By Father Angel Perez-Lopez
Vicar for Clergy for the Archdiocese of Denver
The Son of God Becomes the Son of Man
The Christmas season is a privileged time to contemplate both the marvelous exchange that takes place at the Incarnation and how that exchange impacts the mission of the Church. The Son of God becomes the son of man, so that men may become children of God.1
This marvelous exchange points directly to the kerygma. It brings us back to the liberating power of the Gospel,2 to the salvific proclamation that the Son of God became man for us and for our salvation.3
This marvelous exchange also enlightens the mystery of the Church, because through the Holy Spirit and in charity, she extends the mission of the Redeemer in time, so that in Jesus Christ, all men and women might be rescued and have eternal life, for the glory of the Father. For this reason, Christmas offers a wonderful occasion to deepen our faith in the great mysteries of the Lord’s humanity as the way to our salvation4 and of the Church5 as communion in the mission of the Redeemer.
Deepening our faith in these mysteries is essential for our current times. We are, in fact, in a change of eras. Christendom is no longer an existing reality. Our culture has abandoned the positive influence of the Gospel, and it grows contrary to our Catholic values. In this way, we are very far from living in what Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis have called “the civilization of love.” But we do not need to be afraid. Jesus has conquered the world.6 During this change of eras, he invites us to follow his example, by becoming his faithful witnesses7 and by offering reasons for our hope.8
The foundational principle, which articulates the connection between the marvelous exchange present at the Incarnation and the Church’s mission, is found in Jesus’s own words to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”9
Taking the Lord’s words at face value, we must conclude that the reasons why Christ’s Incarnation promotes our good also point to the ways in which the Church, in her own mission, must promote the good of the human person.
As the Father sent Jesus to promote our good, so Jesus sends the Church. Conversely, the reasons why Christ’s Incarnation frees us from evil unveil the ways in which the Church must collaborate in the rescuing of humanity. As the Father sent Jesus to free us from evil, so Jesus sends the Church.
The Necessity of the Incarnation
God is omnipotent or all-powerful.10 To begin with, he did not have to save us.11 He freely chose to do so. Yet, his freedom and power also extend to the means the Lord adopted to accomplish this goal. For this reason, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that, absolutely speaking, it was not necessary for the Son of God to become the Son of Man in order to save us from our sins.12
A thing may be necessary in different ways. Absolutely speaking, something is necessary when it is indispensable. For instance, one cannot make a steak sandwich without steak, or one cannot live without ever eating and drinking. Instead, something may be necessary, relatively speaking, when it makes the attainment of the end better and more convenient. Think about a car. Is it necessary to travel from Boulder to Denver? Absolutely speaking, it is not. One could walk or ride a horse. However, the car is relatively necessary, in the sense of making the attainment of the end (getting from Boulder to Denver) better and more convenient. This is exactly the way in which we can say that the Incarnation was necessary for the salvation of mankind.
Indeed, because of God’s omnipotence, the reparation for the sin of humanity could have happened in different ways. God could have simply said to Adam and Eve, “I forgive you,” without asking anything from them. Moreover, the Lord could have asked them to do some natural penance, not comparable to the gravity of their offense. Furthermore, God could have asked Adam and Eve to do some supernatural penance, providing them with the grace to do it. Of course, in this case, the penance would not be absolutely and perfectly proportionated to the offense committed. Lastly, God could forgive the sin of humanity with a strict and perfect reparation in the order of justice which absolutely restores the debt between men and the Lord.
God chose freely to save us in this last way. The Incarnation of the Son of God was necessary only because the Lord chose this path. He did so, chiefly, to manifest and to communicate his glory, the infinite goodness inherent in his justice and mercy. But he also chose this path for our salvation because it was the most convenient for our condition. It was the best way to promote our good while rescuing us from evil.
Christ and the Church Promote the Theological Life of the Human Person
Aquinas teaches that the Incarnation of the Son of God promotes our good insofar as it ignites and corroborates our faith, increases our hope, enlivens our charity, leads us to act with rectitude, and fully makes us participants in the Lord’s divinity.13 To sum up these points, we could simply say that the Incarnation promotes the theological life of the human person. The mission of the Church is also to promote a God-centered, not a self-centered, life; a life directed to our union with Him
The Incarnation fully makes us participants in the Lord’s divinity through the sanctifying grace merited by Jesus to make us adopted children of God, members of the body of Christ, and heirs of his glory.14 The Church is our mother. In her womb, we are reborn to share in the divine nature, especially through the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation.
This participation in the divine life helps us live and act in Christ, united to him, as a branch is attached to the vine.15 Thanks to this union, we can imitate Christ. He becomes our exemplar and model. The Church, as a teacher and mother, helps us in our education by promoting our growth in virtue. Of course, she is to do so, not only with words, but also by her example. The multitude of saints, who have preceded us into Heaven, provide exactly that kind of example of what God’s grace can do in any of us, despite our weaknesses, if we remain attached to the vine.
Ignites and Corroborates our Faith
St. Augustine explains that “in order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded faith.”16 In fact, Christ said in prayer to the Father: “I have given them the words which you gave me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you did send me.”17
The Incarnation ignites and corroborates our faith because through it, God himself speaks to us and reveals his mysteries.18 We believe because of the authority of God, who reveals himself. But he remains hidden from us, when he talks to us through his prophets. Hence, we are confirmed in our faith when the Lord himself comes to us and speaks to us as a human being, yet with astonishing authority.19
Christ’s teachings are now guarded by the Church. She is like the Virgin Mary, who kept in her heart all the things that she did not yet understand.20 Thus, the Holy Spirit continues to lead the Church to a greater understanding of the whole truth.21 The Church takes very seriously Jesus’s commandment to teach every human person all that he has commanded us.22 In our day and age, in which relativism proclaims that there is no objective truth and consequently no truth about the moral good, the Church stands as a beacon of light which dispels error and unbelief. She must teach with the authority granted by him who is Truth in Person. But she must also teach with the authority of one who believes in and lives by that same truth. Simply put, the Church must “talk the talk and walk the walk.”
Increases our Hope
The Incarnation increases our hope. Through this virtue, we long for the attainment of the supreme future good, which is possible to us only through the help of our loving God. The main motivation to hope in the Lord lies in his promises to us and in his omnipotence and mercy. The Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God moves us to hope. It manifests not only the great power of our Lord but also his benevolent mercy in wanting to die for us on the cross. It is easier to trust in God, as our powerful friend who wants to help us, after contemplating what he has done for us.23
Being sent by Christ as the Father sent him, the Church is also called to be a witness to hope. The Church can also help men and women to contemplate God’s power and mercy so that they may hope in him. Indeed, the Lord chooses those who are weak to manifest his power.24 The spiritual poverty of the members of the Church can become a great testimony of hope for others. Through the power of God’s grace, the members of the Church can offer their lives as living sacrifices to the Lord,25 thereby completing in their own bodies what is lacking in Christ’s passion.26
We were saved in hope,27 and we can offer that same hope to others when we love them with the same love that Jesus had for us.28 The history of the Church offers us countless examples of this reality in the lives of the saints and especially in the great testimony of those who were martyred for Christ.
Enlivens our Charity
The English language uses the word “charity” with some ambiguity. In common parlance, it frequently refers to a sort of humanitarian help to those in need or to an organization set up to provide help and raise money for them. However, first and foremost, charity is not about one’s neighbor. It is about God. It is not to be confused with sheer philanthropy. Rather, charity is a theological virtue. Chiefly, it is a supernatural friendship with the Lord and a supernatural love of friendship for one’s neighbor, in him and because of him.
The Incarnation enlivens our charity because love is repaid with love. Charity is the special friendship with the Lord that demands we love him more than we love ourselves, because of his infinite goodness. This infinite goodness is clearly manifested at the Incarnation, insofar as God so loved us, he gave his only Son that we might have life.29 This love is the fundamental truth of Christianity. It is the fountain source of the very gift of the Incarnation.
The mission of the Church, sent by Christ as he was sent by the Father, is also to manifest the divine infinite goodness as the primary object of her love. Once again, we can look at the martyrs. Beforehand, we considered them from the viewpoint of their spiritual poverty, as a testimony of hope of what God can also do in our lives despite our weaknesses. Yet, we can look at the martyrs from another angle: as those who loved the Lord more than they loved themselves. Love for their life did not deter them from death.30 Even if not all the members of the Church are called to the honor of martyrdom, all are called to offer up their lives as a sacrifice to the Lord, especially at each celebration of the Mass, the sacrament of charity.
Christ and the Church Rescue Man from Evil
Aquinas also teaches that the Incarnation of the Son of God frees us from evil because it liberates us from slavery to Satan, it provides a realistic and elevated view of human dignity, it frees us from presumption, it takes away our pride and it frees us from all sin.31
Once again, we could simplify things by concentrating on three main points: the rescuing from Satan, from sin, and from a devaluation of human dignity. The mission of the Church, sent by Christ as he was sent by the Father, is also to bring men to Christ so that in him, they may be rescued from Satan, from sin, and from the devaluation of human dignity.
Freedom From Slavery to Satan
The Incarnation of the Son of God liberates us from slavery to Satan. As man, Christ overcame the Devil. Hence, we can also win this battle, if we are united to the Lord as living members of the body of Christ. However, when we speak about the defeat of the Devil and of our battle against him, we need to be clear. We cannot fall into the error of the Manicheans and think that God and the Devil are on a par.
We need to remember that the Devil and all the fallen angels in Hell are God’s creatures. He sustains them in being. He loves them and is in complete control over their actions. Demons do not know anything or do anything without God permitting it. If Christ wanted, he could puff into nothingness every single fallen angel. He could simply annihilate them. Instead, the Lord allows their evildoing in order to draw a greater good out of it.
The mission of the Church, sent by Christ as he was sent by the Father, is also to manifest Christ’s victory. The Devil never had a chance of winning against God. Even Christ, as man, has already defeated him. And if God is with us, who could be against us?32 The mission of the Church is to proclaim anew that we should not be afraid! Christ partook of our human nature so “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”33
Freedom From Sin
The Incarnation of the Son of God frees us from our sins. The Lord paid for them. We could not do it and he did not have to. And this payment is not to be understood as a sheer extrinsic legal transaction. For instance, someone could pay the debt of a kleptomaniac. But the problem of this sick person would still remain, even if the debt is paid.
Christ is our Redeemer. Through his Redemptive Incarnation, he has paid for our sins. But he has also healed us from them.34 The mission of the Church, sent on mission by Christ as he was sent by the Father, is also to offer this liberating healing to every human person. As Pope Francis has said, the Church is a field hospital, as it were, for those who are sick and in need of healing from sin. Thus, the Church is called to offer the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice because she partakes of that same sacrificial love that heals us from our sins.
Just as charity is the mother and the root of every virtue, so pride is the origin and the head of all sins. The Incarnation of God’s Son heals us from sin in a special way because it takes away our pride, thanks to Christ’s humility.35 The mission of the Church, sent by Christ as he was sent by the Father, is also to also offer this therapeutic example of humility, when approaching the arrogance of this world, as well as the healing of men and women from their own sins.
Within this healing mission, a special mention should be made about the vice of presumption. We are freed from it by Christ’s Redemptive Incarnation. Indeed, the liberation given to us by the Lord clearly manifests that we did not deserve to be rescued. It was a pure gift from God. Similarly, the Church, sent on mission by Christ as he was sent by the Father, must free men from presumption, beginning by having no presumption whatsoever. We are what we are by God’s grace.36 Moreover, the Church must also point out the need for gratitude to the Lord, as the school of love wherein to grow in charity.37
Freedom From the Devaluation of Human Dignity
The Incarnation of the Son of God provides a realistic and elevated view of human dignity. Human nature is sanctified or made holy by the Word made flesh. We become the temple of the Holy Spirit. And we are not to desecrate this temple.38 For this reason, throughout history, the Church has been and continues to be the defender of the dignity of every human person.
This question is of the utmost importance as we face again the need to raise our voices to defend the innocent infants who are being murdered in the womb of their mothers throughout the world. As we celebrate the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents during this Christmas season, let us recall our duty as Catholics to stand up for the Gospel of Life.
But let us also focus our attention on the dignity of our elders, those who are sick, and those who suffer extreme poverty and homelessness, those who are victims of human trafficking, or those who are discriminated because of their race. Their lives matter to the Church, too. Part of being a member of the Church on mission is to stand up for their worth, thereby aiding them to be freed or rescued from the devaluation of human dignity. As members of the Church, we can all make our own Pope Leo the Great’s magnificent words: “Learn, O Christian, your worth; and being made a partner of the Divine nature, refuse to return by evil deeds to your former worthlessness.”
- see Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54,3
- see Rom 1:16
- Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 456
- see Jn 14:6
- the body of Christ, see 1 Cor 12:27
- see Jn 16:33
- see Rev 1:5
- see 1 Pet 3:15
- Jn 20:21
- see CCC, 268
- see St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, 5
- see Summa Theologiae, III, q. 1, a. 2, c
- see Summa Theologiae, III, q. 1, a. 2, c
- see Rom 8:16
- see Jn 15:5
- De Civitate Dei, 40, 2
- Jn 17:18
- see Heb 1:1
- see Mt 7:29; Jn 6:47
- Lk 2:19; Eph 3:17
- see Jn 16:13
- see Mt 28:18–20
- see Rom 8:31–32
- see 1 Cor 1:27
- see Rom 12:1
- see Col 1:24
- see Rom 8:24
- see Jn 15:12
- see Jn 3:16
- see Rev 12:11
- see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 1, a. 2, c
- see Rom 8:31
- Heb 2:14-15
- see Mk 2:17
- see Phil 2:7-8; Mt 11:29
- see 1 Cor 15:10
- see Lk 7:47
- see 1 Cor 6:19