A 4th-century Egyptian observed that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God”. Such words might sound audacious to the point of blasphemy, until we realise that the author of this extraordinary statement was none other than the great saint, bishop and champion of Catholic orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria.
St Athanasius has provided us with what is probably the most succinct explanation we possess for the Incarnation. In taking on our human flesh, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity has been born on earth not merely to teach us how to live and to love, but to transform us supernaturally so that we are able to participate in the very life of God.
This “divinisation” of the human race was part of God’s plan from the very beginning, and He declared it on the sixth day of Creation with the words: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” His image is to be found in our mind and will and belongs to us by nature, but His likeness is a supernatural gift by which He shares his own life with us and elevates us to the level of divine friendship. Alas, this gift was forfeited by our first parents through the spite and envy of the devil, who enticed them to disobey their Creator’s word.
Mercifully for us, however, the suffering, strife and death that were the consequences of that catastrophic rebellion were not to be the end of the story. While the third chapter of Genesis presents us with the calamitous fall of man, the rest of Holy Scripture is the account of God’s rescue plan. It culminates in a revelation of God’s love for mankind which confounds human comprehension, with the God of all transcendence uniting Himself to our frail human flesh and being born as a baby in Bethlehem.
Jesus, then, is truly Emmanuel, God with us. When we contemplate the Creator of the universe and the King of Kings lying on straw in a manger, and protected from the cold night air only by a wrapping of swaddling bands, we soon begin to realise the absurdity of all human efforts at self-aggrandisement and worldly ambition. The only true and lasting aggrandisement we can ever hope to experience is given to us when we divest ourselves of every delusion of self-importance, and come meekly to the manger, to accept the Christ Child’s invitation to be partakers of his divine life. Bethlehem teaches us that to become like God, we must make ourselves small, and that God’s gift of Himself and our humility in receiving Him are the beginnings of genuine human greatness. Where the haughtiness of Satan has brought death and destruction, the meekness of the Infant Jesus promises everlasting glory in the life of the Blessed Trinity.
Our participation in God’s life can only reach perfection in eternity when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). But we begin to share in His divinity on this earth when sanctifying grace is infused into our hearts in baptism, making us living temples of the Holy Spirit. During the Offertory at Holy Mass, meanwhile, the priest prays that by the mystery of a drop of water mingled into the wine in the chalice we may be made partakers of his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity. At Mass we find ourselves in Bethlehem, the “house of bread”, as the Word is made flesh once again on the altar, and the God who made himself tiny enough to be laid in a feeding trough makes himself small again in the Sacred Host so that we might dare to approach and consume him.
If we really wish to offer the Infant Jesus a home in our hearts this Christmas, we should prepare ourselves to make a good Holy Communion, going to Confession and receiving sacramental absolution. We need to ask for the grace to forgive anyone who has offended us, and to pray for the gift of humility. The Word made Flesh whom we receive at the altar will work His divinising wonders in us in proportion to our meekness and our charity.
Fr Julian Large, Cong Orat, is Provost of the London Oratory