Thursday, December 23, 2010

Was Christmas necessary?

Christmas is the great season of gift-giving. A gift is seen to be all the more precious when we recognize this essential fact: it is a gift, it didn’t have to be given at all. Moreover, the gift becomes even more cherished when we realize that other gifts might have been given in its place, especially if we see that the gift we have receive is particularly suited to our needs and desires.
Christmas is not only a time of giving and receiving gifts, it is the time in which we recall the greatest Gift which God has given us – His Son. While it is true that “one ought never to look a gift-horse in the mouth”, it is also true that we Christians are called to meditate upon the Incarnation and the Birth of Christ –we are not doubting or a critiquing, we are meditating and wondering at the grace of God.
The Gift of Christmas is all the more precious when we recognize that it need not have been given at all – absolutely, it was not necessary that God should redeem us, nor less that he should redeem us through the particular means of the Incarnation. Even given that He chose to save us through the Incarnation, the whole mystery could have been accomplished in any number of ways. And yet, from among all these possibilities, from among all these possible gifts, God has chosen to give us this particular Gift – the Gift of His Son, the Gift of a Child; and, through this Messiah, the Almighty has given us salvation.

Was the Incarnation necessary?
We must admit that God did not need to create rational creatures (or any creatures) at all. Even given that he created man, God did not have to give him grace or the hope of eternal life. However, God did create man and he created him in grace, with a true hope of heaven, to which all men are called. Yet, Adam sinned. After the Fall, it was not necessary that God should redeem humanity, he could have let us all perish – it would in no way be contrary to the divine Goodness. However, wonder of wonders, scarcely had man fallen when God promised the coming of a Savior. Now God could have redeemed humanity in any number of ways, but the Incarnation was the one he chose. God did not have to become man to save us; but, for our sake and so that we might more easily return to him, God willed to take on our human nature through the Incarnation.
What a gift we have in the Incarnation! It is truly a gift, for it was given freely and willingly by God – he did not have to give us this most precious gift, but he chose to become man so that we might more easily be saved.
The Incarnation is fitting, primarily because “it would seem most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known; for to this end was the whole world made. But as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. III,1), by the mystery of the Incarnation are made known at once the goodness, the wisdom, the justice and the power or might of God – “His goodness, for he did not despise the weakness of his own handiwork; his justice, since, on man’s defeat, he caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet he did not snatch men forcibly from death; his wisdom, for he found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; his power, or infinity might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become Incarnate.” (St. Thomas, ST III, q.1, a.1)
Could the Incarnation have happened in another way?
Even given that God had chosen the Incarnation as the means to effect our salvation, it must be admitted that the Incarnation itself could have happened in many different ways. First, the Incarnation could have happened immediately after the Fall. Second, the Incarnation could have happed at the very end of time. Third, the Incarnation could have happened in a different place or in different circumstances.
Moreover, in relation to the Divine Person who assumes the human nature, there are many possibilities.  Any of the three Divine Persons could have become incarnate, or all of them together, or all of them separately. Or one Person could have assumed two human natures, or two Persons could have assumed one nature together and other natures separately. There seems to be no limit to the possibilities which were open to God.
And yet, from among all these possibilities, it was the Son of God who assumed a single human nature to himself, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, in the land of Judea.  
There are many reasons why it is fitting that the Son of God became man: “First, on the part of the union; for such as are similar are fittingly united. Now the Person of the Son, who is the Word of God, has a certain common agreement with all creatures, because the word of the craftsman, i.e. his concept, is an exemplar likeness of whatever is made by him. Hence the Word of God, who is his eternal concept, is the exemplar likeness of all creatures. Moreover, he has a particular agreement with human nature, since the Word is a concept of the eternal Wisdom, from whom all man’s wisdom is derived. And hence for the consummate perfection of man it was fitting that the very Word of God should be personally united to human nature.
“Secondly, the reason of this fitness may be taken from the end of the union, which is the fulfilling of predestination, i.e. of such as are preordained to the heavenly inheritance, which is bestowed only on sons. Hence it was fitting that by him who is the natural Son, men would share this likeness of sonship by adoption.
“Thirdly, the reason for this fitness may be taken from the sin of our first parent, for which the Incarnation supplied the remedy. For the first man sinned by seeking knowledge, as is plain from the words of the serpent, promising man the knowledge of good and evil. Hence it was fitting that by the Word of true knowledge man might be led back to God, having wandered from God through an inordinate thirst for knowledge.” (ST III, q.3, a.8)
Why Christmas?
Here we will quote a most beautiful passage from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, Whether the Incarnation was Necessary? (ST III, q.1, a.2)
“A thing is said to be necessary for a certain end in
two ways. First, when the end cannot be without it; as food is
necessary for the preservation of human life. Secondly, when the end
is attained better and more conveniently, as a horse is necessary for
a journey. In the first way it was not necessary that God should
become incarnate for the restoration of human nature. For God with
His omnipotent power could have restored human nature in many other
ways. But in the second way it was necessary that God should become
incarnate for the restoration of human nature. Hence Augustine says
(De Trin. xii, 10): "We shall also show that other ways were not
wanting to God, to Whose power all things are equally subject; but
that there was not a more fitting way of healing our misery."

Now this may be viewed with respect to our "furtherance in good."
First, with regard to faith, which is made more certain by believing
God Himself Who speaks; hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xi, 2): "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." Secondly, with regard to hope, which
is thereby greatly strengthened; hence Augustine says (De Trin.
xiii): "Nothing was so necessary for raising our hope as to show us
how deeply God loved us. And what could afford us a stronger proof of
this than that the Son of God should become a partner with us of
human nature?" Thirdly, with regard to charity, which is greatly
enkindled by this; hence Augustine says (De Catech. Rudib. iv): "What
greater cause is there of the Lord's coming than to show God's love
for us?" And he afterwards adds: "If we have been slow to love, at
least let us hasten to love in return." Fourthly, with regard to
well-doing, in which He set us an example; hence Augustine says in a
sermon (xxii de Temp.): "Man who might be seen was not to be
followed; but God was to be followed, Who could not be seen. And
therefore God was made man, that He Who might be seen by man, and
Whom man might follow, might be shown to man." Fifthly, with regard
to the full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of
man and end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ's
humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon (xiii de Temp.): "God was
made man, that man might be made God."

So also was this useful for our _withdrawal from evil._ First,
because man is taught by it not to prefer the devil to himself, nor
to honor him who is the author of sin; hence Augustine says (De Trin.
xiii, 17): "Since human nature is so united to God as to become one
person, let not these proud spirits dare to prefer themselves to man,
because they have no bodies." Secondly, because we are thereby taught
how great is man's dignity, lest we should sully it with sin; hence
Augustine says (De Vera Relig. xvi): "God has proved to us how high a
place human nature holds amongst creatures, inasmuch as He appeared
to men as a true man." And Pope Leo says in a sermon on the Nativity
(xxi): "Learn, O Christian, thy worth; and being made a partner of
the Divine nature, refuse to return by evil deeds to your former
worthlessness." Thirdly, because, "in order to do away with man's
presumption, the grace of God is commended in Jesus Christ, though no
merits of ours went before," as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii, 17).
Fourthly, because "man's pride, which is the greatest stumbling-block
to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility so
great," as Augustine says in the same place. Fifthly, in order to
free man from the thraldom of sin, which, as Augustine says (De Trin.
xiii, 13), "ought to be done in such a way that the devil should be
overcome by the justice of the man Jesus Christ," and this was done
by Christ satisfying for us. Now a mere man could not have satisfied
for the whole human race, and God was not bound to satisfy; hence it
behooved Jesus Christ to be both God and man. Hence Pope Leo says in
the same sermon: "Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by
majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same
Mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other--for
this was our fitting remedy. Unless He was God, He would not have
brought a remedy; and unless He was man, He would not have set an

And there are very many other advantages which accrued, above man's


Anonymous said...

It is not at all obvious that each of these "possibilities" was in fact possible. In particular, I have my doubts about the idea of God the Father becoming incarnate. Since the Father has no origin, neither being begotten nor proceeding, it seems that that for Him to become incarnate would be to make manifest a lie, but God cannot lie.

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of those foolish questions such as "can God make a stone so heavy He cannot lift it?". God in His majesty created order and reason and goodness, and though I would suppose He could do what He wills, I agree with the angelic doctor when he says the way He's chosen just seems the most fitting looking at the rest of His plan.

Reginaldus, have a great Christmas! You shall be remembered in my Rosary tonight.

Bernardus said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,
Blessings and Peace be with you.
First two things. You state in clearly and truthfully that greatest of gifts given us by God, the Word made flesh. It gives me pause to think of the vast, so unable to be grasped, love of God for us. Yes, this is a gift to meditate long upon and give praise and thanks to God for it. Second, thank you for the gift of encouraging me to contemplate these mysteries deeply through the Church Fathers. And to pursue a greater knowledge through their grace and guidance.
I am trying to fully understand St. Thomas on the incarnation and, for me, it will take some reading and rereading. But in my search for understanding I came across "De Incarnatione Verbi Dei" by Athanasius. I have only read the Synopsis of the Treatise so far, but he makes the following point:
"...Our creation and God's Incarnation are closely allied, for man's fall necessitated the Incarnation.
God made man for incorruption, but man fell away and death reigned supreme. The Word called them into being, but by turning away from their Creator, the only source of their being, they declined into a state verging on non-existence and corruption.
Man in mortal, but through his likeness to the self-existent One, he would have been immortal, had he not fallen...
...What, then, was to be done?
...The Word, therefore, in His loving-kindness, visits the earth, from which He was never really absent...."
I apologize, but even the synopsis of the Incarnation is lengthy. What are your thoughts on this work by Athanasius? It seems well written and pointed. I would appreciate your comments and guidance.
You are in my prayers. Please pray for me.
Merry Christmas

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (12:06am),
As the Father can do anything the Son can do, it is necessary for us to say that the Father could have become incarnate. Certainly, it is more fitting that the Son become incarnate, but it I don't think we want to say that ONLY the Son could do so.

Even most modern (and liberal) theologians will admit that we must be careful about moving too swiftly from the "economic" Trinity to the "immanent" Trinity -- i.e. moving directly from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus to the inner life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hence, it is not necessarily the case that, if a divine Person be sent into the world, that Person must also proceed from another Person in eternity.

Thus, while I agree that it is eminently fitting for the Son to become incarnate -- perhaps even I would admit that it is "necessary" in a secondary sense -- I must nevertheless re-affirm my core claim: It is not absolutely necessary that the Son become incarnate, either the Father or the Holy Spirit could have (and, theoretically, could still) become incarnate.
There is no need to limit God in this matter.
Obviously, God seems to have limited himself, since he will act according to the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.

I hope that my position is clear. Blessings to you!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Ernie (5:17am), Athanasius is great! Certainly, he is not always as clear and synthetic as some of the later writers (like Thomas, or even Augustine), but the purity and zeal of his writing more than compensate!

Regarding his words, "man's fall necessitated the Incarnation." Here, we would have to say that the Incarnation was "necessary" in that secondary sense, of which St. Thomas speaks: It is more fitting that man be saved through the Incarnation than without it.

btw, you might enjoy knowing that this passage from the Summa (regarding the "secondary" necessity) is a small example of St. Thomas' good humor -- as you see from the original post, St. Thomas states that a horse can be considered to be "necessary" for a journey, in the sense that it is eminently more fitting to use a horse when on a long journey (as opposed to walking).
The joke here is that St. Thomas was a Dominican, and the Dominicans were traveling preachers, but were never allowed to ride horses as they traveled (even on long journeys). Hence, St. Thomas traveled from Paris to Rome (and back), on foot!
Thomas is gently poking fun at himself and his order! What a good example of humility. :-)

Regarding the particular work of St. Athanasius, "De Incarnatione Vebri Dei", I have never read it in full. It has probably been a while since I looked at it.
However, I have been meaning to read it -- so I will take the opportunity to go through it again around Christmas time! I will let you know, if I find any particularly helpful insights.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (2:33am),
Indeed, the fittingness of the Incarnation is so great that it seems as though all of creation were ordered to it. [I don't say that the Incarnation would have happened without the Fall (probably not, but who knows?), but only that God created the world with full knowledge of the Fall and the Redeemer.]

Thank you for your prayers. Christmas blessings to you as well!

Anonymous said...

It was a perfect Plan.

All other plan that we could think of would pale in comparison.

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