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“The heavenly Word proceeding forth, yet leaving not his Father’s side.”
Readers might recognize that quotation as the beginning of one of St. Thomas Aquinas’ eucharistic hymns. It is usually sung on Holy Thursday because it goes on to speak of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper.
So why did I choose that quotation for a Christmas column? Because it seems to briefly sum up what we celebrate at Christmas: first the mystery of the Incarnation, and then the reason for the Incarnation.
In the mystery of the Incarnation, we believe that God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, actually humbled himself to become a human being without ceasing to be God.
That little baby who was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago was a human boy, but he was also God.
He wasn’t some kind of a mixture of God and man, or part God and part man. He was truly a human being with a human soul, but he didn’t stop being God. He had both a divine nature and a human nature in the one person, Jesus.
The prologue of St. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus was God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). To make it absolutely clear, John continued, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:2-3).
Then, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). He didn’t just put on flesh like some sort of a disguise; he “became” flesh. He was a human being just like you and me, in every way except sin.
This was the belief of Christians from the beginning. About 40 years before John wrote his Gospel, St. Paul told the Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4).
At around the same time, perhaps during the mid-50s, Paul wrote to the Philippians, quoting an already existing hymn: “Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7).
Then the hymn went on to allude to the reason for the Incarnation: “And found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). God took on a human nature to die for us in order that we might have eternal life.
St. Peter wrote that the Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). St. Athanasius wrote, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God”—a poetic expression that, because of our communion with Christ in his humanity, we now share in the qualities of God.
Back to St. Thomas Aquinas, where we began with his column: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
That’s what we celebrate this Christmas. †