Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Why God Wanted to Become Human
The Word of God,
through whom all things were made, was made
flesh, so that as a perfect man he could save all women and men
and sum up all things in himself. The Lord is the goal of human
history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization,
the center of humanity, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment
of all aspirations....
' Vatican II's "Church in the Modern World," #45.
The Christian community has long reflected on the
questions, What was the purpose of Jesus— life? Or simply, Why Jesus?
This article presents some of the key insights of the different
perspectives and suggests some implications for our everyday relationship
Why Jesus? The answer most frequently handed on in
everyday religion emphasizes redemption. This view returns to the
creation story and sees in Adam and Eve—s sin a fundamental alienation
from God, a separation so profound that God must intervene to overcome
it. The Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is considered God—s
action to right this original wrong. Redemption, then, is basically
understood as a —buying back.—
How did this view develop? Just as we do when we
face tragedy, especially innocent suffering, so the early followers
of Jesus tried to make sense of his horrible death. They asked:
Why? They sought insight from their Jewish practices like Temple
sacrifices and from their Scriptures.
Certain rites and passages (the suffering servant
in Isaiah, psalms of lament, wisdom literature on the suffering
righteous person) seemed to fit the terrible end of Jesus— life
and so offered an answer to the why question. Understandably, these
powerful images colored the entire story, including the meaning
of Jesus— birth and life.
Throughout the centuries, Christian theology and
piety have developed these interpretations of Jesus— execution.
At times God has even been described as demanding Jesus— suffering
and death as a means of atonement—to satisfy and appease an angry
God. In many forms of theology, popular piety and religious practice,
the purpose of Jesus— life is directly linked to original sin and
all human sinfulness. Without sin, there would have been no need
for the Incarnation.
'For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who
believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.'
Creation for Incarnation—
An interpretation that highlights the Incarnation
stands beside this dominant view with its emphasis on sin. The alternate
view is also expressed in Scripture and tradition. Nevertheless,
the emphasis on the Word made flesh has remained less well-known,
rarely gaining the same recognition and influence as the atonement
What, briefly, is the heart of this alternate interpretation?
It holds that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation,
God—s sharing of life and love in a unique and definitive way. God
becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original
sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God—s first thought, the
original design for all creation. The purpose of Jesus— life is
the fulfillment of God—s eternal longing to become human.
For many of us who have lived a lifetime with the
atonement view, it may be hard at first to hear this alternate view.
Yet it may offer some wonderful surprises for our relationship with
From this perspective, God is appreciated with a
different emphasis. God is not an angry or vindictive God, demanding
the suffering and death of Jesus as a payment for past sin. God
is, instead, a gracious God, sharing divine life and love in creation
and in the Incarnation (like parents sharing their love in the life
of a new child). Evidently, such a view can dramatically change
our image of God, our celebration of Christmas, our day-by-day prayer.
In order to appreciate this emphasis more fully,
let—s take the time and effort to look at several of its most important
expressions in Scripture and tradition. This brief review will also
remind us that the focus on the Incarnation is not just a new fad
or some recent —feel good— theology. Its roots go back to the very
beginning of Christianity.
He Pitched His Tent Among Us
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God....All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be....And the Word became flesh....—
The Prologue of John—s Gospel (1:1-18) gives us this magnificent
vision, proclaiming that all creation came to be in the Word, God—s
self-expression who became flesh, Jesus.
John—s meditation of God—s supreme act of love in
the Incarnation (also see 3:16) has led some theologians to consider
that this event alone was sufficient to save the world. Indeed,
John—s Gospel does not see Jesus— death as a ransom (unlike the
other Gospels, for example, Mark 10:45), nor does it use the language
of sacrifice or atonement. There is instead emphasis on friendship,
intimacy, mutuality, service, faithful love—revealing God—s desire
and gift for the full flourishing of humanity, or in other words,
salvation (see the —Farewell Address,— John 13:1—17:26).
Jesus— crucifixion (usually described as being —lifted
up—) is part of his —hour— of glorification, which also includes
his resurrection and ascension. For John, this hour is not sacrifice
but epiphany, the manifestation of God.
We may impose sacrificial imagery on John—s Gospel
because in our hearts and minds we blend together the four Gospels,
even though they give us very different portraits of Jesus. If we
pay attention to John—s emphasis on the Incarnation and on the truth
of God revealed in Jesus, we discover part of the foundation of
our alternate answer to —Why Jesus?— For John, what is at the heart
of reality is a God who wants to share divine life.
A Plan for the Fullness of Time
Another part of the foundation comes from the letters
to the Colossians and the Ephesians. These two letters, written
in the tradition of Paul in the latter part of the first century,
also offer a cosmic vision from the beginning of time to final fulfillment.
They express remarkable beliefs: that Christ is the image of the
invisible God, that God chose believers before the foundation of
the world, that the goal of God—s plan was the coming of Christ,
that all things not only find their origin in Christ but are now
held together in him and will be fulfilled in God through Christ.
Like John—s Prologue, the letters to the Colossians
and the Ephesians connect with and express the Jewish Wisdom tradition
(see, for example, Proverbs 8, Wisdom 7 and 9). Wisdom was present
with God from the beginning; everything was created in and through
Wisdom. Unlike John—s Gospel, these two letters include Paul—s theology
of the cross with its imagery of ransom and sacrifice.
Ephesians and Colossians offer a magnificent vision
of God—s plan and initiative, revealed and fulfilled in Christ.
This plan of salvation, an expression of God—s wisdom, is eternal
and not just an afterthought to sin. The letters acknowledge sin
and sacrifice, but emphasize God—s overflowing love from before
creation until final fulfillment of the universe.
A Dance of Love
Throughout the centuries, the Christian community
has carried on a dialogue with the Scriptures and the community—s
experience, always searching for understanding and appropriate ways
to express its beliefs. Naturally, individual theologians and Church
councils made use of the philosophies and other insights of their
During the first centuries of Christianity—s existence,
questions about Jesus and the Trinity raised special interest. How
can we speak of this human being who is also God? How can we speak
of one God who is Father, Son and Spirit? (What many of us now simply
accept as part of our Creed had to be hammered out over many years.)
Three people who played a very important role in
that process during the fourth century were St. Basil of Caesarea,
St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Because they
lived in Cappadocia (an area of present-day Turkey), these three
saints are simply called the Cappadocians. For many of us in the
West, their thought is not well-known.
A key concept in their teaching about how the Trinity
is both one and three is perichoresis, a term conveying dynamic
and creative energy, eternal movement, mutuality and interrelatedness.
The three divine persons are what they are by relation to one another.
Some scholars like to use the image of dance to describe this term.
In this divine dance there is an eternal movement of reciprocal
giving and receiving, expressing the essence and unity of God. Moreover
this interrelatedness of the triune God is not self-contained but
is poured out in creation, Incarnation and final fulfillment. God
is overflowing love, leading humanity and all creation into the
divine dance of God—s life.
A Franciscan View
Hundreds of years later, in the Middle Ages, the
question about Jesus was expressed very explicitly: Would the Son
of God have become incarnate if humanity had not sinned? The great
Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) answered in
the negative, viewing the Incarnation as a remedy for sin.
Another great philosopher and theologian, Franciscan
John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), disagreed with Thomas—s emphasis on
sin. Indeed, Duns Scotus boldly proclaimed and defended the primacy
of the Incarnation. He based his view on the Scriptures and early
theologians and on logic. He argued, for example, that God—s supreme
work, the Incarnation, had to be first and foremost in God—s mind.
It could not be dependent on or occasioned by any action of humans,
Even more than logic, Duns Scotus emphasized divine
love. God is love and created all life in order to communicate to
creatures the fullness of divine love. The Incarnate Word is the
foundation of the creative plan of God, the very reason for the
existence of all creation. This emphasis on Christ as the center
and cornerstone of all creation has become an essential dimension
of Franciscan life and ministry.
'I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the first and the last, the beginning and the end.'
Alpha and Omega
New and different questions emerged in the 20th century.
Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin confronted the reality
of evolution and realized the need for a new way to speak of the
mystery of God. As a paleontologist, Teilhard studied fossils and
other clues of our ancient past. As a believer, he returned to the
foundations in Colossians and Ephesians and built on the long tradition
that proclaimed Christ as the reason for the entire order of creation.
He saw Christ as the Alpha, the very beginning of the evolutionary
process, in whom all things were created (Colossians 1:15).
Teilhard especially looked to the future. From the
scientific perspective, he saw that there had to be a point that
governs the whole of evolution, a power of attraction that provides
evolution—s intrinsic drive and orientation. From the faith perspective,
he saw that the glorified Christ is the Omega, the final point in
whom all things will be gathered up (Ephesians 1:10). Teilhard realized
that the two perspectives focused on the same reality: Christ, the
very soul of evolution, the Omega point in whom everything will
be unified by and in love.
Teilhard struggled to heal the deep tension between
science and religion that led so many to turn away from belief in
God. He offered to the modern world a positive worldview, uniting
evolution and human efforts with the presence and action of Christ,
all the while acknowledging the dark reality of evil.
'God has given us the wisdom
to understand fully the mystery, the plan he was
pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of
time: namely to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into
one under Christ's leadership.'
Eph 1:9, 10
The 20th century continued to raise serious questions
and challenges to faith and religion. Numerous wars and other horrors
led to pessimism and cynicism, doubt and denial. Relying on his
extensive knowledge of the Christian tradition and of contemporary
philosophies, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) developed
a profound response to these questions and challenges.
Rahner always stressed that God is holy and incomprehensible
mystery. We have come to know the Trinitarian God (but never fully)
in and through God—s wonderful deeds in the world and in history.
The very heart of this revelation, Rahner proclaimed, is Godself-communication:
God—s overflowing love leading to Jesus and so first to creation
and grace and ultimately to beatific vision. God—s free decision
to communicate divine life can be viewed as the reason for the world.
God—s self-communication also occurs in the depths
of our being. Rahner understood the human person as spirit in the
world, a finite being with an infinite capacity. If we are to satisfy
our deepest human yearnings, we need grace. For Rahner, grace is
Godself-gift, God—s personal fulfillment of our natural openness,
offered freely to all persons, transforming the core of human life.
Rahner affirmed the presence of God in the whole
world. All human experience offers the possibility of encounter
with God. God—s love is also the real basis of the world—s hope.
God—s self-communication as beatific vision will be the final fulfillment
of all history and peoples. Then, indeed, God will be —all in all—
(1 Cor 15:28).
What Difference Does It Make?
For almost 2000 years, believers have found hope
and light in recognizing the primacy of the Incarnation. God—s overflowing
love wants to embody itself in and for others. Jesus is the first
thought, not an afterthought. Does this remarkable belief make any
difference in our lives? Absolutely, especially for those of us
whose faith has been shaped by images of atonement and expiation.
First, the perspective of creation-for-Incarnation
highlights the rich meaning of Jesus. He is not Plan B, sent simply
to make up for sin. As Duns Scotus emphasized so well, God—s masterpiece
must result from something much greater and more positive (God—s
desire to share life and love). Jesus is the culmination of God—s
self-gift to the world.
Second, the focus on the Word made flesh helps
us to appreciate the depth of our humanness and the importance of
our actions. Rahner—s marvelous musings on our life in a world of
grace give us renewed understanding of the biblical phrase —created
in God—s image——along with many implications for how we treat all
our sisters and brothers in the human family and the earth itself.
Third and most important, our alternate view
offers us a new and transformed image of God. Many people suspect
that the dominant perspective of God demanding the suffering and
death of the Son as atonement somehow missed the mark.
Indeed, Rahner gently says that the idea of a sacrifice
of blood offered to God may have been current at the time of Jesus,
but is of little help today. Rahner offers other interpretations
of how Jesus saves us, emphasizing that God—s saving will for all
people was fully realized in Jesus through the response of his whole
Other contemporary scholars, including Walter Wink,
are more direct. He states that the early disciples simply were
unable to sustain Jesus— vision of the compassionate and nonviolent
reign of God. Overwhelmed by Jesus— horrible death and searching
for some meaning, the disciples slipped back into an older religious
conviction that believed violence (sacrifice) saves.
The emphasis on Jesus as the first thought can free
us from those images and allows us to focus on God—s overflowing
love. This love is the very life of the Trinity and spills over
into creation, grace, Incarnation, and final flourishing and fulfillment.
What a difference this makes for our relationship
with God! We are invited into this divine dance. Life and love,
not suffering and death, become the core of our spirituality and
—In the beginning was the Word...and the Word became
Next: A condensed version of Pope John Paul II's
new letter on the Rosary