The Simple Catholic Snapshots:
- Do We Really Understand Christmas?
- Christmas is a Celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ
- The Incarnate Jesus is 100% God and 100% Man
- The Incarnation Revealed God to Mankind
- The Incarnation Revealed Mankind to Mankind
- God Became Man so that Man Could Become god(like)
The Simple Catholic Truth:
How much do we really reflect and understand what Christmas means? The mad rush of trees and lights, carols and cards, and shopping and more shopping easily distracts us from embracing the genuine “reason for the season.”
Think about it for a moment. The Incarnation, the birth of the God-man is unique in human history. Christianity has a special place in the history – the only religion where God actually became man to literally dwell among us. We often easily say this is true, but do we really understand why God sent His Son in this way?
For 2000 years the great spiritual thinkers have been pondering, debating and arguing about 1) what the Incarnation means and 2) ultimately what Christ’s death on the cross really accomplished. These two questions, centered on the celebrations of Christmas and Easter respectively, represent the great mysteries of the Christian faith. To have any hope of understanding either we must see how they are related. In this short post, I will present the Catholic teaching on the Incarnation which in my view provides the most logical, biblical and coherent explanation for both the birth and death of Jesus Christ our Savior.
On the issue of the Incarnation and the nature of Christ (God or man?), heresies developed in the first centuries following Christ that attempted to reconcile the dilemma by limiting the nature of Christ to either only God, or only man. Eventually the Church settled the controversy by establishing as doctrine the fact that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man. This may seem contradictory to the mathematically inclined. However, the philosophers and theologians tell us that this simply means that Jesus Christ possessed all attributes that defined the nature of God and all of the attributes that define the nature of man. There really is no conflict when viewed in this manner.
So on Christmas day we have the incredible, mind-bending fact that God sent His Son to join mankind in the flesh. Born of the Virgin Mary, this Son of God…this man…this God-man was destined to complete the salvific plan of the Father and offer to all mankind the gift of eternal life. To understand the significance of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, we must look ahead to the second of the great mysteries – the role of Jesus Christ on earth and the meaning of His death on the cross.
Most people would agree that Jesus Christ and His death repaired or at least began to repair the relationship between God and mankind that had been fractured by mankind’s sin. A word commonly used for this repair is that of “Atonement.” This can be remembered by thinking that Jesus provided the opportunity for mankind to be “AT ONE” in relationship with the Father once again. There are many theories explaining the Atonement (Ransom, Moral Example, Government/Justice, Satisfaction and Penal Substitution to name a few) that have been brought forward throughout the ages and most of them have some good theological and biblical support. Unfortunately each theory of atonement retains some weakness or biblical inconsistency. Perhaps in another post I’ll examine some of these theories in more detail listing the strong and weak points for each. For now we’ll just keep it general and talk about what the Incarnate Jesus accomplished with His life and death and why Christmas is so important.
When Jesus Christ became man, he revealed much about God. The Jews knew God as the Creator of the universe, who created the universe from nothing. The glory and power of God was clearly seen in the sun and the stars (Rom 1:20) but these revelations of almighty God were lacking. Since God is infinite spirit and man is finite matter, no man could possible understand Him. No man could comprehend the essence of God until the almighty Himself lowered Himself to the level of His own creatures. No man could comprehend a just loving God until he came face to face with (the Son of) God. Therefore, the first reason for the Incarnation is to reveal God to man. When Jesus was born, He brought to mankind a fuller revelation of their loving Father.
There is another reason for the Incarnation perhaps even more fundamental to God’s saving plan for mankind. With a simple thought God could forgive our sins, or commute the punishment due to our sin. Responding to our faith alone, God could let bygones be bygones. God could just declared that all is forgotten and take us fallen children as we are to heaven. But He chose not to save us in this way. So why send His Son in the flesh? Was this necessary for Jesus? In a word, no. The Incarnation wasn’t necessary for God, it was necessary for us!
I think we can all agree that the bible tells us that Jesus Christ came to do the Father’s will. Jesus came solely to give glory to the Father (Phil 2:11). So we must ask ourselves: how then does the Incarnation serve to glorify the Father? Again, directly it doesn’t. The Incarnation certainly demonstrated the unlimited power of God but that is also clear by seeing all of creation. The Incarnation certainly demonstrates the amazing humility of God but does not directly glorify Him.
It’s difficult for mankind to admit sometimes but Jesus did not come primarily to save us. Yes, Jesus Christ gave Himself completely for us and that sacrifice leads to our salvation. However, the life and death of Jesus was primarily a method chosen to glorify the Father. Glorifying the Father is more essential to the nature of the Son than the salvation of a created soul. So at this point we must ask ‘How does Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the resultant salvation of our souls lead to the glorification of the Father’?
And the fullest answer is that the Incarnation was required to reveal mankind to himself. A transformation was required. Mankind must learn that in his current state his nature prevents him from standing face to face with God. Mankind must learn how the grace of God can transform him and be worthy of heaven.
So we reach the truth about the Incarnation: the primary reason that God became man was so that man might become a god (CCC460). As St. Thomas Aquinas said, the reason for the Incarnation is so that man can fully participate in divinity. In other words, Jesus Christ became the Incarnate Word made flesh so that mankind might be transformed into the image and likeness of God. It was this image that mankind possessed at creation but was lost at the fall. Only thru the imitation of Jesus Christ can mankind’s nature be once again elevated to be like god. This transformation of mankind, where he increasingly takes on the attributes of God is called divinization. The Father is glorified when His fallen children willfully choose to participate in the saving grace of Jesus and allow a transformation into the divine.
The Incarnate Jesus was required to reveal God to man and to demonstrate the perfect self-giving love that defines the essence of God. The Incarnate Jesus was required to reveal the fallen nature of man to himself and that this nature to be incompatible with eternal life with the Father. By attempting to imitate the love of Jesus on the cross, mankind is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, as Jesus Christ did 2000 years ago, mankind can glorify the Father by knowingly, willingly taking up his cross to follow His Son. By imitating His Son in divine self-giving love our nature is elevated. We once again recover a bit of the image and likeness of God – to the glory of the Father.
And THAT is the reason for Christmas.