Understanding the Incarnation

“For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of glory has shown upon the eyes of our mind, so that as we recognize in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible” (Christmas Preface, 1).

The Incarnation is shrouded in mystery for us. It is a decision on the part of God to manifest his love which we can never completely understand. When theologians like Thomas Aquinas write about it, they speak of its fittingness. To say that something is fitting means that there is more good in this choice on the part of God than in any other one we can think of. What is this choice?

To answer that question it is interesting to see how debased the Christian appreciation of Christ has become in the present age. One priest said that Jesus was mixed up in his use of Scripture. When questioned about this by a parishioner, he surprisingly said, “You’ve got to remember: Jesus didn’t have the benefit of the same religious education that we have today, with all the things that modern scholarship brings us” (Register, July 22, 1990).

Another priest flatly stated that Jesus was a sinner just like all the rest of us. Dorothy Sayers once summarized this modern attempt to sacrifice the divinity of Jesus on the altar of his humanity. In answer to the question, “Who is Christ?” she characterized the England of her day, replying: “A good man — so good as to be called the Son of God. He is to be identified in some way with God the Son. He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He has no sense of humor. […] If we try to live like him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.”

None of these responses correspond in any way to the teaching of Scripture or the Tradition of the Church. St. Paul says succinctly: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Jesus is a Savior.

Why, then, is there such an attempt to dilute the message in the present world? To say that Christ is a savior means first that there must be a common human nature which is defective and then that one must identify exactly what that defect is.

Pope Benedict has stated that in Europe today there is a dictatorship of relativism. This has ramifications in many areas of theology, especially in our ideas about Christ. If one does not think there is a common human nature, how can one discuss defects in that nature? If there is no defect, why does the human race need a Redeemer?

Catholic teaching is clear that human nature does in fact exist, and since man is composed of matter and spirit, a true understanding of human nature must respect both. Because we have a soul, we have an intellect to know the truth and a will to love the good. Nothing can satisfy this soul except knowing God as he is because of the spiritual need to know the truth. To know this and arrive at heaven, a divine aid is needed: grace. Grace allows human beings to know as God knows and love as God loves. Adam and Eve were created in this grace. They lived in constant intimacy with God before sin. This allowed them, in the words of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, to: “Aim at seeing things as God sees them.”

In the Original Sin, Adam and Eve had a movement towards themselves as though they could persevere in this wonderful integrity without God’s aid. They lost grace, and so they lost the gifts of integrity they had received, which allowed them to look at the world from God’s perceptive. The punishments for this sin included ignorance, a tendency to dominate and control their world, a weakness in the passions, and suffering and death in the body.

The human race entered a period of darkness caused by the inability of man to arrive at heaven and these weaknesses. There was no way that a human being could cure this situation, since it involved union with the infinite God. Only God could remedy this. On the other hand, only man could satisfy for the punishments in justice incurred.

Many people have always been puzzled about why God either did not keep us from sinning if we were created in such a perfect state or just cure the wound of our nature by letting us off. Neither would have corresponded to the order of divine justice. Also, God is never frustrated in his mercy, and his purpose in creating the world was his own glorification.

This greater mercy was to allow the sin so that he might cure the human race through a miracle, the union of God and man in Christ. As soon as man committed the sin and the punishments were enumerated, God promised the Redeemer. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). In man’s original creation, man was joined to God in nature by grace. As a result of the sin, God now will join man to himself in person. What act of mercy or love could be greater than this?

Dominican Father Brian Mullady has a doctorate in sacred theology. He is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.