Laetare Sunday, John 3:14-21
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
The love of God is proved in this, that while we were yet sinners he sent his only Son to die in our behalf. But we also know that a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friend.
From his death upon the Cross, we see clearly the infinite riches of the love and mercy of God the Son – for each of us can say, “He loved me and gave himself up for me.” Surely, likewise, we see the love of God the Father, for he did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for us all.
Still, while we do not doubt that the death of God the Son manifests the love of the whole Trinity, we may yet question whether it would have been a greater sign of love for God the Father to also become incarnate and die in our behalf together with his Son.
Put simply: Could God the Father have given us a greater sign of his love?
Each and all of the Divine Persons could have become incarnate
First, we must note that it would have been possible for any of the Divine Persons to have become incarnate. Either the Father or the Holy Spirit could have become man. Further, in fact, all three could have (theoretically) become incarnate, either in three human natures or all in one single human nature. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST III, q.3, aa. 5-7 [here]).
That any of the Persons could become incarnate, though never magisterially declared as “de fidei”, follows from the dogmas of our Faith. If the Son is not greater than the Father, nor the Father greater than the Son, then all that the Son can do, the Father can likewise do. Thus, if the Son can become incarnate, so too can the Father become incarnate.
In all things, the Father and the Son are equal, remembering only that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Thus, the one thing which the Son cannot do is to generate another Divine Person, and the one thing which the Father cannot do is to be generated by another Divine Person. Both the Son and the Father, of course, are capable of spirating (“breathing forth”) the Holy Spirit; which is why the Latin tradition of the filioque is correct.
Hence, the Father could have done more than sending only his Son. He could have sent the Holy Spirit also, and even become incarnate himself. All three Divine Persons could have died in our behalf (theoretically).
Only the Son suffered on the Cross
However, only the Son was sent and only the Son suffered and died on the Cross. It is a heresy to claim that the Father suffered “in” or “with” the Son. For the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Father. Thus, although God did indeed die on the Cross, the Father did not die, nor the Holy Spirit; but God the Son alone died.
There are many reasons why it was fitting that the Son be sent and become incarnate (cf. ST III, q.3, a.8 [here]):
1) Because the Word of God is, as it were, an exemplar likeness of the world – for God the Father created the world (and man in particular) according to the image of his Son.
2) Further, it is fitting because, by the grace of adoption, we become sons of God. Thus, it is well that the natural Son of God should be he who reconciles us as sons.
3) Finally, we recall that the first sin of Adam was in seeking knowledge (that is, eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil). Now, the Word proceeds from God the Father as thought proceeds from intellect; hence, he is called the Wisdom of God. Thus, it is fitting that Divine Wisdom redeem those who fell through an inordinate thirst for knowledge.
And beyond this, there are innumerable other reasons beyond human comprehension.
In giving his Son, the Father gives all
From what we have said, it is clear that God the Father could have become incarnate and died for us, but that he chose not to. Rather, it was fitting that the Son should take on our nature and be given up for us all.
And so, we are led back to Jesus’ most often-quoted words: For 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. (John 3:16)
Would it have added anything for God the Father to also die, together with his Son? We answer, No. There could be no greater love, nor any greater sign of love, than what has been given in Christ. Though the Father could have died likewise, this would not have added anything to the gift of love which he has given us in his Son’s death and resurrection.
Among men, it would be greater for a man to give not only his own son but also himself; but this is not the case for God. Because the Father and the Son are of the same Essence, when God the Father gave his Son (in whom the fullness of Godhead dwells) he gave all goodness.
Because the whole Godhead dwells wholly in each of the Divine Persons – such that the Father is not merely a part of God and the Son another part and the Spirit another part, but all three Persons are the whole God – then we must say that the whole Divine Essence was present in God the Son. There was nothing held back or retained by God the Father, for he gave the whole Divinity in giving his Son.
Only this remains: That the Son is not the Father and the Father did not die on the Cross. But God did die on the Cross and the whole of Godhead was given up on the Cross in the Person of the Son. The Divine Essence was not given in the Person of the Father or in the Person of the Holy Spirit, but in the Person of the Son only. Still, there is no Divine Essence which remained or was not given: For in him (that is, in the Son) the fullness of divinity was pleased to dwell. And this fullness was wholly given upon the Cross.
The Father did not suffer, but (in a manner) he did give his own Person
While we said above that the Father did not become incarnate, nor did he suffer and die, we nevertheless maintain that (in a certain manner) God the Father did indeed give his own Person in the Person of the Son.
For, in the Trinity, Person and Nature are identical – such that each Person (and all three together) is the Divine Nature and the Nature is each Person. There is no “Nature” separate from the “Persons”, and there are no “Persons” separate from “Nature” – for there is no fourth reality in the Trinity.
Hear the words of Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide:
“You may further urge, God gave not His own Person, but His Essence only: and that He would have given more if He had given His Person also. I answer by denying the conclusion. Because Person is God is in reality the same as Essence; for it adds nothing to His Essence except relatively, and the idea of distinction from the other Persons: also because the Person of the Son is as worthy as the Person of the Father. For all the three Divine Persons are co-equal in all things, as the Athanasian Creed saith.
“Besides, the Father in giving the Person of His Son, gave us also His own Person, as well as the Person of the Holy Ghost. Because the Father is in the Son, and both are in the Holy Ghost. And again the Son is in the Father, and the Holy Ghost in the Father and the Son.”
And thus we see that, although the Father and Holy Spirit could have become incarnate and died together with the Son, there is no greater love nor any greater sign of love than that by which the Father gave up his only Son as ransom for us all.