December 14, 2007


How did Church teaching on the Incarnation develop?
How was Jesus both God and man?

Friar Jack’s Inbox:

Readers reflect on Friar Jack’s musings

Catechism Quiz —
What Is the Word Made Flesh?

by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.

As we approach Christmas, we must not overlook the mystery that has been revealed to us: God became human while not ceasing to be God. It’s enough to take our breath away since we could have never dreamt up this event in a million years. Imagine Mary and Joseph—and perhaps the shepherd—picking up the infant Jesus with one gentle hand. The God who created the universe, who is without beginning and end, became human like us. He was tiny, fragile and totally dependent on his parents, but he was still God. This is what we call the Incarnation. John’s Gospel expresses it magnificently: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). As limited as we are in understanding this mystery, God has given us the opportunity to explore it. Christmas is the perfect time to do that.

How did Church teaching on the Incarnation develop?

The Church’s teaching on the Incarnation was immersed in major struggles and controversies before it was finally defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The conflicts surrounding the Incarnation are understandable considering how great this mystery is.

Some said it was reasonable for God to take up “residence” in Jesus, who would be a very holy man but not God himself. In their logic, they also said that before Jesus died on the cross, God left him. After all, how could God permit his creatures to crucify him? On the other hand, some could not comprehend that God could become human, which they considered a state beneath the dignity of God. Therefore, Jesus was not God but the most holy man who ever lived, the perfect prophet and teacher (Catechism of the Catholic Church #464ff).

The truth was that God did indeed become flesh (as John said). And so it came down to two points: Jesus the man could not be God, nor could the infinite God become the man Jesus. The Church had to steer a course that addressed early heresies, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit at the Council of Nicea and other councils, it did just that. The Church’s teaching is clear in its doctrine about the “Word becoming flesh.” However, the doctrine itself requires an act of faith on the part of every believer.

How was Jesus both God and man?

The key to our deepest understanding of  this doctrine is that Jesus has two natures: one human and one divine. However, they exist in only one person, the Word of God. Jesus doesn’t have what we commonly describe as a “human personality.” However, his human nature reflects characteristics that make him unique and distinct from every other person. The Gospels describe his compassion, love and many other emotions. He weeps in sorrow and becomes angry at injustice toward the downtrodden.

Even with his human characteristics, Jesus is God. However, Jesus’ two natures—human and divine—are not mixed. Jesus has a will and intellect for each of his natures, which are separate and in perfect union. Jesus’ divine will is the will of God; Jesus’ human will prays to the Father, seeks the Father’s will (Mk 14:36ff) and is totally obedient to the will of the Father (Phil 2:6ff).

When it comes to the intelligence of Jesus, again we are in mystery. In his divine understanding, he knows all things. Yet, in his human intellect, Jesus has to learn as any of us learn over time. His mother and father teach him to pray as a child, and they teach him the history of the Jewish people (Lk 2:52). We cannot comprehend how the human and divine intellects and wills worked together in Jesus. We just know they did in a most perfect way. We are so blessed to have the Gospels, which reveal God to us through the life, speech and actions of the Word made flesh. We are indeed overwhelmed with this mystery.

As we approach Christmas, this is a perfect opportunity for parents or older siblings to take young children to crib scenes erected by churches everywhere. Let them gaze into the crib, and tell them who the child represents and how good God was to become a little baby for our sakes.

Friar Jack’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jack’s musings on “St. Francis, Creatures and Christmas.”

Dear Friar Jack: We must think of words and praises to praise God. Other creatures do it naturally and with no effort. The Psalm says, "All creatures praise him." When the bird chirps, when the lion roars, when the bear growls, they all praise him. Did the great St. Francis have this power? Who knows? Maybe he saw that. Maybe he saw how they achieve that. Maybe someday we, too, can praise God with every word instead of just those times when we want to. If only every word from my mouth would be praise to him! Paul

Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for your article about how St. Francis included the animals in his prayer life and believed that they were a part of creation that was blessed by Jesus' arrival, too. It seemed to be perfect timing for my cat and me. I thought of St. Francis earlier today, because my three-year-old cat, Gideon, has recently had several tests run due to having elevated levels of some kidney-related functions and also an elevated level of calcium, which can sometimes indicate cancer. After reading your article, I think I'll say a prayer to St. Francis out loud, holding Gideon as I say it. It certainly can't hurt. Jennifer

Dear Friar Jack: I loved this story of St. Francis. I have a beautiful statue of St. Francis with his birds in my garden. Now I have more details to tell visitors. Thank you so much for sharing. This Christmas there will be a special treat for sister rabbit, brother cardinal, sister stray cat and brother raccoon. And God bless you too, friend. LaDessa

Dear Paul, Jennifer and LaDessa: Thanks for all of your responses to my musings on St. Francis and creatures. I am happy you picked up on the idea that our journey to God is best done with the awareness that other creatures accompany us and are praising God with us. Merry Christmas, all you creatures of God! Friar Jack

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