Baptism of the Lord – A

Immersion in water was a sign of ritual purification among various ancient religions and sects, such as the Essenes. Whereas such baptisms were ritual and repeated, the baptism of John the Baptist had a moral significance of repentance and amendment, that marked an initiation among those who were preparing themselves for the coming of the Messiah.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke tell us that John’s Baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4: Lk 3:3). The Evangelists do not hesitate to tell us that John’s baptism was for repentance, then why was Jesus baptized? The New Testament never suggests that Jesus repented sins. Jesus calls others to repentance (Mk 1:15) and forgives sin (Mk 2:5).

Faith in Jesus’ sinlessness is affirmed throughout the New Testament:

  • “Can any of you charge me with sin?” (Jn 8:46).
  • You know that He was revealed to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin” (1 Jn 3:5).
  • “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin…” (2 Cor 5:21)
  • “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth” (1 Pet 2:22)

Not only did Jesus not sin but John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29).

The writers of the Gospels could have conveniently left out Jesus’ baptism if they thought it implied that Jesus needed to repent. Likewise, if they thought Jesus’ baptism indicated that John was superior to Jesus. There were some people who would gladly have understood the baptism in such a way since at the time of the composition of the Gospels, disciples of John could still be found, even as far as Ephesus in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey (cf. Acts 18:25, 19:3).

Clearly the Evangelists believed that Jesus’ baptism was an important part of the story that needed to be told. Today’s second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, identifies the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with His baptism by John: “… how Jesus of Nazareth began in Galilee, after John had been preaching baptism” (Acts 10:37).

It is certain that to the early disciples, Jesus’ baptism was a special moment in Jesus’ story that needed to be told. But why?

Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. explains the Father’s declaration of Jesus as “Son”: “… the heavenly identification stresses the relation of Jesus to His Father, as an important phase of His earthly career begins” (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 483).

Jesus’ ministry is enabled by the descent of the Spirit, as Fitzmyer affirms: “The main purpose, then, of the baptism scene … is to announce the heavenly identification of Jesus as “Son” and (indirectly) as Yahweh’s Servant. The descent of the Spirit upon Him is a preparation for the ministry, the beginning of which is noted … immediately following …” (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 481).

The Evangelists were convinced that John played an important role in preparing for Jesus. The Gospel of John affirms: “That He may be manifest in Israel, I came baptizing with water” (Jn 1:31). Similarly, the Synoptics recount John “the one who comes after me is more powerful than I” (Mt 3:11; cf. Mk 3:6, Lk 3:16).

Following the understanding of the Gospels, St. Thomas Aquinas maintains: “The whole teaching and work of John was in preparation for Christ” (3a. 38, 2, ad 2).

According to Thomas, John’s baptism was a sign of an intention to reform. In itself, the baptism did not effect a change: “Neither did they receive anything, save only the sign of penance” (3a. 38, 4 ad 2).

Thomas follows the idea of some of the Fathers that Jesus was baptized to draw us to baptism: “Christ wished to be baptized in order by His example to lead us to baptism… that He might lead us more efficaciously, He wished to be baptized…” (3a. 39, 2, ad 1).

The Baptism of Jesus by John serves as an example for us. Thomas recalls the words of Ambrose that justice consists in doing first what you wish others to do and so you “encourage others by your example” (3a. 39, 1, ad 2; Ambrose, Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, 3, 21). The fact that Jesus underwent an exterior rite verifies that, interiorly, we encounter Christ and His grace in the exterior rites of the sacraments.

Unlike John’s baptism Jesus’ baptism changes us. In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, John announces, “I baptize you in water, but… He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8).  The Gospel of Luke likewise asserts: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:6). In the Gospel of John, John is told: “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1:33).

Thomas comments, “By the baptism of the New Law men are baptized inwardly by the Holy Spirit, and this is accomplished by God alone” (3a. 38, 3 ad 1). Thomas recalls Augustine’s words, “our sacraments are signs of present grace” (3a. 38, 6 ad 5; Augustine, Contra Faustum, 19).

Thomas picks up on the thoughts of the Fathers of the Church that Jesus was baptized, “that He might sanctify baptism” (3a. 38, 1) and “in order to consecrate the baptism with which we were to be baptized” (3a. 39, 5). Thomas recalls that Ambrose had said that by His Baptism, Christ cleansed the water by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin (3a. 39, 1; Ambrose, Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, 3, 21).

We might not see how the cleansing of the waters of the Jordan affects us, yet Thomas affirms: “We become receivers of this grace through God’s Son made man, whose humanity grace first filled, and then flowed to us” (1a2ae. 108, 1). By undergoing Baptism, Jesus made baptism a means of grace for us.

Thomas relates Jesus’ baptism is our example. Just as the heavens opened when Christ was baptized, in baptism, the heavens are opened for us: “Those who are baptized make a profession of faith, and baptism is called the ‘sacrament of faith.’ Now by faith we gaze on heavenly things, which surpass the senses and human reason” (3a. 39, 5).

Thomas notices that Luke says, “Jesus, having been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened” (Lk 3:21). Thomas reflects “… the very fact that through baptism heaven is opened to believers is in virtue of the prayer of Christ” (3a. 39, 5).

Christ’s Passion opens heaven in general but heaven is open to each one in baptism, as Thomas observes: “Christ’s Passion is the common cause of the opening of heaven to me. But it behooves this cause to be applied to each one, in order that he enter heaven. And this is effected by baptism: ‘All who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in His death’ (Rm 6:3)” (3a. 39, 6 ad 3). Thomas notes “At Christ’s baptism the heavens were opened as though the way had been shown by which we were to enter into heaven” (3a. 39, 5, ad 3)

Thomas calls attention to the Trinitarian aspects of the Baptism: “For the Son was in the flesh, the Father in the voice and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove” (Commentary on Matthew).

The Father is “totally pleased in the Son, who has as much goodness as the Father” (Commentary on Matthew). “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things in His hands” (Jn 3:55).

The Spirit descended on Jesus but also the Spirit also comes to us: “All those who are baptized with the baptism of Christ receive the Holy Spirit… Therefore it was fitting that the Holy Spirit should descend upon Him” (3a. 39, 6).

Thomas acknowledges that God loves us initially as His creations: “For in whatever one’s good is reflected, in it something is pleased with it, as an artisan takes pleasure in his beautiful work of art, and as a man in his beautiful image reflected in a mirror. The divine goodness is in every individual creature” (Commentary on Matthew).

While our resemblance to Christ is “never as whole and perfect except in the Son and the Holy Spirit,” baptism makes us God’s children in the Son: “… especially at the time of baptism, by which men are born again into adopted sons of God, since God’s sons by adoption are made to be like His natural Son: ‘Whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformable to the image of His Son’ (Rom 8:29)” (3a. 39, 8 ad 3).

We are in the process of being conformed to the image of the Son by the Spirit.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The translations from the Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by Fabian Larcher, O.P. The full text is available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/

References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae customarily give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. Jesus’ Baptism is found in the third (tertia) part of the Summa. References in this homily are to questions 38 and 39. In the beginning of each article, Thomas raises objections to what he will explain. After he has given his answer, he replies to the objections. This is his reply to the second objection, which is identified with the Latin preposition, ad, meaning “to.” Thus the effects of John’s baptism are found in 3a. 38, 2, ad 2.

Epiphany – A

Every believer follows the star, the light that God gives, in the darkness. St. Thomas Aquinas asks why Christ’s birth wasn’t announced more widely so that more people would have believed in Him. Thomas explains that faith is the way by which we go to God: “Christ came to offer faith to people as the way to righteousness” (3a. 36, 1).

Even Christ’s birth required faith: “… For if, when Christ was born, His birth had been made known to all by evident signs, the very nature of faith would have been destroyed, since it faith is the evidence of things that appear not (Heb 11:1)” (3a. 36, 1).

Christ’s coming strengthens faith but it doesn’t remove the need for faith: “His first coming was for the salvation of all, which is by faith that is of things unseen. Therefore it was fitting that His first coming should be hidden” (3. 36, 1).

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., in his scholarly study of the Infancy accounts, has described the infancy narratives as “the essential Gospel story in miniature” Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah (updated edition) 1993), 7. The infancy narratives are like an overture in a symphony, which touches upon themes that will be developed later. The infancy narratives make clear that God is present to His people in the person of His Son. Even so, this presence can only be recognized by the discerning eye of faith, as Thomas says: “Christ’s birth was ordered to our salvation, which is by faith” (3a. 36, 4).

Unlike the Gospel of Luke, Matthew doesn’t give us details about the birth of Jesus. Rather, the account moves quickly from Joseph accepting Mary as his wife to the brief statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of King Herod to the coming of the wise men to see the “newborn king of the Jews.”

Why do Gentiles move to the center so rapidly when, in the course of His ministry, Matthew will indicate that Jesus told His disciples to go first to the Jews and not to the Gentiles (Mt 10:5)? In fact, however, Matthew was well aware that many Gentiles would come to Jesus. Thomas reflects: “That manifestation of Christ’s birth was a kind of foretaste of the full manifestation which was to come” (3a. 36, 3 ad 1).

Thomas explains: “The wise men are the first-fruits of the Gentiles that believed in Christ; because their faith was a portent of the devotion and faith of the nations” (3a. 36, 8).

The people of the nations would imitate the journey of the wise men to Christ. The wise men model our movement towards God, not only as they are from the “nations” but even as we move through a certain darkness, led by a certain light. The wise men traveled by faith and they responded by faith when they found the Child.

We are on a journey as well. In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Thomas points out: “It should be noted that those wise men … prefigure in themselves our condition. For they presuppose something, namely, the birth of Christ, and they look for something, namely, the place. We, indeed, have Christ by faith, but we look for something by hope: for we shall see him face to face: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor 5:7).”  We are also on a journey.

As we journey, we are also being led. Jesus says, “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from Him comes to Me” (Jn 6:45). The Father draws us to the Son, just as the wise men were guided by a star. The Father’s teaching isn’t given all at once. Thomas explains: “A person acquires a share in this learning not all at once but little by little” (2a2ae. 2, 3). Our journey is gradual just as the wise men traveled step by step.

Just as a star gave light to the wise men, Thomas tells us that God gives us faith as our light: “…by the light of faith, which God bestows on him, a man assents to matters of faith” (2a2ae. 2, 3).

There is an old say, “Do what you know and you will find out what you don’t know.” Relatively speaking, the understanding of the wise men was small but they followed what they knew and God led them on. Thomas notices that the star was not always visible: ”It was visible at one time and hidden at another. When they entered Jerusalem, it hid itself: then, when they left Herod, it showed itself” (3a. 36, 7). In the same way, sometimes we see where we are going on our journey more clearly than at other times. It is the way of faith.

The wise men are helped in their journey by the Scriptures as Thomas observes: “For the Lord’s will is to make himself manifest to them not only by the star but also by the Law, so that knowledge of the Law might be joined to their knowledge of creatures” (Commentary on Matthew).

In fact, as Thomas indicates the way of believers is not by signs but by the Scriptures: “We are instructed that we, who are believers, should not seek signs, as those did who, seeing the star, rejoiced exceedingly; but we ought to be content with the doctrines of the prophets, because signs are given for unbelievers” (Commentary on Matthew).

According to Thomas, the wise men proclaimed the birth of the King: “It was also God’s will that, when they no longer saw the star, the wise men, by human instinct, went to Jerusalem, to seek in the royal city the new-born King, in order that Christ’s birth might be publicly proclaimed first in Jerusalem” (3a. 36, 8 ad 3). Thomas affirms that the wise men represented the future martyrs from the nations, in that they risked death in inquiring from Herod the whereabouts of another king (3a. 36, 8 ad 1). Thomas’ argument why some people had to bear witness to the birth is indicative of the importance of preaching or other forms of witness. If the wise men had not borne witness, the birth would be unknown “so that no one can hear it from another; for ‘faith comes from hearing’ (Rom 10:17).” (3a. 36, 2 ad 1).

Thomas affirms that the wise men professed their faith when they saw the Child. There were many reasons why they could have doubted that this Child was the one whom they were seeking:

As to externals, he did not speak, he seems helpless, and so on. If one asks about the mother, the answer is that she looked like the wife of a worker. I say this, because, if they had been looking for an earthly king, they would have been shocked at what they saw. But seeing lowly things and considering the loftiest, they were moved to admiration and adored him (Commentary on Matthew).

Thomas maintains that the Holy Spirit moved them to adore the Child: “The wise men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, did wisely in paying homage to Christ” (3a. 36, 8 ad 1). We also can ask the Spirit to help us pay homage to Christ.

Thomas holds that, in His birth, Christ manifested His humanity. It was for others to recognize His divinity:

Christ’s birth was made known in such a way that proof of His Godhead should not prejudice faith in His human nature. Christ presented a likeness to human weakness and yet by means of God’s creatures, He showed the power of the Godhead in Himself (3a. 36, 4).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The translations from the Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by Fabian Larcher, O.P. The full text is available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/

The references to the Summa Theologiae specify the part of the Summa, the question and the article. In this case it is the third part of the Summa (called in Latin, the Tertia Pars), the thirty-sixth question and the first article within that question. When Thomas addresses one of the objections he has raised at the beginning of the article, it will be indicated by the Latin preposition “ad” (meaning “to”).

Mary, Mother of God – A

Jesus had a mother! We especially think about His mother, as we look at the Christmas manger and see a very vulnerable Child and His mother and foster father watching over Him. In taking our humanity, Jesus took our human conditions of being born but also the special blessings that God gives us of parents.

Today we celebrate the feast of “Mary, Mother of God.” One of the first prayers that we learned was the “Hail Mary,” in which we call Mary “Mother of God.” That title is very important because it tells us who Jesus is but also it makes it clear that Jesus, in His humanity, had a mother.

That title is very ancient but it didn’t come without a struggle. In the Eastern Church, during the fourth century, Mary was called the Theotókos, which means the one who bore God.

In 428, Nestorius, the Patriarch (Bishop) of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, was celebrating the Liturgy. He became disturbed when he heard his deacon, Proclus, speak of Mary as the Theotókos. Nestorius insisted that since Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, Mary gave birth to Jesus in His humanity not in His divinity.

A controversy broke out about the use of the title. In 431, the Council of Ephesus was called to address the issue. The Council realized that the controversy involved Mary only in a secondarily way. The essential issue concerned Jesus’ two natures.

The Council emphasized the difference between two words, “person” and “nature”. Each one of us is an individual person. Each of us has human nature but no one of us is human nature.

As an individual person, Jesus is the Son of the eternal Father. The Son took our human nature but He is still a divine Person, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Paul tells that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:7). The child who is born is the Second Person of the Trinity who has a human nature.  Mary is the Theotókos, the one who carried God in her womb. In the West, we call her Mater Dei, “Mother of God.”

This title doesn’t just tell us about Jesus’ divinity. It tells us about Jesus’ humanity. Jesus had a mother. As a very small infant, she nourished Him from her own body. She and Joseph taught Him to speak and to walk.

We realize that when we say that Mary is the “Mother of God” we are not saying that she is the Mother of His divinity, which is eternal. St. Thomas Aquinas explains: “We must say that the Blessed Virgin is called the Mother of God, not as though she were the Mother of the Godhead, but because she is the mother, according to His human nature, of the Person who has both the divine and the human nature” (3a. 35, 4, ad 1).

Some people have taught that Jesus’ body was a spiritual body, introduced into Mary. Thomas affirms that Christ’s body was taken from Mary: “The Blessed Virgin Mary is in truth and by nature the Mother of Christ… Christ’s body was taken from the Virgin Mother, and formed from her purest blood (3a. 35, 3).

Although the conception of Christ was supernatural, Mary was a true mother in the physical sense: “On the part of the mother, this nativity was natural, but on the part of the operation of the Holy Ghost it was supernatural. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is the true and natural Mother of Christ” (3a. 35, 3, ad 2).

Some have taught that Christ was conceived as a human first and later, the Son of God assumed the existing human: “Since, therefore, the human nature was taken by the Divine Person in the very beginning of the conception it follows that it can be truly said that God was conceived and born of the Virgin. Now from this is a woman called a man’s mother, that she conceived him and gave birth to him. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is truly called the Mother of God” (3a. 35, 4).

Mary is the connection between Jesus and His Jewish ancestry. St. Paul wrote: “…of their race, according to the flesh is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom 9:5). St. Thomas affirms: “He is not of the Jews except through the Blessed Virgin. Therefore He who is ‘above all things, God blessed forever,’ is truly born of the Blessed Virgin as of His Mother” (3a. 35, 4, ad 1).

Thomas asserts that real nature of Christ’s sonship to Mary: “Christ is really the Son of the Virgin Mother through the real relation of her motherhood to Christ” (3a. 35, 5).

Before the Incarnation, Christ existed eternally. As a result of the Incarnation, Christ took on a real relation as Son to Mary: “Eternal filiation does not depend on a temporal mother, but together with this eternal filiation we understand a certain temporal relation dependent on the mother, in respect of which relation Christ is called the Son of His Mother” (3a. 35, 5, ad 2).

At times, in history, some Christians have not taken Christ’s humanity as seriously as it should be taken. Jesus’ having a mother demonstrates the reality of His humanity.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, give the part of the Summa, which in this case, is the third. The particular question follows. In this case it is question 35. This is followed by the particular article, such as 3, 4, or 5. If the reference is a response to an objection that Thomas raised at the beginning of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to” is given along with number of the objection.

Holy Family Sunday – A

Matthew describes a family coping with a crisis. In Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, Joseph learns that Herod wants to destroy the new-born child, whom the king fears is a potential threat to his power. Quickly, Joseph takes “the child and his mother” and they flee during the night to Egypt.

This pattern is repeated over and over again as men of violence fight for power. Typically those who suffer the most in these conflicts are women and children. Presently, this struggle for power is taking place in the Central African Republic, in Southern Sudan and in Syria, the nations which Pope Francis prayed for on Christmas.

The causes of these conflicts are complex and yet there are enough patterns that we can consider conflicts in general as well, especially today, on Holy Family Sunday, conflicts within families, marriages and all our relationships. Thomas Aquinas’ considerations on “peace” may give us some insight.

Why are there conflicts in relationships? Thomas states what may be obvious and yet is generally overlooked: “Man’s heart is not at peace, so long as he has not what he wants, or if, having what he wants, there still remains something for him to want, and which he cannot have at this time” (2a2ae. 29, 1).[1]

A person believes that something is keeping him or her from having what he or she wants. Of course, no one has everything that he or she wants. However, conflicts within nations are often caused by long-standing deprivations of basic needs. A recent book on the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 is entitled, Out Turn to Eat, suggesting that some groups were fighting for what they should have. A starting point to resolving conflict is to listen to what the others are saying. What do they want? Are they reasonable requests?

According to Thomas, concord is when people agree on the same thing. When a person agrees because of force or fear, there really isn’t peace because “concord” isn’t really there (2a2ae. 29, 1 ad 1).[2] In some nations, a strong leader has been able to suppress dissention. Eventually the smoldering resentments have emerged because the genuine needs have not been addressed.

Any desire is implicitly a desire for peace, to obtain what he or she desires without hindrance (2a2ae. 29, 2). Thomas points out that even people who start wars and dissensions want peace. They seek to break the existing stability because they consider it a fraudulent peace, that maintains the needs of others but not themselves (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 2). Of course, this way of achieving “peace” lays the groundwork for future conflict because this “peace” serves their own needs while depriving others.

Thomas is well aware that what we might desire might not be a real good but an apparent good. An apparent good brings a false peace, which calms the appetite in some ways but still the appetite remains restless and disturbed because the apparent good is not our most. Thomas insists that true peace is only from seeking good things because only good things really satisfy us (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 3).

Ultimately true peace comes when all our desires rest in that one object – the eternal good. Even now, our peace comes from resting in God, even though, as Thomas says, “certain things within and without disturb the peace” (2a2ae. 29, 2 ad 4).

Through charity or love, we find peace in ourselves when all our appetites are directed to one object, which is God: “in so far as man loves God with his whole heart, by referring all things to Him, so that all his desires tend to one object” (2a2ae. 29, 3).

Charity or love brings peace is “in so far as we love our neighbor as ourselves, the result being that we wish to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were ours” ( 2a2ae. 29, 3).

Wishing to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were ours might seem to be an impossible goal but it does connect with Thomas’ idea of knowing what our neighbor desires. What would our relationships be like if we were sensitive to each other’s needs?

Thomas acknowledges that peace does not require that we share the same opinions on every matter but only on what is essential: “nothing hinders those who have charity from holding different opinions” (2a2ae. 29, 3 ad 2).

Thomas thinks that peace is the fruit of justice indirectly because justice removes the obstacles to peace, but he thinks that peace is the fruit of charity directly since “charity, according to its very nature, causes peace” (2a2ae. 29, 3 ad 3). Thomas affirms “Charity causes peace precisely because it is love of God and of our neighbor” (2a2ae. 29, 4). Paul VI put it somewhat differently, in his Message for World Day of Peace, in 1972, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Wanting others to have what is justly theirs is also part of love.

Although much more could be added to these basic thoughts of Thomas, still trying to understand what the other person desires is a key to resolving conflict. To make their desires our own concretizes Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P

[1] References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, followed by the number of the question and then the article in the question. This passage is from the Secunda Secundae (Second part of the Second). The second part of the Summa, which deals with our way to God, is divided into two parts, the first and the second. The question is Question 29, “On Peace” and this is the first article of the question.

[2] When a reference to the Summa contains the Latin preposition “ad”, Thomas is replying to an objection that he raised at the beginning of the article.

Christmas -A

Why did the Son of God take our human nature? Thomas points out that everything acts according to what it is so that humans act in a reasonable way. How would we describe God’s nature? Thomas thinks the description of God by the Syrian theologian, Dionysius,[1] quickly gets to the heart of what God’s nature is. Thomas explains: “The very nature of God is goodness, as is clear from Dionysius. Hence what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God” (3a. 1, 1).[2]

Since everything acts as it is and God’s nature is goodness, then God acts in good ways. Thomas draws upon another principle of Dionysius, “It belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others…” (3a. 1, 1).

 We know that good people are generous but God’s goodness and generosity exceed whatever we experience in our human encounters. Thomas explains: “It belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature” (3a. 1, 1). God’s generosity flows from His goodness. God’s generosity and His goodness are the ultimate explanation for the Incarnation.

 Why was the Incarnation good? From the perspective of the divinity of the Son of God, which surpasses our humanity, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why it would be appropriate or fitting for the Son of God to take our nature to Himself.  The one way that it seems appropriate is for our sakes, as Thomas explains that “God by reason of His infinite goodness should unite human nature to Himself for our salvation” (3a. 1, 1, ad 2).[3]

 Was the Incarnation the only way we could have been saved? Thomas recalls John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that those who believe in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Thomas thinks that the Incarnation was not the only way that we could be saved but it is a way that achieves its goal “better and more conveniently” (3a. 1, 2). Thomas offers the example of a horse as a better, although not necessary, way to travel. We might think of a car or a plane as a better way.

 Why is the Incarnation a better way to bring about our salvation? According to Thomas the Incarnation is most effective in achieving God’s purpose “for the restoration of human nature.” The Incarnation strengthens our faith because we are more likely to believe God than to believe each other. When Jesus speaks to us, “God Himself speaks.”

The Incarnation strengthens our hope. Thomas recalls Augustine’s words: “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?”[4]

Our love for God, “is most greatly enkindled by the Incarnation” because we see how much God loves us. Thomas refers to Augustine’s words “What greater cause is there of the Lord’s coming than to show God’s love for us? … If we have been slow to love, at least let us hasten to love in return.”[5]

The Incarnate Son of God teaches us the right way to live by His example. Thomas alludes to Augustine’s words: “Humans whom we can see are not to be followed but God who cannot be followed is not seen. God was made man that He might be seen by us and that we might see the one we should follow.”[6]

 Thomas states that “full participation of the Divinity is our true happiness and the goal of human life.” This sharing in divinity “is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity.” Thomas remembers Augustine’s affirmation, “God was made man that man might be made God.”[7]

Thomas adds that the Incarnation delivers us from evil. This liberation begins by instructing us not to be overwhelmed by the devil. He recalls Augustine’s words that since “human nature is joined to God as to become one with Him in person,” there is no cause to be affected by evil spirits since “they are without flesh” and the Son of God has come closer to us by taking our flesh.[8]

We are also taught “how great is the dignity of human nature,” which should make us reluctant to sin. Thomas evokes Augustine: “God showed us the exalted place that human nature holds in creation by appearing to men as a true man.”[9] In a similar way, St. Leo instructs us: “O Christian, acknowledge your dignity; having been made a sharer in the divine nature, refuse to fall back into your previous worthlessness by your conduct.”[10]

Again, Thomas says that one of the effects of the Incarnation is “to do away with human presumption. He refers to Augustine, “The grace of God, with no preceding merits on our part, is shown to us in the man Christ.”[11] Thomas affirms that Jesus’ humility can heal our pride, as Augustine says, “Man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling-block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility so great.”[12]

The Incarnation rescues us from slavery. He returns to Augustine, this “should be done in such a way that the devil is overcome by the justice of a man, Jesus Christ.”[13] Thomas adds that this is accomplished by “Christ making satisfaction for us.” Since a human person could not make satisfaction for the whole human race, Thomas explains, “It is fitting, then, for Jesus Christ to be both God and human” (3a. 1, 2). He calls upon the words of Leo: “Weakness is received by power, humility by majesty, that one and the same mediator between God and man might die from the one and rise from the other, and so were we fitly restored. Unless He were truly God, he could not provide a cure; unless He were man, He could not offer an example.”[14]

Thomas recognizes that ultimately the reasons for the Incarnation are God’s reasons but theology applies reason to the mysteries revealed in faith, although always recognizing the limitations of our human thinking when applied to divine mysteries. He notes: “There were many other advantages resulting, which are beyond our present earth-bound comprehension.”[15]

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

[1] Dionysius is the author of De Divinis Nominibus, part of four theological and liturgical works. He wrote about the year 500. Because he wrote under the name of Dionysius who was converted by Paul at the Aereopagus in Athens, he is often called Pseudo-Dionysius or Dionysius the Aereopagite. Thomas finds his answers to God’s nature in the first part of the De Divinis Nominibus.

[2] References are to the Summa Theologica, trans. English Dominicans (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc, 1947), pp. 2025-2027. The citations give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. In this case, it is the third part, the first question and the first article in that question.

[3] The preposition “ad” indicates that this is Thomas’ reply to one of the objections that he used to introduce the question.

[4] Augustine, De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”), XIII, 10.

[5] Augustine, Liber de catechizandis rudibus (“The Instruction of the Unlearned,” 4.

[6] Augustine, Sermo CCCLXXI, 2: PL 39, 1660.

[7] Augustine, Sermo CXXVIII PL 39, 1997.

[8] Augustine, De Trinitate XIII, 17, PL 42, 1031.

[9] Augustine, De Vera Religione 16. PL 34, 134-5.

[10] Leo, Sermo CCI. PL 54, 192.

[11] Augustine, De Trinitate, XIII, 17.

[12] Augustine, De Trinitate, XIII, 17.

[13] Augustine, De Trinitate, XIII, 14. An earlier source along this line is Irenaeus, Adversus haereses IV, 28.

[14] Leo, Sermo XXI, PL 54, 192.

[15] 3a. 1, 2.