After Jesus rose from the dead, the Church started thinking about everything Jesus had said, what he had done, what God had said about him, and what the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) had prophesied about him as Messiah. They recalled how Jesus had called himself both the “son of man” and the “son of God,” and they were accordingly struck both by how human he was and also how divine he was. They quickly realized that you cannot be part-god the way Hercules was, because God is infinite. You’re either God or you aren’t. Being the “Son” of God didn’t diminish that, of course. On the contrary, it established that he was nothing other than the perfect image of the Father, hence “true God from true God.” But likewise, the Church realized that you cannot really be part human either. So, the Church mulled this over and eventually came to the conclusion that Jesus can only be fully God and fully man! The technical formulation is that while the Trinity is three persons in one substance/nature, so Jesus is one person in two natures. How that can be and what that ultimately signifies is the point of this question on the significance of Jesus in the Incarnation.
According to the first few lines of the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the Word is at the beginning with God, is God, and is the means by which God created all things. Notice that anything God does reveals information about him, but all that God does is done through the Word. Think of the Word, then, as the mirror image of the Father, of God looking at God, or God thinking God, or God-thought, for the Word is the full and complete expression of the Father, the Father-spoken, the Father-Revealed. Hence, God-Revealed. The Father is unknown in himself by any but the Godhead, so whenever God reveals himself to us, he does so by means of the Divine Word.
Look a few lines further in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel down to lines 14 and following, and there you will see that John identifies the Word as having been made flesh, i.e., incarnate:
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. John testified to him and cried out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’” From his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him (John 1:14-18 NABRE).
So, who is the Word, this incarnate God who has revealed the Father? St. John tells us that it is Jesus and that he and his fellow disciples saw the evidence to support this astounding conclusion. Jesus calls himself the Son, calls himself the Truth, the Life, the Way, all declaring himself as the means to come to God by God’s revelation of himself. In other words, Jesus identifies himself as the Word, as the Wisdom of God. In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, St. John records another comment that Jesus made about himself, that “Before Abraham was, I am.” The people listening to Jesus knew exactly what he was saying with this remark, that he was declaring himself to be the eternal God, the very “I am” who revealed himself to Abraham and then to Moses at the burning bush. We know they understood him perfectly, because they took up stones to execute him for blasphemy.
Now this is truly an extraordinary event in human history, that a man not only claims to be the totality of God but actually is that God! Of course, over the millennia, many have claimed to be a god or the God. And in nearly every case our response is feigned submission (because the person is a “god”-king with an imperial army at his back) or laughter (because the person is out of his mind) or denunciation (because the person is lying through his teeth.) If we aren’t being compelled by power and are free to make a public rational assessment, we figure the person is either nuts or lying, because the only other alternative is that he is sane and telling the truth! In fact, this is the famous trilemma that the earliest Christian philosophers posed in their arguments about Jesus’ identity: he is either sane or he is insane. If he is insane, don’t believe him. If he is sane, then he is either lying to you or telling the truth. If he is lying to you, don’t believe him. If he is telling the truth, then he is God, and yes, you had better believe him.
That leaves the critic with only two options to avoid the stunning conclusion that Jesus really is God. Either show that Jesus is nuts or show that Jesus is a lying schemer. Because otherwise, you’re stuck with the living God. So, let’s evaluate those two options ourselves, because we certainly don’t wish to be duped here. First, is it reasonable to believe that Jesus is crazy? Crazy people rarely offer coherent theologies and never behave and teach a deeply ethical life. In fact, if you’re crazy, we really cannot call you “good,” for to be good requires that you be able to cogently choose good over evil. Yet everyone says that Jesus is good, very good, extremely good. But if he is good, then he cannot be insane. So, Jesus is not insane.
What about our second option: is it reasonable to believe that Jesus is a lying schemer like the many cult leaders down through history who manipulate people out of their cash, properties, liberties, families, and lives? No, not at all, and a major reason for this is, again, that Jesus is so good, so radically full of love—love for all the wrong kinds of people. Jesus reaches out to peasant women, not just queens, to cheating tax collectors not just faithful Jews, to prostitutes and drunks, not just to the ordinary decent folk in Israel, and even to half-Jews and to non-Jews, something that blew the minds of his Jewish contemporaries. We look back at this now as the expression of God’s love for all people, right? Something very good, exceedingly good, not the behavior of a lying scoundrel out to make a buck off of you. Jesus never pursued the wealth of his followers, but told a few of them to give their wealth to the poor. Jesus never chased after women or other men’s wives, so he wasn’t into sexual domination like nearly all cult leaders. In fact, Jesus is wholly unlike the cult leaders with which we are so familiar, because he is genuinely good. Not a liar.
So, if Jesus is neither crazy nor a liar, it follows that he must have been soberly telling us the truth when he declared himself to be God’s Son. But are his own claims enough? Fortunately, we have a lot more evidence starting with God himself! God sent the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce to her that she would bear the Incarnate one into the world, and the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem were treated to the greatest angelic spectacle the world has ever beheld—all to announce that God was finally with us. During Jesus’ adult life God twice spoke from heaven declaring Jesus to be his Son, once very publicly at his baptism and once again very privately at his transfiguration. Moreover, God backed Jesus with an extraordinary and very public display of supernatural power, power meant to vouch for Jesus’ truth-telling as a prophet. But this prophet went further than any previous prophet, for he not only revealed what God said, he revealed who God was in his own identity. If Jesus had overstepped his bounds here, then God would not have backed him at all. So, we can only conclude that Jesus really is who he said he was, namely the Son of God, backed directly by God the Father.
But that then creates a conundrum for us, because if Jesus really is God incarnate, then how does he function as a man? How can Jesus have a human mind, if he possesses infinite wisdom? Don’t the apostolic memoirs indicate that as a boy Jesus grew in wisdom and learned things? Don’t they also suggest that on occasion Jesus was surprised by events taking place around him? So, how does that make any sense? How can someone really be both God and man at the same time?
St. Paul addressed this conundrum in his letter to the Philippians where he said that, though equal with God, Christ emptied himself of the revelation of his divine attributes and became humble even to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8). In order to fulfill his mission, Jesus had to cut off the full manifestation of his glory (to be sure) but in most cases, even the minimal revelation of his glory. Since the glory of a being is the expression of what it is, Jesus’ glory would be the expression of his divinity. Thus, though Jesus was both God and man, he reduced the expression of who he was as God—even to himself!
So, what does all that mean? As the eternal Son of God, Jesus knew everything, but as the man Jesus, he cut off access to this information within his eternal mind and functioned on the same limited basis as any other human being, except where the Father expressly permitted him to access the divine wisdom. For he said that he spoke nothing of himself but only what the Father told him. Jesus thus “learned” humility as an exemplar for us, so that he didn’t cheat on being human. He experienced humanity in all its limitations, starting as a baby and ending in the agony of the cross. It’s interesting to consider that as the omnipotent God, Jesus had to allow the Romans to scourge him and nail him to the cross. We get a hint of this in the passion texts which indicate that Jesus himself gave up his spirit to death. He had to give permission to Death to take him. So, in both his omniscience and his omnipotence, Jesus massively reduced the expression of his divinity in order to fulfill his mission.
Let’s further explore the humanity of Jesus, beginning with a reminder of what human nature is. We know from the philosopher Aristotle that to be human is to be a rational animal. But of course, it must be a rational animal of our specific sort, because we can imagine other kinds of rational animals such as Lewis’s talking beavers in Narnia. Talking beavers would be persons but they’d be beaver-persons rather than human-persons. So, we need to tighten up our definition of humanity a little bit from Aristotle. To be human bodily is to be composed of and born of human DNA, and to be human spiritually is to have a human soul.
So, what is a soul? A soul is an immaterial (spirit) personal component that is expressly fitted to inform and relate to matter. By contrast, angels are simply spirits, not having souls. They aren’t designed by nature to link up with a body. If a fallen angel—a demon—were “inside” a human body, that “unity” would not be a human being but a possession. Why? Their spirits aren’t made to link up with human bodies as belonging to one another. They aren’t fitted to and for human bodies or human experience. For example, an angel inside a human body would experience bodily damage not as something felt sensorily but as something recognized directly with his mind. The angel’s relationship to a body is like a ship captain’s relationship to his ship. How would the captain become aware that the side of his vessel was staved in? He would realize with his understanding that the ship wasn’t handling properly, and then gaze over the side and see that, yes, a gaping hole was allowing water to pour into the hold! By contrast, a human being’s relationship to his body is so close and intimately linked, that if he had a hole in his leg, he would become aware of it first not through his intellect but through the sudden agonizing pain in his sensations. To use the ship analogy, we human beings would experience the hole in the ship as though we were the ship! Angels and demons cannot have that kind of experience because their spirits are not fitted for human nature. But Jesus was human, so the relationship between his person—the divine Son—and his body cannot have been a possession.
This means two very important things: first, there weren’t two guys in Jesus—Jesus and the Eternal Son. No. There was just one person, the Son. But the Son was fashioned to have a human soul, meaning, he was linked up with the human body as being fitted for it. That’s what the Church means when it says that Jesus had a human soul. He really was human. But the person, the spiritual element that can transcend the death of the body, was the eternal Son. When Jesus died and his spirit descended into hell for those three days, his spirit was still human, still fitted for human nature. So, when he rose again, he was fully reunited with his body, a body he had been and still would be fitted for as a fully human person, just as we will one day be resurrected and rejoined to our bodies in the final Resurrection. The difference between Jesus pre- and post-resurrection was that he began to reveal much more of his divine glory than he had previously—in both cases he was naturally embodied as a fully human person.
Notice, too, that Jesus had to be born of a woman to be human. As the Nicene Creed declares, Jesus wasn’t born through a woman, but of a woman. Jesus’ body contained Mary’s actual DNA. He was literally “of” Mary, and he was also born of Mary, contrary to the assertions of the heretical Gnostic groups. The Gnostics were appalled by the notion that the perfect and “pure” God could or would mix himself up with the “disgusting” feminine material of human physicality and birth, so they suggested that Jesus somehow passed through Mary’s body without ever coming into actual contact with her. But there is nothing wrong with the human female form or human birth, just as there is nothing wrong with human nature, for all that God creates is good, whether it be angelic beings who lack materiality or human beings who are composed of both spirit and matter. Since the Gnostics expressed a revulsion for this composite structure of human nature, it’s no surprise that they were so troubled by the idea of the Incarnation. They tried to interpret the major events of Jesus’ life in such a way that Jesus was merely a man who was possessed by the Eternal Son, so as to never “pollute” his divinity. But that’s not who Jesus was. Jesus wasn’t two guys, a man and God struggling within for control! Nor did Jesus in any way consider his humanity a corruption or a pollution of his divinity, for God had created man in his own image in the first place! As the Creed of Nicaea indicates, God had originally created human nature for himself, as the means whereby he would enter into and know his creatures face to face. As such, God loves human nature, and in the Incarnation, he fully ratified the human birth system, the status of women, and human nature itself.
Many so-called Christian and a great many non-Christian religious systems even today embrace Gnosticism, an idea that identifies goodness with spirit and matter with evil. Gnostics, accordingly, treat human nature as a trap that locks a “pure” spirit into an evil, material, bodily prison. Gnostic religions all focus on methodologies to “free” the spirit from the body and ascend “back” to a purely spiritist existence. But human beings aren’t angels trapped in physical bodies, for that is what the Gnostic views amount to. Human nature is a different kind of creation altogether that fittingly incorporates both spirit and matter together in a composite natural whole. The goal of Christian ethics isn’t to free the mind/spirit/soul from the body but instead to maximize our full composite humanity through love, embracing the unity that God created for us. God thought so highly of human nature that he incarnated himself into it! So fond was God of human nature that he then ascended back into heaven not as a so-called “pure” spirit, but as the man that the Son now was, taking human nature into the Godhead forever. He then established the sacraments within the Church which all pattern themselves on this same composite unity of matter and spirit, all requiring both a physical and a spiritual element, in keeping both with the Incarnation and with who we are as human beings.
So, never fall for the deception that our problem is our humanity. That’s what the demons want us to believe in order to exalt their form over ours. They would love for us to agree to reject our own natures and try to emulate their form, because they are envious that God created composite creatures. So, they tempt us to turn us against ourselves, fomenting gender and racial conflicts, twisting the physical instantiations of human nature that God has created. Racism and misogyny are demonic philosophies that human beings ought to resist instead of emulating, for regardless of our skin pigmentation or biological sex we are first and foremost all human beings. But the demons hate women because they hate human biology and they hate that God became a man of a woman, and, yes, they accordingly hate Mary most of all. But God chose to create human nature in two sexes, God chose to incorporate into human nature both matter and spirit, God chose to incarnate himself as a human being born of a woman, and God chose a specific woman—our beloved and blessed Mary—to bear his Son into the world. The demonic rage is thus ultimately directed against God, but that battle against God functions by attempting to pervert, twist, and reject each of these divine choices. But Mary ratifies the status of all women, just as the Incarnation endorses the value of human nature. God loves her and God loves us.
I sometimes tell my students not to fall for the error of the Little Mermaid, discontented with her status as a mermaid and determined to become something else, even at the expense of the entire undersea kingdom and her father’s throne! But you will find throughout the world many religious and cultic groups whose goal is to thwart and crush human nature in an effort to shed the body and become a pure spirit entity free of the so-called “limitations” of the body. These groups talk of “pure consciousness,” a “higher consciousness,” “pure energy,” “ascension,” all displaying their repugnance for what we are as human beings. The Gnostic goal, therefore, is to cease being human and instead become angels, for that is what a pure finite spirit is. But that is impossible, because we cannot become another nature! Nor should we want to! What’s wrong with human nature anyway? We enjoy dancing, theater, art, food, sex, coffee, wine, sports, fashion, discovery, and family, none of which fit into the world of angels, because all of these things require natural embodiment for their enjoyment. And so, just as St. Paul described in his second chapter of his letter to the church of Colossae, all these Gnostic groups create rules and boundaries seeking to restrict and limit our human enjoyments, deeply suspicious of human joy, because they hate their own natures.
But the authentic Christianity given by Jesus to his apostles and passed down to us through the bishops of his Church embraces human nature and exalts it through the sacraments as well as our chief feasts of Christmas and Easter. Christmas exalts the choice of a woman, the birth of Jesus of that woman, and the incredible fact of the Incarnation. Easter exalts the physically real passion of Jesus, his death for us, and his resurrection in his body. These are deeply human feasts. Why does the Church so thoroughly reject Gnosticism? Because of what our Faith is for! And what is that? To turn you into a disembodied spirit? No! The purpose of the Faith is to transform you from a selfish shadow into a full human person capable of loving God face to face.
So, as you reflect on the significance of the birth of Jesus during the Advent season, be thankful that God invited us to join his Son in reflecting the image of God, an image that like his Incarnation unites the physical and the spiritual together in a beauty not found anywhere else in creation, an image that multiplies that unity from the individual in himself to the duality of gendered persons in marriage, to the multiplicities of brotherhood in our national bonds, and ultimately to the full universality of the love of a Church that transcends space and even time! When we exalt Jesus at Christmas, we exalt this divine choice of human nature.
So, humanity is the point, the purpose of the Incarnation to fulfill and redeem humanity and the purpose of charity to complete humanity, so that we might be fitted to love and know God face to face, beloved bride to our divine suitor. Gnosticism must always be rejected as a perverse assault on who we are, with its Edenic lie that we can be as the gods (the angels). Human beings will never be angels, nor should we ever desire to be. If human nature was good enough for God, then it ought to be good enough for us! Remember: when God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man.