On the Feast of the Annunciation, it seems well to explain from a theological viewpoint what is meant by the simple teaching that the Son of God became man. This present attempt will be divided into two major divisions, the first treating of the purpose or reason of the Incarnation, the second more specifically looking into the essentials of the union itself.
The birth of Jesus involves us in love. God has shown us through this newborn Child that love had a new beginning after the Fall. We might say that it had its beginning when He created the human race: in His goodness He loved. But it is better to say that the birth of the Son of God as a child in Bethlehem came about because of a betrayal of love.
The Deepest Meaning
If we would see the deepest meaning of this birth — the Incarnation: God becoming man — we must read the story of the disobedience of Adam, who was created by love and was adopted into a close bond of sonship and friendship with God. As our father according to the flesh, Adam brought upon us the consequences of his sin (and we have added sin upon sin: our multitudes of sins following on that one sin). Our future as a race was thus condemned to eternal darkness after a life of much pain and sorrow.
Only such love as God can give has saved us from a perilous end that would never end. This restoration to the essentials of our former state was no afterthought of God. We can read it on the same page as the original sin. In the Proto–evangelium (Gn 3:15), God foretells to the evil spirit (under the form of the serpent) that there will be a lasting enmity between Him and the woman (Mary) and her seed (Mary’s offspring).
Furthermore, this offspring “will crush your head.” Someone will be born of woman to overcome the evil and its instigator. And this man sent by love is Jesus. In the Scriptures we read one event following another, but in the all-seeing and ever-seeing mind of God, He who foresaw and permitted the Fall of man also anticipated the restoration.
Even when we accept the truth that Jesus is indeed the eternal, all holy, and all-powerful Son of God, we at once ask ourselves why He should come. Why could not God have accepted an imperfect reparation, the repentance of Adam the sinner for instance? Or later have accepted some token sacrifice by a good man such as Abraham or Moses? The answer to this lies in the essence of the mystery of who God is.
God Is Justice and Love
God is at once both justice and mercy (or love). He sometimes shows us more of one side and at other times more of the other, but here in the salvation of the whole race He willed to show both at the same time. Justice had to be satisfied, and justice is measured by the offense. For instance, to unlawfully strike a fellow citizen merits a reasonable but minor penalty. To strike a president or a king would demand much more. We therefore measure the offense by the dignity of the one offended, and God’s dignity is without measure, that is, infinite.
On the other hand, the atonement or penalty is measured by the one who has committed the crime. In the situations above, justice would be satisfied by some small punishment of the guilty citizen, an equal, but the same penalty would not be sufficient in the case of the head of the nation, who symbolizes the whole nation. In Adam’s sin, no mere man could adequately atone for the injustice done to God since God’s dignity is infinite, and even a good man is not capable of an infinite act.
An Infinite Act of Atonement
Therefore, since God wanted justice, so that the lessons of His dignity and of the evil of sin would be engraved forever on the minds of His creatures, He had to send someone who was capable of an infinite act of atonement. So, in love for our fallen race, He sent His Son, sent Him after mankind had learned by experience its need for a deliverer.
Even the pagans in the Mediterranean area were looking for someone to set things right. (See for example Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 4:5; Tacitus, Annals 5:13.) While Tacitus is writing about the siege of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D., a bit late for our purposes, he speaks of “ancient priestly writings” as his source. These would be the Jewish scriptures.
Suetonius indicates that he thought the deliverer was Vespasian. He also speaks of an old established belief that had spread over all the East that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world. This belief may also have come from the Jewish prophets originally.
Fallen Race Adequately Represented
But the Son was not the offender; rather as God He was sinned against. Man sinned, and man should atone. To be a true atonement it had to be someone who would adequately represent the fallen race. So with the wisdom that is both justice and love, God sent His Son to take on the nature of man by being divinely conceived in Mary’s virginal body. Only in this way are God’s justice and love satisfied.
There are other reasons for the Incarnation, one especially which is claimed by some as the primary reason. Yet only one is directly manifested in the Gospel. Jesus himself said quite plainly, “the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost” (Lk 19:10. See also Lk 5:32; Mt 20:28; Jn 1:29; 3:16-17; Rom 3:24; Gal 4:4; 1 Tm 1:15).
It was certainly an essential part of the message that Jesus should tell us why He came down to dwell among us, and only this reason has come from His mouth. Gaudium et Spes confirms this by giving first place to this and second place to the other: “The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh, so that as perfect man He could save all men and sum up all things in himself” (No. 45).
Love Made Him Come
And so it was love that made Him come. It is easy to love those who are worthy of love, but how incomprehensibly great is the love God has for those who are not worthy, that is, for all of us. If man had not sinned, we would not know how much God loves us.
The other motive given by the same document of the Second Vatican Council, is Christ as perfect man would “sum up all things in himself,” does not seem a sufficient reason in itself for the Incarnation in view of the repeated assertion of the Scriptures, as well as the unanimous consensus of the Fathers of the early Church, that it was sin that occasioned the coming.
It is true that Col 1:15-19 does beautifully express the primacy of Christ, but this headship is an inevitable result of God’s becoming man; no lesser position could be given to the Son.
But in the same passage St. Paul speaks of how this primacy was brought about in actual fact: (God) “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (v. 20). This is how all the texts brought forth to support this second thesis are to be understood.
All Creation Should Redound to His Glory
The primacy of Christ in all creation is a part of the whole of God’s general plan, that all creation should redound to His glory. (Such glory is a necessary fact, flowing from the very nature of His being the first cause of all being.) But this adds the immense glory that the reconciliation of all creation should be accomplished by the Word, now made flesh, through whom “in the beginning all things were made” (Jn 1:2). The Incarnation is not a necessary act of God. It was eternally determined by the divine free will of God in view of the foreseen and permitted sin of Adam.
Jesus became the New Adam in a higher sense than the first Adam, by being the giver of supernatural life, whereas the first Adam could give only natural life. Adam was created in grace and therefore was an adopted son of God, even as we are in Baptism, but he could not have given the supernatural life even if he had not sinned; only God, the cause of grace itself, would have given it to each of his (Adam’s) descendants if there had been no Fall.
St. Thomas Aquinas has listed several other secondary reasons for the Incarnation, and it is well to give them here so that they may be seen operating in the life of Jesus as we follow it. First, there are the purposes which move us toward good. We have a greater firmness in our faith because it is not man speaking but God himself, who is dwelling among us.
God’s Love and Goodness
Our hope is also stronger because we are presented with undeniable evidence of God’s love and goodness in His desire to save us. Our love too is increased because we see such love in Him. Because He is man as well as God, we are given an infallible example to follow, example being a better teacher than precept.
Likewise, in regard to evil, our constant and crucial struggle is greatly helped because God became man. Drawn to Christ as the perfect inspiration we are led away from the devil; Jesus never forgot that His conquest for us must center around our primordial enemy (See 1 Jn 3:8). Through the union of His two natures of God and man we see the incomprehensible dignity and worth of our own nature, of earth though we are.
Our weaknesses are given strong antidotes; our false presumption on our own strength is healed by the knowledge that Christ came to redeem us, and this was prompted by no previous merits of our own. And thus our pride, the basic sin of our first parents, is given the example of the constant state of humble and obedient subjection of the Son of God as man to the Father.
There are other secondary motives from more modern investigations, such as the freeing of man from his anxieties, inner compulsions and repressions, as well as to give the hope of deliverance to humankind unconsciously looking for someone to lead the way out of uncertainty, out of oppression by man, and out of self-centered slavery to the material world.
Even though these reasons are sometimes developed without much clear reference to the historical Jesus of the Gospels, there is enough truth concerning man’s fallen condition to believe that they were in the Father’s mind as a part of His mercy in sending His Son.
There are surely other reasons that God had in showing us this extraordinary love and mercy; indeed St. Thomas’s inner humility, not always shared by other teachers, ends by saying that some are beyond our powers to conceive (see Summa Theologiae, III 1, 1-3).
FATHER HOFFMAN, O.P., was ordained a priest in the Dominican Order in June 1941. He taught physics, mathematics, and moral theology, and finished a four-volume work on the spiritual life in 1981. He was noted for his defense of the Church and the papacy. He died in 1989. FATHER COLE, O.P., is a member of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. As a Professor there, he teaches courses in spiritual, moral and dogmatic theology.