When did Jesus first come into the world? This Sunday’s second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, 10:5-10, identifies a certain point in time, “When Jesus came into the world …” Most believers would probably assume that Jesus began to be in the world at the time of the Incarnation, that is, when He took our flesh.
However, we would be inadvertently forgetting that Jesus, as the eternal Son, has been in relationship with the world from its beginning. The Letter to the Colossians states: “For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16). The Letter to the Romans similarly declares: “For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things” (Rom 11:36). The First Letter to the Corinthians also asserts: “… the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6).
The Gospel of John maintains that Jesus was always “in” the world: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him” (Jn 1:10). St. Thomas Aquinas observes: “He was in the world ruling the world, inasmuch as He is said to be in all things by His essence, presence and power” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, 485).
Could the Son have been “in the world” but also “come into the world”? Thomas explains: “He is outside the world, because He is not comprehended by the world, but He has a goodness separated from the entire world, by which the goodness of the universe is caused. Yet, because He assumed a human nature for us, He is said to enter into the world” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, 485). There are times when we also do not “comprehend” His presence or recognize that the Son is the “cause” of the goodness in the world.
This Sunday’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews uses the words of Psalm 40:7-9 to describe the Son’s purpose in taking our nature: “Behold I have come to do Your will, O God” (Heb 10:7, 9).
The letter to the Hebrews compares Jesus’ doing the will of the Father to the Old Testament sacrifices as reflected in Psalm 40: “Sacrifice and offering You do not desire” (Ps 40:6). God rebukes the sacrifices as well: “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Is 1:11).
Hebrews, and surely the Psalmist as well, recognize that the “offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings are offered according to the law” (Heb 10:8).
Thomas raises the question: “If God did not want them, why did He command them to be offered?” (Commentary on Hebrews, 486)? According to Thomas, God no longer wanted such sacrifices once the Son entered the world: “The truth coming, the shadow should cease” (Commentary on Hebrews, 488). During the time of the Old Testament, religious people offered sacrifices that served as representations of themselves. Jesus offered His own self.
Thomas explains that the sacrifices of the Old Testament were a preparation for Christ’s offering of Himself: “They are said to be accepted … because they were a figure of Christ whose Passion was accepted by God, for He was not pleased with the killing of animals but in faith in His Passion” (Commentary on Hebrews, 488).
The Old Testament sacrifices are often understood as the immolation of animals, as substitution for the punishment that the humans deserve. The Dominican biblical scholar, Roland DeVaux, explains that this is not actually the meaning of such sacrifices: “On the contrary, it was a victim pleasing to God, and He, in consideration of this offering, took away the sin” (Ancient Israel, vol. 2, 419). The animals were not victims on whom punishment was inflicted but gifts offered to God.
The Old Testament contains prescriptions which detailed what was required for such a gift that could restore friendship with God. According to Exodus, the paschal lamb had to be “without blemish” (Ex 12:5).
Thomas Aquinas proposes the situation where a person has offended another and seeks to offer a gift to please the offended person: “He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense” (3a. 48, 2).
Thomas emphasizes that Jesus’ “love and obedience” are the basis of Jesus’ self-gift:
“But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity, from which he suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement for man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured. And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world’” (3a. 48, 2).
We may wonder why the Church has selected this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews on the Sunday before Christmas. It might seem more appropriately placed in Holy Week. However, it is not only Jesus’ suffering and death but also Jesus’ Incarnation itself that reflect Jesus’ desire to do “will of God.”
The Letter to the Hebrews makes clear that Jesus’ very entrance into the world was God’s will: “Behold I have come to do Your will, O God” (Heb 10:7).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all, through the blood of His cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life: already in His Incarnation through which by becoming poor He enriches us with His poverty” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 517).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.