Question: Fr Pius Kavalakatt
The celebration of Christmas is the joyful remembrance of the incarnation of the Word of God. Some say that God becoming human itself is salvific. Are we saved by the incarnation itself?
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
Every Christmas we celebrate not only the joy of God becoming human but also the joyful gratitude for humans becoming divine through this event. Many Fathers of the Church affirmed that by God assuming human nature the entire humanity is transformed and reached its fulfilment. In and through the birth of the Son of God every human being has become a son or daughter of God. This revelation of God through Jesus is such that it is decisive and final according to our Christian faith. In the Letter to the Hebrews it is affirmed : “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, upholding the universe by His word of power” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
The celebration of Christmas has become in many places to some extent de-sacralized in the course of history although in the beginning it was the commemoration of the greatest and unsurpassable event in the history of humankind. From the perspective of Christian faith it is the greatest miracle of God. No human reasoning can fathom the depth of the mystery of God becoming human as it goes beyond all human logic that the Infinite becomes the finite, the Absolute becomes the relative, and the Trans-historical becomes historical. God who cannot be limited by space and time allows Himself to become limited by space and time! Indeed, the story of Christmas is the greatest story ever told!
God of Humans and God, the Human
All three Semitic religions, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, affirm their faith experience of God as the designer and creator of the entire universe. From the mighty galaxies to the tiniest flower, both animate and inanimate realities of the world is believed to be the creation of God and everything manifests God’s glory to human beings. However, all three Semitic religions also believe and confess that God treats humans as the crown of creation and enters into communion with them in a personal way. The Old Testament narrates the experience of God as a motherly father and fatherly mother who takes care of His people much for than the most loving and caring parents. The Book of Exodus narrates how God is affected by the cry of the people who were slaves. “Then the LORD said, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians…” (Exodus 3:7-8). In the prophetic literature we find God’s deep concern for humans and how reaches out to them with covenant love and affection. God says, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one, who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4). The oft quoted verse from the Book of Isaiah expresses God’s deep love for His people. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:15-16). In the New Testament revelation we find Jesus affirming the care of God for the entire creation but above all His special concern for the welfare of human beings. Jesus challenges the people, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?” (Matthew 6:26-30). The God revealed through Jesus Christ is the God who is deeply involved in human history and the history of each human person.
God’s involvement in the human history reaches its climax in God becoming human. It is as though God saying to Himself, “If I were to be born as a human I would live exactly as I want all humans to live and unfold themselves as humans.” The birth of Jesus shows that God not only thought to be born as human but in fact He did. Therefore, it can be legitimately presumed that God became human to reveal to us, humans, who we are and what we can become! By the hominization of the Word or by incarnation God did not become just one human being but assumed the human nature or assumed the entire humanity. Therefore, in Jesus, the human, all humans before Him, after Him and contemporaneous with him are included. Since Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega of the entire creation and as everything is created in Him, through Him and for Him (cfr. Colossians 1:15-17) liberation or salvation is achieved in the objective order by God becoming human! But it becomes effective for every human only when he/she accepts it and surrenders to God in the subjective order. Jesus Christ is God, the Human and every human being is made Christic by the fact of the hominization of the Word!
Hominization of the Word: Its Purpose
God’s hominization (the anthropesis) according to one of the greatest theologian of the early centuries Origen a better word than God’s incarnation because God’s hominization expresses better the reality of unity of the Divine and Human natures in Jesus Christ than incarnation. St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) raised the question, Cur Deus Homo? Why God became human? According to Anselm the purpose of God’s hominization is to atone for the sins committed by human beings against God. It must be done by someone who is both God and human because human being’s who are sinful they cannot satisfy the terrible offence committed against God. God becomes human and undergoes all sufferings and pains of humans and finally allow Himself to be sacrificed on the cross for the atonement of sins committed by human beings. Today, this satisfaction theory is abandoned because it pictures God as a cruel God who lets His Son die to satisfy Him. Moreover, it gives the impression that God became human only to die on the cross. The Fathers of the Church see the purpose of incarnation in its deep and comprehensive meaning. For them, the fact of hominization itself is salvific or it is to bring wholeness to all humans and through them to the entire creation.
In the second century Irenaeus (130-202) said that God had “become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Athanasius of Alexandria (296–373), wrote: “Yeah, I say, the Word of God became a human being so that you might learn from a human being how to become a god.” Clement of Alexandria (150- 215) stated, “The Word of God became human, that you may learn from human how human may become God.” Further, Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444) affirms, “He came down into our condition solely in order to lead us to His own divine state…” It follows, therefore, that He Who Is, The One Who Exists, is necessarily born of the flesh, taking all that is ours into Himself so that all that is born of the flesh, that is, us corruptible and perishing human beings, might rest in Him. In short, He took what was ours to be His very own so that we might have all that was His.” Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – 390) implores humankind to “become gods for (God’s) sake, since (God) became man for our sake. The Fathers of the Church was following the Gospel according to John which shifted the emphasis from Cross to incarnation in the understanding of salvation though both remain inseparable. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the purpose of incarnation is to reconcile us to God. “The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him” (I John 4:9; No.458).
The Birth of God’s Son – New Birth of Humans
Indeed, the hominization of the Word or the birth of God’s Son through Mary is the beginning of the birth of the renewed humanity. By the fact of God becoming human or by God assuming humanity every human being is in Christ. Even before the coming of Christ or the Son of God into the world, all humans are created in Christ and chosen in Christ to enter into communion with the Triune God. The Letter to the Ephesians affirms that God the Father “chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph 1:3). In this sense, every human being is in Christ both by creation and by incarnation. Thus every human being is a Christian independent of that person’s awareness of it or our recognition of it. It was the Pauline theology that emphasized the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or the Paschal Mystery of Christ as the means of our salvation. This has entered into the Christian mind that it always thinks and proclaims that we are saved by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Johannine and the Patristic traditions affirm that the incarnation or hominization of the Word itself is salvific. Indeed, we are saved or brought into the Trinitarian communion through the Christ-event which includes incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, through the birth of God’s Son we are born again as a new creation!