God. The gift of love enkindles love. If God has loved us so much as to give Himself unconditionally to us while we were most unworthy, should we not be filled with a great and grateful love? If God has loved us so much, ought we not be filled with a similar love for our neighbor?
To Instruct Us in the Way of Salvation
Finally, Christ’s Incarnation, His life among us is the most perfect means for instructing us in the life of virtue. If we really want to know how to live, we need but to turn to the gospel and consider how God lived as man. Here we have a perfect school of virtue for family life, for work, for the life of prayer, for the accomplishment of all our duties before God and man. This is surely the most simple rule of discernment: how did Jesus live? What would He say or do in these circumstances? Very often, but not always, the answer becomes evident the very moment we pose the question.
Alongside the positive motives for the Incarnation of God, the fallen state of mankind cried out for a merciful intervention on the part of God. Indeed, Scripture principally ascribes the Incarnation to our need for Redemption. Here again, we may ascertain several particular motives why God became man.
To Free Us From All Evil
The Incarnation was the most perfect means for liberating mankind from evil. Christ accomplished this in many ways by His Incarnation. In a Christmas sermon St. Leo explains: “Infirmity is assumed by strength; humility is assumed by majesty, so that what befitted our remedy might be accomplished by the sole Mediator between God and man by dying in the weakness of the one and rising in the power of the other. Unless He were true God He could offer no remedy; unless He were true man, He could offer us no example.” He freed us from slavery to sin and to the devil. As all men were made subject to sin, it was impossible for fallen human nature to overcome sin by itself. Though the good angels are more powerful than the devil, man’s slavery to sin and the devil was voluntary and interior: from this spiritual slavery, no angel could redeem us. God could not make satisfaction for sin unless He first shared in our nature, so as to have a solidarity with us in our misery, if not in personal guilt. God alone, then, could redeem mankind, and this work could be accomplished nowhere more perfectly than by taking on our human nature, thus redeeming us with a human heart and will. Therefore, God became man. “Since children have flesh and blood in common, so He in like manner has shared in these; that through death, He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them, who throughout their life were kept in servitude by the fear of death” (Heb 2,14ff).
To Restore our Dignity
The Incarnation restores and helps us understand the great dignity of human nature: in Christ it is one with God in the unity of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity to God. How this ought to inspire us to avoid sin. This motive is intensified when we recall that we are also members of His Mystical Body. No one ever sins alone; the sinner simultaneously inflicts this filth on Christ and the other members of the Mystical Body. This was St. Paul’s argument against fornication: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and join them to a harlot? … Do you not know that your members are the temple of the Holy Spirit Who is in You? … You have been bought at a great price! Glorify God and bear Him in your body” (1 Cor 6,15. 19f).
Christian morality begins, therefore, at Christmas, when the Son united our nature to Himself. St. Leo exclaimed: “Recognize, O Christians, your great dignity,… you have been made consorts of the divine nature, … therefore do not fall back into the old, degenerate practices of immorality!” The loss of sense for sin is related to the perversion of values at Christmas. People race after the externals, but few there are who accompany Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to ponder, to receive and adore the Word of Life made Flesh. The life of faith is darkened and diminished not only by rejecting the Christ Child, but also, after the likeness of the Bethlehemites, by being caught up too much with the things of this world. They had no time for Mary and the Christ Child, no time for meditation and prayer!
To Free Us From Pride by Spiritual Childhood
Christ not only became man, but He became a Child. The child is always understood in its relation to its parents. Christ always wants us to understand Him in relation to His Father: “He who sees me, sees the Father!” (Jn 14,6), and to His Mother: “Behold your Mother!” (Jn 19,27). By following Christ in the mystery of His loving dependence as a child, the family will be restored, and we will be preserved from presumption and pride, and also from despair. Christ wants to be our strength: “My grace comes to perfection in weakness!” (2 Cor 12,9).
Similarly, although He was rich, He became poor for our sake, that by His poverty we might share in the riches of God (cf. 2 Cor 8,9). In this way, He freed us of the false illusion of security and happiness through wealth, and lead us by the shortest path to perfection. Just as poverty in spirit is the beginning of the Beatitudes, even so does poverty constitute the beginning of Christ’s life on earth: “And this shall be a sign to you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2,12). Let us come with the Magi, let us come with the shepherds, o come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
Holy Poverty: The Hidden Treasure
There is a short story from the early days of the southwest about a party of treasure hunters made up of prospectors and the like. Curiously rounding out the party is a Franciscan friar. Following their treasure map, which promises fabulous wealth in jewels, they eventually find their way to a cavern. There in its dark depths they, indeed, find the treasure trove. With frantic haste and anticipation they bring the chest out into the light of day to open it.
Great is their disgust, when, instead of the imagined heaps of jewels, they discover a plain cross made of plaster of Paris. Without condoning it, we can certainly understand how one of them in an outraged scream of frustration flung the cross as far as he could to distance himself as far as possible from this excruciating disappointment.
Their expectations utterly dashed, with heads bowed and shaking in disbelief, they turned away in silence — there was nothing to say, no words of consolation were possible. Only the good friar went, perhaps out of sentiments of piety, to fetch the remains of the poor gypsum cross. It had crashed against a rock some rods away, and lay broken on the ground. With the plaster now broken away, the fabled jewel studded, golden cross of our Lady of Guadalupe lay there glistening in the sand. The treasure had disappeared from the shrine some years before and the friar had been sent to retrieve it.
This story, while fiction, does reveal an important truth about the wisdom of God. “Father, thou hast hid these things from the wise and the prudent, and didst reveal them to the little ones!” (Mt 11,25). God hides His treasures beneath the outward poverty of the Cross, yes! But before they are hidden in the Cross, they are hidden in the Christ Child, in Whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells physically. Indeed, St. Francis of Assisi understood that holy poverty itself is the bride, by which the soul is wed and united to God.
Poverty, then, is a great treasure, plain on the outside, but filled with jewels on the inside. Here are seven of the precious jewels which that soul receives, who like the good friar, claims the hidden treasure of poverty for himself.
Holy Poverty Restores Sight
First, poverty restores vision to the soul so that it can recognize the true value of things. The soul lacking poverty is blind to the truth and to sin. “All you that thirst, come to the waters; and you that have no money make haste, buy, and eat: come you, buy wine and milk without money, and without any price. Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy you? Hearken diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and your soul shall be delighted in fatness. Incline your ear and come to me: hear and your soul shall live. And I will make an everlasting covenant with you” (Is 55,1-3).
Holy Poverty Conserves Strength
Secondly, poverty conserves strength and virtue. Consider an unpruned fruit tree. Each year the accretion of branches, like wealth, saps the tree of its energy while utterly failing to produce a better fruit. Indeed, from year to year its harvest of fruit diminishes in quality, until finally, exhausted under the weight (wealth) of its branches, the tree expires. Who has not discovered that in having several cars, homes, boats — or whatever the material possession and delight may be — the soul is not the freer for having many possessions, but is reduced to a kind of servitude in maintaining them. In a spirit of poverty and moderation a soul possesses itself and is free to savour the things of the spirit [Spirit], in which man’s true treasures consist.
Holy Poverty Brings Peace of Heart
Thirdly, poverty grants us peace of heart. Whereas the superfluous possession of material things causes pre-occupation and anxiety, the possession of wisdom provides the soul with lasting peace and joy. Spiritually speaking, man comes to possess whatever he loves. If he loves spiritual things he will possess them with spiritual peace and joy. If he loves material things, he will possess them either in the sweat and fatigue of the body or in the torment of desire and envy. Man becomes like that which he loves. If he loves God and the things of God, he will become God-like, Christ-like, and Christmas shall be a great joy! If he loves mammon, he will come to despise Christ and the things of God, he will become a Scrooge: “Christmas? Bah, humbug!”
Fools don’t believe this, but the world’s despairing efforts to get into the “spirit of things” at Christmas is a sad, but efficient, proof that it is true: we cannot serve God and mammon. There is only one path to peace and happiness, and this is through detachment and spiritual poverty.
Holy Poverty Fulfills Our Desires
Paradoxically, the spirit of poverty leads to the realization of our desires. This is the fourth jewel. One of the sophists once mocked the philosopher Diogenes that he had to live on such humble fare. “If you’d learn to flatter the tyrant,” he was chided, “you’d be able to eat delicacies.” Diogenes replied, “And if you’d learn to be content with humble fare, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant!” It is also said of Diogenes that Alexander the Great once came to him and offered him anything he wanted. “Thank you,” he responded, “if you would step out of the sun and leave me in peace, that would be quite enough.”
There are many drawbacks to all material desires and possessions: 1) they can never fully satisfy the heart’s longing for happiness; 2) for those who seek them, the more they have the more they want, so that instead of getting more pleasure out of their possession they harvest more torment; 3) materially things can only really be possessed and enjoyed by one person alone, so they lead to selfishness and isolation; and 4) all material things, break down and pass away, so by their very nature they can never offer permanence and security which are essential to peace and happiness.
Holy Poverty Savours the Sweetness of God
Man’s noblest faculties, the intellect and will, are spiritual. The more a soul desires to know and love God and the truth, the more these shall be given to the soul. Herein, poverty mediates its fifth jewel to the soul: a share in divine sweetness, in which true happiness is to be found. Speaking of such spiritual union, Padre Pio writes: “As soon as I begin to pray, I feel as though my heart were invaded by a flame of living love. This flame has nothing to do nor can it be compared with any flame of this base world. It is such a delicate and sweet flame that consumes without causing any pain. It is so sweet, so delicious that the spirit enjoys an immense delight and remains satisfied but in such wise as not to loose its desire for more. Oh God, this is most marvelous…. This desire, far from taking away satiation from the soul, refines it more and more. The delight which the soul experiences in its inmost center, rather than its desire being diminished, is continually perfecting it more” (Letters, I.183).
Holy Poverty Exalts True Virtue
The sixth jewel of poverty is the exaltation of virtue, inasmuch as true spiritual poverty is inseparable from humility. “He who humbles himself shall be exalted.” The reason for this is twofold: 1) in seeking to exalt God, the soul becomes associated with Him in His works and so in His glory; 2) the humble soul does not presume to undertake any great work by dint of its natural capacities, and therefore, its will is completely free to cooperate with Divine Grace. Since, the perfection of divine grace exceeds every created power, the virtues of the spiritually poor are necessarily exalted above nature. This is why the Virgin Mary can crush the head of the serpent: because all her actions flow forth in grace at the inspiration and impulse of the Holy Spirit.
Holy Poverty Guarantees Heaven
The final jewel of poverty is like a heavenly seal, it is the celestial inheritance. There are three virtues which are said to “compel” God: perseverance, trust and spiritual poverty. The reason is the same in each: they are all completely surrendered to GOD, such that He “must needs” accomplish His salvific will in them. Now, when a soul is completely detached from all creatures in spiritual poverty, its intellect and will are empty in such a way that God cannot fail to fill them with Himself, with His light and goodness. As the wise man declared: “I preferred wisdom before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches as nothing in comparison to her. I loved her above health and beauty. … I purposed therefore to take her to me to live with me, knowing that she will communicate to me her good things, … by means of her I shall have immortality, … and joy and gladness” (Wisd 7,8; 8,9. 13. 16).
Since Divine Wisdom became man at Bethlehem, we may say that heaven begins on earth on Christmas in the manger. The magi understood this, for they rejoiced exceedingly at finding the Christ Child. And the very heavens opened over the shepherds at the news of Christ’s birth. Let us therefore go down with them to Bethlehem, to adore and contemplate this mystery of Love Incarnate.
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