As we approach the Christmas feasts, it is good for us to ponder aspects of the Incarnation. In this post, I would like to consider what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches about its fittingness. God was not radically “required” to do everything as He did. We do well to ponder why the manner of the Lord’s incarnation is “fitting,” why it makes sense.
St. Thomas, referencing St. John Damascene, gives four reasons for the fittingness of the incarnation of Christ:
But, as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 1), by the mystery of Incarnation are made known at once the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God—“His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate …” (Summa Theologica III, 1.1)
Here are each of Thomas’ (Damascene’s) reasons, along with some less-worthy commentary from me.
I. His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork – To despise more literally means to look away or disregard something. God did not do this with Adam and Eve nor with us, their descendants, who have ratified their sinful choice. He continues to love us and call us.
Consider that even at the moment of the Original Sin, God first rebuked the devil and announced a solution that from woman would come forth a son destined to crush the power of the evil one. This protoevangelium (first good news) signals that God has not given up; He already has plans to save us. Although God would go on to announce the painful consequences of Adam’s sin, He does so only after announcing that His mercies are not exhausted, and His goodness is not altered.
Thus, God does not despise (look away from) His creation. Even His punishments are meant to heal us and to prepare us for the offer of something far greater: no mere earthly paradise, but Heaven itself. At the Incarnation, therefore, God’s goodness and fidelity to His promise is evident. Jesus, our promised Savior, is the hand extended to us in God’s goodness.
II. His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death – God, in making us free, “must” respect our free choices, not cancel them. If He canceled them, we would not have true freedom.
God does not undo our choices or remove their consequences; He builds on them. This is His justice at work.
We got into this mess through a man, a woman, and a tree. God will use these very elements to free us. The new Adam is Christ; the new Eve is Mary; the tree is the cross. Just as the first Adam and Eve were free but sinless, so Christ and Mary are sinless. While the first Adam and Eve said no in disobedience, Christ and Mary say yes in obedience.
God Himself, in Christ, joins our family and cancels the sin of Adam in a way that respects our first choice, but shows a different result. He takes the very suffering and death we chose and makes that the way back. The cross of Christ and our own share in that cross become the way back, the way to heavenly glory.
In His justice, God does not cancel our choices (and thereby our freedom). He does not “snatch us forcibly from death.” Rather, in His justice, He honors our freedom by taking our choices and their consequences (suffering and death) and making them the very way back to Him and to glory. He justly respects our choices but offers us another way.
III. His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt – A mere man, say a prophet or a holy man, could not atone for our sins. Our debt is simply too high (see Matt. 18:24ff). A man alone does not have the power to save. God alone would have nothing to do with our case. As the God-man, Jesus has both the power to save us and the brotherhood to speak and act for us. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. This shows both God’s justice and His wisdom, for He is not overcome by the conundrum of human impossibility and divine recusal. In the Incarnation, both truths are fittingly regarded and yet overcome.
IV. His power or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate – How can the infinite enter the finite? How can the eternal enter time? How can God, whom the very heavens could never contain, dwell in Mary’s womb and rest in her arms? Alpha et O matris in gremio! (Alpha and Omega sit in mother’s lap!) Here, God shows His mighty power to astonish us with His paradoxical wisdom and ways.
St. Thomas quotes St Augustine: The Christian doctrine nowhere holds that God was so joined to human flesh as either to desert or lose … the care of governing the universe … God is great not in mass, but in might. Hence the greatness of His might feels no straits in narrow surroundings (Ibid, ad 4).
God’s power is paradoxically demonstrated in the fact that He can make himself small but suffer no loss in ability or supreme power.
As the great feast of the Birth of the Lord approaches, I wish a merry and fitting Christmas to you all.