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And the Word was Made Flesh: A Thomistic Look at the Incarnation

St. John begins his Gospel with the mysterious sentence, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” After telling us that all things were made through this Word, and that this Word was Light and Life, he proclaims in verse 14 the good news that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” and “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father.” It is from the fullness of his grace that we have received “grace upon grace.” “No one has ever seen God;” says John, “the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him” to us.

So it is concerning this mystery, in which the Word, who is God the Son, took on our human nature and came into time in order to live among us, grant us grace, and reveal the Father to us—it is concerning this mystery, which we call the Incarnation, that I will speak about today, and which is particularly fitting as we shall soon embark upon the season of Advent, in which we are called to ponder this mystery in a particularly deep way:

So we might ask ourselves these questions: Who is this Word of God who became flesh; why did he become flesh, how can we rightly understand the fact that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and finally, how does the fact that the Word became flesh really affect us anyway? Although every mystery of faith is by definition something revealed to us by God precisely because we cannot attain to it by human reason alone, yet at the same time, because God has revealed at least some aspects of this mystery, we are called to reason about it, with the help of God, in order to grasp it more profoundly, insofar as that is possible to us. This is what St. Anselm calls fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), in which we begin with what we already hold to be true by faith, and we seek to understand it more deeply by using our human reason as healed and elevated by grace.

So let us begin then with our first question: Who is this Word made flesh who dwelt among us? Well, of course, this verse refers to Jesus Christ, the pre-existent Son, or Word, of the Father. That is, he is a divine Person, who has two natures: first, an eternally divine nature, which is identical with his personhood, since in God, being and essence are the same, so just as the Father is the divine essence, the Son and the Spirit are also the same divine essence—and, secondly, he has also assumed, or taken on in time, a human nature like ours in all things but sin, as is proclaimed in the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

The Dominican, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, points out in his book, The Light of Christ (the first quote there on your handout), “Jesus of Nazareth is one with the Father not only because he is a man of great holiness, but because he is the eternal Son who proceeds from the eternal Father. He is God made man. When Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples and the Church, he does so not only as a man, but as God, who is one with the Father in the sending of the Spirit. When Jesus Christ is crucified, it is God who is crucified. Jesus is the eternal Word of the Father,… [as he says in John 10:30,] “I and the Father are one.”[1]

Although I do not have time here to go deeply into Trinitarian theology, it may be helpful to understand a little more what this analogy of the Word is about, since, as we have seen, it is a proper analogy revealed to us in Scripture, as a way of helping our limited human capacity reason about two central mysteries of our faith, which are deeply connected. The first is the mystery of the Trinity, which is the ontological, or metaphysical, basis of the mystery of the Incarnation: in fact, without the Trinity, there would be no Incarnation, no one to become incarnate. Yet the mystery of the Incarnation is the way we come to know about the Trinity, that is, it is the epistemological basis of the Christian faith, since it is Christ himself who reveals to us the inner nature of God; as Aquinas says, we can naturally know from the effects of God that He exists, but what He is in Himself, or his inner nature, is not subject to merely natural knowledge. There are some things we can come to know about God by a natural process of reason, such as that God is good, all-powerful, Wise, etc., but even these things only speak generically of the divine essence, and what’s more, only analogically, that is, we can know that God is good in a way, however, that always fails to grasp that His goodness is far beyond the goodness of any creature, and far beyond what the mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this natural knowledge does tell us something positive about God. But the fact that the one God is tri-une, that He is a Trinity of Persons, that is known to us only by the revelation which has come through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and cannot be known by natural reason alone.

So what is this analogy of the Word? St. Augustine tries to express it by way of what is known as the psychological analogy (that is an analogy based on the human soul). Just as the human mind or soul knows itself by way of intellect (such that I can form an intellectual, interior concept of myself), so the human mind also loves itself and others through its will, which involves a kind of movement, or impulse, toward what is loved. In an analogous way, we can think of God the Father eternally knowing himself, forming an interior Word, which in God would include His entire being, power, goodness, all that God is, since God is simple and is not divided in His thoughts, and has no accidents. So this Word, eternally generated by the Father, is the Son of God, a distinct Person of the Trinity, equal to and one in being with the Father, one divine essence, yet distinct from the Father, only by the fact of a real relation (or turning toward) the Father. And similarly, the Father and Son, in loving one another, eternally spirate (or breathe forth, spiratio) God the Holy Spirit, who is also one in being and divine essence, equal to the Father and the Son.

So this eternal, interior Word of the Father entered into time by assuming our human nature, in a way analogous to the manner in which our interior human word, or concept, becomes an external spoken word, when clothed with human sound or voice. That is to say, God the Father sent His Son in what is called the visible mission of the Incarnation (it is called his visible mission, because He continues even now to be sent in his invisible mission, together with the Holy Spirit into each soul in the state of grace.) Yet, one might ask, as many have, whether or not it was fitting for one who is truly God to enter into time and become a man, and why did He do such a thing?

St. Thomas Aquinas begins the third part of his Summa theologica with this question concerning the fittingness, or suitability, of the Incarnation. As you can see if you look at the second quotation on your handout, Aquinas points out that “the very nature of God is goodness,… so what belongs to the essence of goodness is fitting to God. And it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others [as Pseudo-Dionysius says],… and for the highest good to communicate itself in the highest way…. So it was [truly] fitting that God should become incarnate.”[2] [This is an argument from fittingness, not a demonstration of the Incarnation. You cannot demonstrate a mystery of faith like a geometrical proof, but you can argue that it is fitting that it is the case. In other words, it is not irrational.] So Aquinas also gives another argument in the sed contra (point 3) that “it would seem most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known; [in fact] it was to this end that the whole world was made.” What he means here is that creation itself was created in order to reflect the glory of God (as it says in Psalm 19), in order that, as Romans 1:20 teaches (point 4), “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” If this is true with regard to God’s presence in creation, giving all things their very existence, which is known as the first mode of divine presence, such that we can perceive something of his power and deity in creation as an effect of the Creator (similar to the way we can surmise a fire exists when we see the smoke which is its effect), how much more reason then does God have for revealing his inner life to us by making himself known visibly and heard audibly in assuming a human nature and becoming man, something technically termed the hypostatic union, and, as you can see at point 5 of your handout, the hypostatic union is a uniting of the two natures, human and divine, in the person of Jesus Christ, i.e., his divine nature, which is identical with his divine person, and a human nature, which he assumes to his divine person?

However, lest someone might erroneously think that this hypostatic union should require any change in God Himself, Aquinas adds (this is point 6), “The mystery of the Incarnation was not completed through God being changed in any way from the state in which He had been from eternity, but through His having united Himself to the creature in a new way, or rather through having united it [the creature, i.e., a human nature] to Himself.”[3] So the change here is in the creature, not in God. It is a new relation in the creature. This is known as the third mode of divine presence in the world, that is the hypostatic union. (So, to recap, the first mode of divine presence is the fact that God is present in all things as the Creator of all, sustaining everything in existence. The second mode is that of God’s presence in a soul in a special way by the grace and gifts of the divine missions, and finally, this third mode, once again, is the hypostatic union.) So in the hypostatic union, it was Christ’s human nature, which is a creature, that began to be, since it was created by God, and at the very moment of its creation, was united to God the Son, without in any way changing God Himself, who is eternally immutable, unchangeable. That is, since God is the creator of all, it was not difficult for Him to create a human nature for Himself, and “bridge the gap” as it were, by uniting this human nature to His divine person. Again, this does not in any way detract from God’s own transcendence and infinitude, since He loses nothing of this in assuming even the frail body of an infant, for God is pure spirit, and is not contracted or depleted by the “hypostatic union,” or the uniting of a human nature to his divine Person.

But let us look more deeply into our second question, which is why did God become incarnate? Aquinas points out that (point 7) “such things as spring from God’s will, and are beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason for the Incarnation, it is more in accordance with [revelation] 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.”[4] Here St. Thomas is saying that since Scripture makes clear that God became incarnate in order to save mankind from sin, this appears to be at least the principal reason for the Incarnation, although God could have become incarnate had we not sinned. One of the places where Scripture at least indicates this reason why God became incarnate is John 3:16, which says, “God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son, that whosoever might believe in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.”[5] St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy also clearly states that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).

On the other hand, Aquinas also notes that God could have saved us in some other way, since He is omnipotent, but this way seemed most fitting both with respect to furthering us in good, as well as with respect to withdrawing us from evil. Point 8 of your handout lists five ways (and there are certainly others as well) in which the Incarnation serves to further us in the good, which Aquinas states as follows: “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 sharer in our human nature?’ Thirdly, with regard to charity, which is greatly enkindled by this [fact that God became incarnate]; hence Augustine says [de catechizandis rudibus (On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed), 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 that 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.’”[6] In other words, that human beings might be made like God, or divinized by grace.

St. Thomas also gives five ways in which the Incarnation serves to withdraw us from evil [and this is point 9 on your handout]: “First,” he explains, “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 [in Christ], let not these proud spirits dare to prefer themselves to man, because they have no bodies.’ [In other words, although God himself is pure spirit, in assuming, or taking on our human nature, He also took a human body, thus elevating our human nature even above the angels.] 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). [That is, grace is purely a gift from God, and we cannot merit that gift (and so ought not to be presumptuous of it), although we can and must cooperate with it.] 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,’ [that God should deign to become man] 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 [i.e., in his humanity] and rise in the other [i.e., by the power of his divinity]—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 example.’”[7]

But couldn’t a mere human being satisfy for sin? That depends on what is meant by “satisfaction.” According to Aquinas, this term has two meanings, depending on whether we are speaking of perfect or imperfect satisfaction for sin. Satisfaction may be perfectly sufficient, says Aquinas, “inasmuch as it is condign, [that is, perfectly just or] adequate to make good the fault committed, and in this way the satisfaction of a mere man cannot be sufficient for sin, both because 1) the whole of human nature has been corrupted by sin, whereas the goodness of any person or persons could not make up adequately for the harm done to the whole of the [human] nature [that is, our entire nature has been affected in some way by sin—our intellects have been darkened; our wills are affected by malice, our desires by concupiscence, our fortitude or strength by weakness; without, however, becoming radically depraved, i.e., even without grace, a human being is still capable of some, although not all, morally good acts, though not meritorious for heaven]; and 2) also because a sin committed against God has a kind of infinity from the infinity of the Divine majesty, because the greater the person we offend, the more grievous the offense. [Even in civil law, the offense against a member of Parliament or the Queen, would receive a greater penalty than a similar offense committed against the average person, and in a way, this is correct, because an offense committed against a person in authority is not simply committed against the individual, but also against the common good of society.] Hence for condign [or absolutely just] satisfaction it was necessary that the act of the one satisfying [for an offense committed against God] should have an infinite efficiency, as being of God and man.”[8]

So to recap, there are two reasons Aquinas gives why we cannot of ourselves completely satisfy for sin: 1) the wounds of original sin are in our human nature itself, and we do not have the power to overcome the wounds in our own natures by ourselves, without the grace of God, which comes to us from Christ; 2) sin committed against God, who is infinite, has a kind of infinity, but we are simply finite. So only one who is both God and man can make satisfaction with that “infinite efficacy” needed to overcome and atone for sin.

However, we can, in being united to Christ, make sufficient, though imperfect, satisfaction for sin, insofar as God accepts our efforts, even though our satisfaction is not condign, or absolutely just satisfaction. Aquinas explains that “just as everything imperfect presupposes some perfect thing, by which it is sustained, hence it is that satisfaction of every mere human being has its efficacy from the satisfaction of Christ.”[9] So it is only when joined to the merits of Christ that our efforts to atone for sin become efficacious.

So that is where I will leave the second question, on why the Word became incarnate. Now let us move on to the third question, which we have already touched upon, that is, how can we best understand what the Scriptures mean when it says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”? There are two major pitfalls, or ancient heresies, that we want to avoid here. The first is called Monophysitism, and the second pitfall, at the opposite extreme, is Nestorianism. Monophysitism stems from two Greek words, mono, meaning “single” or “only one” and “physis,” which means “nature,” so it refers to the idea of Christ having only one nature after the incarnation, such that either one of the natures is swallowed up by the other (the human nature by the divine or vice-versa) or the two natures were thought some to fuse together into one, forming what was called a “tertium quid,” a “third something” that was neither fully human, nor fully divine, but a mix of both. So that is Monophysitism.

The second heresy, Nestorianism, sought to separate the two natures so much as to divide the subject of these natures into two subjects, or in some cases, two persons, one human and one divine. Nestorius himself famously refused to acknowledge Mary as the Theotokos, the Greek word meaning “God-bearer,” because he said that Mary was the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God. (We sometimes may hear a similar argument even today by those who, although they profess belief in the divinity of Christ, still want to say that since Mary was the mother of Jesus’ humanity, one ought not to give her the title, Mother of God.) In responding to this sort of argument, both the original Nestorian one, and the modern-day version, it is important always to keep in mind that Jesus is one Person, not two, and that He is a divine Person, not a human person per se, although he has a human nature. But his personhood is properly a divine one, because His very being is divine.

Before we unpack all this, I would just like to read a bit from the Council of Chalcedon, an ecumenical council of the Church that took place in 451 A.D. and which formally declared the distinction of divine and human natures in the one divine Person of Christ to be a matter of faith. If you look at point 10 of your handout, you will see what is called the Definition of the Faith: “Following the saintly fathers, we [the Council of bishops united together under the Pope] all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer [here they are purposely giving her the title of Theotokos that Nestorius had rejected] as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo [this is the key phrase] no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; [no confusion—this is denying the theory of the tertium quid, or a nature which was a kind of hybrid of human and divine; and no change—no loss or change to his divinity in becoming man, nor a strange kind of human nature in which the human soul or intellect were somehow replaced or swallowed up by his divinity—these are said against monophysiticism and similar heresies; and the phrases, no division, no separation are declared against Nestorianism, as they will now explain] at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons [so here is the emphasis against Nestorianism], but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word [here they are in a sense canonizing the term used by Scripture, and the analogy of the Word], Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us. Since we have formulated these things with all possible accuracy and attention, the sacred and universal synod decreed that no one is permitted to produce, or even to write down or compose, any other creed or to think or teach otherwise.” [Very strong language!]

But how does this union of the divine and human natures take place? Nestorius thought it was simply an accidental union, such as the union of a very holy person with God, who dwells in the holy person as in a temple, as St. Paul writes. But this would mean that Jesus was simply a very holy man, perhaps even the holiest of men, but that is still very far from being God himself. Besides a union by indwelling, there are also other types of possible accidental unions that Aquinas lists: a “unity of intention, inasmuch as the will of the man was always in agreement with the will of the Word of God; thirdly, [a union] by operation, inasmuch as … the man was the instrument of the Word of God; fourthly, [a union] by greatness of honor, inasmuch as all honour shown to the Son of God was equally shown to the Son of man, on account of his union with the Son of God; fifthly, [a union] by equivocation, i.e., [simply] communication of names….”[10] [e.g. one might use words, such as “well” with two or more unrelated meanings—“well” as a hole deep in the ground which contains water, or “well”, as in “I’m feeling well,” or the word, “bank,” a place where I save money or “bank,” a stretch of land bordering a river, as in a “river bank”.

So we can speak in different ways of the union of a holy soul with God, but that is of a completely different order than the union of God and man in Christ, since again, this is not an accidental relationship, but is a union in the very substance of the divine person. In other words, as Thomas Joseph White notes, in Jesus, “God subsists personally as a human being. By contrast, our union with God takes place primarily… through human operations. By the working of grace, we can come to know God and to love him, so as to be united with him by our human actions. The distinction is important…, because it allows us to see clearly the true ‘locus’ of the incarnation that is particular to Christ. It does not take place in the human consciousness of Jesus [as Schleiermacher would say] or in his human operations of obedience [as Karl Barth would say]. It takes place in the very substance of Christ’s person.”[11] This is not to say, of course, that Christ did not also have grace in his human soul, or that he did not also perform human operations of knowing, loving, and obeying God. He did do that as man. But this is not where the union primarily takes place in Christ.

So Aquinas explains that if one is to hold, together with the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), that Christ is truly one divine person with two natures, then the union of the two natures must be a substantial union, that is, a union in the person (or hypostasis or subject) of Christ himself. For this reason, it is called the hypostatic union. In other words, the two distinct natures, human and divine, both belong to the one divine person, God the Son, who has the divine nature simply by virtue of being God, and who, in entering into time, has assumed a complete human nature, meaning he has not only a human body, but also a rational human soul, which includes a human intellect (as well as a divine one), a human will (as well as a divine one), human acts, or operations, as well as divine ones, and human emotions. (I should briefly note here that God in himself does not have emotions, since emotions are at least partly due to the physicality of our bodies, for which reason they are also referred to as “feelings,” which does not mean, of course, that God cannot love, but rather, that His love is in fact infinitely purer than any human love, because human love, insofar as it is emotional, can be subject to change and even loss (something unfitting to the divine). But Christ does have human emotions, which are completely and rightly ordered, since he is without any of the disorder due to sin, which so often plagues the rest of humanity with often conflicting emotional turmoil and confusion, with the one exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.) So the union of the two natures in Christ is a substantial, or hypostatic, union, that is a union in the divine Person of the Son. For this reason, although the human nature of Christ is created, it does not have its own finite esse, or being or subsistence, but it subsists because the divine esse, the divine person, communicates the act of being to it. That is, as Aquinas says, Christ’s human nature has a greater dignity than ours because “his human nature exists in the Person of the Word” (ST III, q. 2, a. 2 ad 2).

How then do we rightly speak of Christ’s actions, such as his birth, death, and resurrection? Or his miracles of healing the blind man or raising Lazarus from the dead? Can we say, for example, that the baby in Bethlehem is giving being to the world? Or that God was crucified and died on the cross? In a way, yes, we can truly say these things, using what is termed, “the communication of idioms.” In points 11 and 12 of your handout, you have excerpts from the Letter of Pope Leo I to Bishop Flavian (which is also known as the Tome of Leo, written against Eutyches, a heretic who postulated a mixture of natures in Christ): (I should add that this letter was basically canonized by the Council of Chalcedon which cites it word for word). It says, “The proper character of both natures was maintained and came together in a single person. Lowliness was taken up by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity. To pay off the debt of our state, invulnerable nature [i.e., the divine nature] was united to a nature that could suffer [human nature]; so that in a way that corresponded to the remedies we needed, one and the same mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, could both on the one hand die and on the other be incapable of death. Thus was true God born in the undiminished and perfect nature of a true man, complete in what is his [i.e., his divinity] and complete in what is ours [our humanity]…. His subjection to human weaknesses in common with us did not mean that he shared our sins. He took on the form of a servant without the defilement of sin, thereby enhancing the human and not diminishing the divine. For that self-emptying whereby the Invisible rendered himself visible, and the Creator and Lord of all things chose to join the ranks of mortals, spelled no failure of power: it was an act of merciful favour. So the one who retained the form [and by form he means nature] of God when he made humanity, was made man in the form of a servant. Each nature kept its proper character without loss; and just as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant [human nature], so the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God [divine nature].”

Pope Leo then goes on to express the way of understanding what is now known as the communication of idioms: “The activity of each form is what is proper to it in communion with the other: that is, the Word performs what belongs to the Word, and the flesh accomplishes what belongs to the flesh. One of these performs brilliant miracles; the other sustains acts of violence. As the Word does not lose its glory which is equal to that of the Father, so neither does the flesh leave the nature of its kind behind. We must say this again and again: one and the same is truly Son of God and truly son of man. God, by the fact that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; man, by the fact that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. God, by the fact that all things were made through him, and nothing was made without him, man, by the fact that he was made of a woman, made under the law. The birth of flesh reveals human nature; birth from a virgin is a proof of divine power.”[12]

So, to continue with our description of the communication of idioms or the attribution of the properties of each nature to the one divine person, one can say that as God (by virtue of his divine power), Jesus, together with the Father, sends the Holy Spirit: He says in the Gospel of John: “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father…” (Jn 15:26), and “for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7b).[13] But as man, Christ himself also receives grace and gifts through the Holy Spirit: At the moment of the Incarnation, not only is the human nature assumed into hypostatic union with the Person of God the Son, but the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Son as “love from wisdom,” is also active in conforming the human soul of Christ to Himself in charity through the gift of habitual grace. The Holy Spirit does not precede the Son; rather, He is sent by the Father and the Son to Christ’s human nature just as He is sent to other human souls in the state of grace. Yet the grace that we receive also comes to us through Christ. John 1:16-17 teaches us that “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Fr. Thomas Joseph White comments on this passage: “Christ as man shares his grace with us, and it is for this reason principally that he is called the ‘Head of the Church.’ [Col 1:18; Eph 5:23]. Jesus is the Head who lives in his members by grace, and makes us alive to God the Father as those who participate in his grace.”[14] And this is the answer to our final question, “how does the fact that the Word became flesh really affect us anyway?”

Therefore, this Advent and Christmas, as we contemplate the coming of God the Son, the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, first of all in his mother’s womb and born as the tiny babe in Bethlehem, let us keep in mind the marvelous reality of the union of our human nature with the divine in the one divine person who is Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who gives us grace not only as God, but also as man, that is through the instrumentality of his humanity, which is truly, substantially, that is hypostatically, united to his divinity, without either nature losing what is proper to it-- no confusion, no change, no division, no separation. It is this God-man whom we contemplate, born in Bethlehem. It is this God-man who died for us on the Cross of Calvary in order to atone for our sins and unite us to God by grace. It is this God-Man who rose again on the third-day and ascended into heaven. It is this God-man whom we receive at every Mass in holy communion. It is this God-man, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, whom we hope to lovingly contemplate forever, in the eternity of the glory of heaven.

God so loved the world that He sent His only Son in a divine mission to the world, in order that we might not perish, but might have eternal life. His mission was made visible in the Incarnation, and this visible mission points to the continued invisible divine mission to each soul that receives him in grace, and in receiving the Word of God, is also likened, or conformed, to him in true Wisdom, the Wisdom which orders all things to the highest cause, to God Himself. This Advent and Christmas, may we contemplate deeply this mystery of God’s mission to us which shows us something of the depth of his love. May we reflect on the fact that, as long as we are in the state of grace, God the Holy Trinity dwells within our souls, and may we make continuous acts, by His grace, of faith, hope, and charity, believing in Him, hoping in Him, and loving Him more and more, until we shall see Him forever, face-to-face in Paradise.

[1] Thomas Joseph White, O.P., The Light of Christ, (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 82. [2] ST III, q. 1, a. 1, resp. [3] ST III, q. 1, a. 1, ad 1. [4] ST III, q. 1, a. 3, resp. [5] Cf. ST III, q. 1, a. 2, s.c. [6] ST III, q. 1, a. 2, resp. [7] ST III, q. 1, a. 2, resp. [8] ST III, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2. [9] ST III, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2. [10] ST III, q. 2, a. 6, resp. [11] Thomas Joseph White, Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 63. [12] Here I should respond for a moment to an objection sometimes raised concerning the virginal conception and birth of Christ, since some people have portrayed it as a mythology or an attempt to copy certain Greco-Roman myths. On the contrary, however, as Thomas Joseph White points out, there are no real analogies to this in Greco-Roman myths, which typically depicted the gods “as interacting sexually with human women,” whereas here, explains Fr. White, it is “not that God took on human features of reproduction, but that the one God, creator of all that exists, began something new in the human race by his direct activity, acting omnipotently upon nature as the transcendent creator. Jesus’s embryonic body and gestational development are typically human and natural, but they have their beginning by the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary and giving her to conceive miraculously without a human father.” White, The Light of Christ, 158. [13] Emphasis added. See also, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you” (Luke 24:49). [14] White, The Light of Christ, 155.


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