And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men. (Luke 2:52, Douay-Rheims)
This passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke is often interpreted (in a manner smacking of heresy) to indicate that there was a substantial growth of holiness and grace in our Savior. However, upon reflection, it will become abundantly clear that such could not have been the case. Jesus could not and did not grow in holiness, but was from the first moment of his conception perfectly and totally holy.
This is especially relevant as we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord last Sunday not as a moment of increase in grace in our Lord, but as an Epiphany or Manifestation of the fundamental fullness of grace and holiness which he had enjoyed from the moment of his conception.
Christ is totally and perfectly holy
That our Savior was totally and perfectly holy is a direct conclusion from the union of humanity and divinity in his one divine person. Precisely because Jesus of Nazareth is the very Son of the Father, he must be (ever and always) totally and perfectly holy.
Thus, St. John relates:
We saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
For he whom God has sent speaks the words of God: for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son: and he has given all things into his hand. (John 3:34-35)
Now, if the Savior was full of grace and truth and if this grace was not given by measure but rather the Father has given all things into his hand, that is, he has given all graces to his human nature, from this we must conclude that the good Jesus was totally perfected in all holiness and grace.
Furthermore, because his humanity is the cause of grace in us, it is necessary that he be wholly perfected in grace as man – for he can only give that which he already possesses, hence his holiness is entirely greater than all the holiness of all the saints combined. Indeed, his holiness must be perfect in order to be the cause of perfection in men.
Holiness: Freedom from sin
Holiness has two characteristics: Freedom from sin and union with God. In regards to the first, we must insist that our Savior was (from the first moment of his conception) wholly and entirely free from all sin and from every stain of sin and even from every imperfection or disorder of the will and intellect which comes from sin.
Jesus was perfectly and completely sinless. This is a dogma of the Church.
Therefore, it is clear that, under this aspect, the holiness of Christ our Savior was full and complete from the moment he came into the world – and this holiness could not possibly have increased throughout his life. He was already wholly separated from sin, even from the first moment of his existence as a man.
Holiness: Union with God
In another respect, holiness is union with God. But here it is clear that the holiness of Christ was indeed perfect and total from the moment of his conception – because there is no greater union of man to God than that which was effect in Christ through the union of human nature to the divine nature in his single divine person.
The holiness of our Savior is founded upon this union – which is an uncreated grace, the grace of the hypostatic union. In this sense, our Lord’s holiness was innate, substantial, uncreated and inamissible. This holiness clearly could not have increased throughout his life – because the union of humanity and divinity was not augmented in Christ as he grew with age but was perfect from the first.
The fullness of created graces
Now, some may attempt to hold that our Savior did not have the fullness of all created graces from his conception – but that these were given to him gradually. Let us consider what this would mean.
St. John Vianney could “read souls” – this was a grace infused by the Holy Spirit at particular moments for the benefit of souls. Shall we deny this grace in a most eminent degree to our Savior, even when he was in the womb? Would we dare to claim that the power of the Spirit at work in the saintly Cure of Ars was greater than that at work in the infant Jesus? Should even St. John Vianney be elevated to a higher holiness than the Divine Infant? Even in just one grace?
No! By heaven, no! It is a blasphemy.
Our Savior must always have had every grace which would ever be given to any of the saints. He must have had these graces in an eminent degree. He must have had even more graces than these.
This is why the Venerable Pius XII states:
“[Christ] is gifted with those supernatural powers that accompany the hypostatic union, since the Holy Spirit dwells in him with a fullness of grace than which no greater can be imagined.” (Mystici Corporis, 1943 [here])
If the Child in the womb of Mary is indeed our Savior, then he must not stand in need of any increase in grace or in holiness. If he is the Savior, then he cannot himself need to be saved or made holy in any respect – but must already be fully and completely holy in himself.
Again, Pius XII states:
“At the first moment of the Incarnation the Son of the Eternal Father adorned with the fullness of the Holy Spirit the human nature which was substantially united to him, that it might be a fitting instrument of the Divinity in the sanguinary work of Redemption.”
But, if the Child lacked any gift or grace in the first moment of his Incarnation, then this holiness would not be greater than can be imagined. Furthermore, if his holiness and spiritual adornment with graces is the result not of his natural growth, but of the hypostatic union, then it is clear that this fullness and totally must have been complete from the moment of the union and could not have increased throughout his life.
The Common Doctor and Blessed John Paul II
St. Thomas, the Angel of Aquin, teaches:
“Now the end of grace is the union of the rational creature with God. But there can neither be nor be thought a greater union of the rational creature with God than that which is in the Person. And hence the grace of Christ reached the highest measure of grace. Hence it is clear that the grace of Christ cannot be increased on the part of grace. But neither can it be increased on the part of the subject, since Christ as man was a true and full comprehensor from the first instant of His conception. Hence there could have been no increase of grace in Him, as there could be none in the rest of the blessed, whose grace could not increase, seeing that they have reached their last end.” (ST III, q.7, a.12 [here])
And the Great John Paul II further states:
“At the instant in which the Eternal Word becomes man, a unique fullness of human holiness is accomplished in the assumed nature, a fullness which goes beyond that of any other saint, not only of the old but also of the new covenant.” (Audience of 6 June 1990 [here])
“The Holy Spirit instilled the fullness of grace in Christ, for the personal union of the human nature with the Word of God, for the extreme nobility of his soul and for his sanctifying and salvific mission for the whole human race.” (Audience of 27 June 1990 [here])
Finally, we do well to note that the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (553) condemned and anathematized Theodore of Mopsuestia (a favorite of Hans Urs von Balthasar), in part, for holding that our Savior increased in holiness and grace during his life on earth.
And Jesus advanced in grace (Luke 2:52)
And so, we return to our Scriptural text, which precisely does not say that our Lord grew in substantial holiness or grace – Luke 2:52.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men. (Douay-Rheims)
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. (RSV)
Now, there is no indication of a growth in grace, obviously. However, we do take occasion to point out that Catholics have often used this verse to speak of the growth in the “manifestation” of the grace which was always fully present in Christ’s soul.
Thomas tells us:
“Anyone may increase in wisdom and grace in two ways. First inasmuch as the very habits of wisdom and grace are increased; and in this way Christ did not increase. Secondly, as regards the effects, i.e. inasmuch as they do wiser and greater works; and in this way Christ increased in wisdom and grace even as in age, since in the course of time He did more perfect works, to prove Himself true man, both in the things of God, and in the things of man.” (ST III, q.7, a.12, ad 3 [here])
And Pope John Paul II:
“Luke the evangelist, perhaps echoing private conversations with Mary, tells us that, as the Son of Man, Jesus grew in wisdom, age and favor before God and man (Lk 2:52; cf. Lk 2:40). In an analogous way one can also speak of ‘growth’ in holiness in the sense of an ever more complete manifestation and fulfillment of that fundamental fullness of holiness with which Jesus came into the world. The moment in which the consecration of the Son in the Holy Spirit was made known in a special way, at the level of mission, was at the start of the messianic activity of Jesus of Nazareth: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me: because he has anointed me; he has sent me (Lk 4:18).” (Audience of 6 June 1990 [here])
“The grace which, again according to Luke, was ‘upon’ Jesus and in which he ‘grew,’ seems to indicate the mysterious presence and action of the Holy Spirit in which, according to the Baptist's proclamation reported by the four Gospels, Jesus would be baptized (cf. Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33).” (Audience of 27 June 1990 [here])
Thus, it is clear that the Blessed Pontiff (who was ever a disciple of the Angelic Thomas) maintained that this “growth” in holiness was only an increase in the manifestation of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the humanity of Jesus. In this way, he is in perfect accord with the Angel of the Schools.
Finally, consider the classic Catholic commentary of Fr. Haydock:
“Not that he was wiser at any future period of his life, than he was at the moment of his conception, but this is said, because he chose to manifest increasing signs of wisdom as he increased in years. --- In the same manner also he increased in grace, by displaying, as he advanced in age, the gifts of grace with which he was endowed; and by this excited men to the praise of God, from the consideration of favours God had bestowed upon him; and thus he conduced to the honour of God, and the salvation of men. (St. Gregory) --- The sun, always equally brilliant in itself, is said to increase in splendour, till it has reached its meridian brilliancy.” [here]
Catholics do not and have never believed that Jesus increased in grace, but we have always maintained that he was perfected in all grace from the first moment of his conception.