The Christ Child

The Motive of the Incarnation and the Intimate Life of Jesus

"I believe in God ... the Son... Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven."-----Nicene Creed

ONE of the considerations which can help us penetrate deeply into the intimate life of Jesus is the motive of the Incarnation, the motive of His coming into the world, which must always have been present in His mind as the purpose of His earthly life. We should like to call attention, as St. Thomas himself has done, to the three following points: 1. The motive of the Incarnation was a motive of mercy. 2. The Word, in becoming incarnate to redeem us, did not in any sense subordinate Himself to us but on the contrary re-established the primitive order on an infinitely loftier level. 3. In His intimate life Jesus is first of all Savior, priest, and victim.

The Motive of the Incarnation, a Motive of Mercy

    The opinion is held by some that in the actual plan of Providence, the Word would have become incarnate even if man had not sinned. Christ would then have come not as a Savior and victim, but as the head of the kingdom of God and as the supreme doctor, in order to give greater glory to God and thus to crown creation. He would have come with an immortal body, not subject to pain. But, champions of this opinion maintain, sin having supervened, Christ came in mortal flesh, in carne passibili, as Savior and victim for our salvation.

     According to this opinion, it is accidentally, so to speak, that in the actual plan of Providence Jesus is Savior and victim. He is first of all the King of kings, the head of the kingdom of God.

   St. Thomas has weighed the value of this opinion, which had already been expressed in his own time, and he writes with regard to this subject: "There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion. 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 the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of 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. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate." [IIIa, q. 1, a. 3]

In other words, according to St. Thomas, Thomists in general, and many other ancient and modern theologians, the motive of the Incarnation was above all a motive of mercy, to liberate fallen humanity from its misery. From this point of view Jesus is first of all Savior and Victim rather than King, and therein lies the primordial trait of His spiritual physiognomy.

This interpretation is based on many passages of Scripture and on some very weighty testimony of Tradition. Both Daniel [9:24] and Zacharias [3:9] declared that the Messiah would come "that sin may have an end, and iniquity may be abolished." Jesus Himself said: "The Son of man is come is seek and to save that which was lost." [Luke 19:10] Likewise, in St. John He said: "God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not His Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by Him." [3:16f.]

    St. Paul wrote: "Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners." [1 Tim. 1:15] To this St. John added in his First Epistle: "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." [1 John 1:7] And "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just: and He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." [Ibid. 2:1] Finally, "God . . . hath first loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins." [Ibid. 4:10]

   Moreover, the name "Jesus" does not mean King or Doctor, but Savior, and the names God gives always express the primordial trait of the spiritual physiognomy of those who receive these names. The Angel Gabriel, sent by God, said to Mary: "Behold thou.  . . shalt bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call His name Jesus."  [Luke 1:31] To Joseph the Angel said: "Thou shalt call His name Jesus. For He shall save His people from their sins." [Matt. 1:21] Thus the motive of the Incarnation is that reason for which it was necessary: to save us through perfect reparation for offense against God by means of an act of reparative love which would be more pleasing to God than He is displeased by all the sins of the world, and which would be an infinite source of grace for us.

   Tradition is no less affirmative than is Scripture, as we can see in the Nicene Creed: "I believe.  . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.  . . . Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from Heaven." This is the meaning of the entire liturgy of Advent and of the Nativity, which for many centuries has prepared the faithful for the celebration of the birth of the Savior.

The Fathers of the Church also teach in general that according to the actual plan of Providence the Word would not have become incarnate if men had not been in need of redemption. This is the doctrine in particular of St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostom who was the greatest of the Greek Fathers, and St. Augustine, the most illustrious of the Fathers of the Latin Church.

  St. John Chrysostom says explicitly: "There is no other cause for the Incarnation than this: God saw us fallen, abject, oppressed by the tyranny of death, and He had mercy." St. Augustine likewise says: "If man had not fallen, the Son of man would not have come." The motive of the Incarnation was a motive of mercy. This is repeated by St. Thomas, all the Thomists, and many other theologians.

   The Thomists in particular add this reason: Once God has determined the plan of Providence, He does not modify it because of some unforeseen accident. He has foreseen all things. No good can occur unless He has willed it, and no evil unless He has permitted it for a greater good. Therefore, it cannot be said that God modified His actual plan as the result of the sin of the first man. The efficacious Divine decree on the world extended from the start to everything that was to happen, in a positive manner with respect to the good and in a permissive manner with respect to evil. Now, in actuality the Word came in flesh that was mortal and subject to suffering, which fact, as universally admitted, presupposes sin. Therefore, by virtue of the primitive decree, the Word would not have become incarnate if man had not sinned. This is, as we have seen, what the Scriptures and Tradition tell us clearly. In other words, the motive of the Incarnation has been a motive of mercy. As our Lord told us Himself: "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." [Luke 19: 10] There is much consolation for us in this fact. For even the greatest sinners who cry out to the Savior are saved.

God Has Permitted Evil, Man's Sin, Only in View of a Greater Good

There is another aspect of this mystery which makes it possible to answer the sometimes agonizing question that is called the problem of evil. Why did God permit evil, especially moral evil, the sin of the first man, foreseeing as He did that it would spread to all men, who would because of it be deprived of grace and of the privileges of the state of innocence?

St. Thomas presents very well this second aspect of the mystery, which some of his commentators have neglected but which happily others have emphasized. He says: "There is nothing to prevent human nature from having been raised after sin to a level above its original state. For God permits evil only in view of a greater good. This is why St. Paul wrote to the Romans, [5: 20]: 'Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.' And the Church sings during the benediction of the paschal candle: 'O happy fault, that merited so great a Redeemer!' " [IIIa, q. 1, a. 3 ad 3]

   It is indeed clear that God cannot permit evil, especially sin, except in view of a greater good. Otherwise the Divine permission which allows sin to occur would not be holy. It would be impossible to say a priori for what great good God permitted the sin of the first man. But after the fact of the Incarnation we can and we must say with St. Paul: God has permitted sin to abound only so that grace might more abound in the person of our Savior and through Him in us.

Thus, when the Word became incarnate to redeem us He did not subordinate Himself to us in any way whatever [He remains infinitely superior to us, and the Incarnation is of greater value than our redemption]; but He stooped down toward us to raise us up to Himself. For it is the nature of mercy to incline the superior person toward the inferior one, not to subordinate the former to the latter but to elevate the inferior person. In this way, when the Word became incarnate He bent down in order to restore the primitive order, the original harmony, and even to raise this primitive order far above its original level by uniting Himself personally to human nature and thus manifesting to us in the most perfect manner possible His omnipotence and His goodness. [Since the Incarnation is superior t o our redemption, it would be perverse to order the former to the latter.]

   God permits evil only for a greater good, and He would not have permitted the immense evil which is Original Sin if He did not have in view the greater good which is the redemptive Incarnation. Thus it is that Divine mercy, far from subordinating to us the Word made incarnate for us, is the highest manifestation of the power and goodness of God. It sings the glory of God more loudly than all the stars in the firmament.

The Word made flesh, our Savior, is infinitely greater than the first innocent man. Making necessary allowances, Mary is also incomparably superior to Eve. And when Mass is celebrated in the poorest village church, a worship is offered to God which is infinitely superior to that offered to Him by the first innocent man in the Garden of Eden.

The Primordial Trait of the Spiritual Physiognomy of Jesus

It follows that it was not accidentally that Christ is Savior, priest, and victim. This is the chief aspect of His life. He is not first of all a king and a sublime doctor Who became accidentally, because of man's sin, a victim and the savior of humanity.  As His name "Jesus" signifies, He is first of all the Savior, and His entire life was ordered to His heroic death on the Cross, through which He accomplished His mission and His destiny as Redeemer. [Even in the Mass and the Office of Christ the King, mention is repeatedly made of Christ as the Savior, for He is king both by right of birth and by right of conquest. He conquered this universal kingship during the Passion when He was crowned with thorns before He received the crown of glory in Heaven.] The motive of the Incarnation was our redemption by the heroic act of love on Calvary. The stigmatics like St. Francis must have penetrated very deeply into this truth.

As a result, Christ appears greater and the unity of His life much more profound. His life was ordered completely toward the act of love by which, in offering Himself up on the Cross, He conquered sin, Satan, and death, an act of love which is more pleasing to God than He is displeased by all the sins of men.

This is what St. Thomas says: "God loves Jesus Christ not only more than the entire human race but also more than all creatures taken as a whole. For He willed for Him a greater good by giving Him a name above all other names. He willed that He be truly God. This supreme excellence of Christ has not been diminished by the fact that His Father delivered Him up to death for our salvation. On the contrary, Christ thus became the glorious victor [over sin, Satan, and death], 'the government is upon His shoulder' " [Isa. 9:6].  [la, q. 20, a. 4 ad 1]

   Now we can understand why the thought of the redemption by the Cross, together with the thought of the glory of God, were uppermost in the mind of our Lord when He came into the world and remained so throughout His life. As St. Paul says: "Wherefore when He cometh into the world, He saith: Sacrifice and oblation Thou wouldest not: but a body Thou hast fitted to Me. ... Then said I: Behold I come ... that I should do Thy will, O God." [Heb. 10:5-7]

This oblation was ever living in His heart. It was the soul, as it were, of His preaching and of His sacrifice. The first three Gospels report that Jesus said: "The Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a redemption for many." [Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 1:68; 2:38; 21:28]

In one of His most beautiful parables, the parable of the Good Shepherd, He said: "I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. . . . Therefore doth the Father love Me: because I lay down My life, that I may take it again. No man taketh it away from Me. But I lay it down of Myself." [John 10:11-18]

Again He said: "I am come to cast fire on the earth: and what will I, but that it be kindled? And I have a Baptism wherewith I am to be Baptized: and how am I straitened until it be accomplished?" [Luke 12:49 f.] He was speaking of the Baptism of Blood, the most perfect of all. [Cf. St. Thomas, lIla, q. 46, a. 12]

He expressed the purpose of His mission in still different words: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself." [Now this He said, signifying what death He should die.] [John 12:32f.]

This thought was continually in our Savior's mind when He was training the Apostles, when, for instance, He told Peter that he could not bear to hear of the coming Passion: "Thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men." [Matt. 16:23] Likewise, when He said to the sons of Zebedee: "Can you drink of the chalice that I drink of: or be Baptized with the Baptism wherewith I am Baptized?" [Mark 10:38] This was His underlying thought also at the Last Supper, at the moment when He instituted the Eucharist: "This is My Body, which is given for you. . . . This is the chalice, the new testament in My Blood, which shall be shed for you." [Luke 22:19f.] "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends." [John 15:13]

Finally, Jesus on several occasions spoke of the hour of His Passion as "His hour," [John 2:4; 12:23; 13:1; 16:21, 25, 32; 17: 1] for it is the hour above all others to which His whole earthly life was dedicated.

Jesus is above all else Savior, priest, and victim. This is the primordial trait of His spiritual physiognomy, the fundamental character of His interior life. What are the consequences of this for us?

It follows that in the actual plan of Providence, it is not by accident that souls must, in order to be sanctified, carry their crosses in union with the Savior. He Himself has told us so: "And He said to all: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. .  . . For he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall save it." [Luke 9: 23f.] This was magnificently fulfilled by the Martyrs who, by uniting their sufferings to those of the Savior, in turn saved souls, sometimes even the souls of their persecutors.

 It follows also that in order to be a Saint, and even a great Saint, it is not necessary to be a doctor or a man of action. It is enough to be genuinely configured to the crucified Christ, as was St. Benedict Joseph Labre [left] who could call his own only his poverty and his heroically supported pain, and who appeared to be the living image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, it follows [as St. Thomas explains with great profundity (IIIa, q. 62, a. 2) in speaking of the effects of Baptism] that while the sanctifying grace which the first man in the state of innocence possessed is a participation in Divine nature and makes us children of God, the specifically Christian grace which was communicated to us after the fall by Christ the Redeemer makes us "living members of Christ." That is why Christian grace as such inspires us to suffer following the example of Jesus in order to expiate, to make reparation for the outrages committed against God, in order to collaborate for our salvation and that of our neighbors, just as the members of a single body must help one another.

That is why no Christian idea can win acceptance, and no Christian work can persevere, until it has passed through trials and tribulations. "Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." [John 12:24]

This is how Christians are profoundly configured to their head, Who said concerning Himself to His disciples of Emmaus, although they did not yet understand it: "Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?" [Luke 24:26] Isaias had announced it in his prophecy of the Passion. [Chap. 53] It is required every day in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and it will be repeated until the end of the world. [Emphasis added.]