The human being is a kind of bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. Created in the image of God, man can tend upward – ordering all things toward the creator – or downward into the exclusive pursuit and domination of visible, created things.
This tension inscribed within humans marks us with a deep spiritual restlessness and instability, since we cannot live rightly either as angels or as mere non-rational animals. Human beings are marked simultaneously both by immortal longings and by the certainty of death. They form a crossroads between God and the whole material creation, standing at the heart of the created order. This is one reason the Devil, in his revolt against the wisdom of God, seeks to wrestle humanity away from God so as to make a caricature of the creation of God and to mark the world of men with clear signs of moral capitulation and spiritual failure.
Christianity claims that God’s central response to human sin, however, has been to become human. Why? If the human situation is marked by opaque meaning, residual moral frailty and physical mortality, then why should God embrace our situation?
If God is real, ought he not simply to have chosen to remake the human condition from scratch, by divine fiat? Why should he unite himself to us in our very imperfect situation? The answer is divine love. God manifests his mysterious wisdom and power not by destroying or instantly resolving our situation, but by offering us his divine mercy, grace and friendship, and by offering all this to us in the midst of our suffering and moral fragility. Divine love has its own customs which are infinitely wise, but which are not those of men. God sees fit to “rehabilitate” the human race after sin not by destroying it, but by entering into it via incarnation, in the vulnerability of being a human child and of death by crucifixion, so as to invite the human race to discipleship and to resurrection from the dead.
In the ancient Church, there were two great traditional answers to the question “why did God become human?” One was from St Athanasius and the other from St Anselm of Canterbury. Athanasius answers that God became human so that human beings might “become God”, that is to say, that they might be united to God by grace. The premise to this argument is that human beings stand in need of salvation from death and nothingness. In effect, then, salvation for the human person consists in union with God, who is eternal and undying. But in that case, nothing can save us short of God himself. No mere creature can unite another creature to the Creator.
Consequently, Christ can only save us if he is truly God made man. It is God himself who has united the human race to God by becoming human, and has thus made it possible for us to have eternal life through union with Christ.
St Anselm offers a different argument, one that is complementary. He begins with the reality of our sinfulness and alienation from God. The truth is that as human beings we are caught up in webs of moral complicity and existential disorientation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” There is a chasm between ourselves and God that we cannot cross by our own powers. The dignity and righteousness of God are infinite, while humanity has unjustly placed itself in a state of rupture with God. While this starting point may seem pessimistic or moralising, Anselm’s point is not to motivate us by way of guilt, but to give us unshakable hope and spiritual consolation.
We need a way back to God that comes from us (wherein a human being reconciles us to God) but one that is also infinite in value (wherein God unites us to his infinite righteousness). God became human, then, so as to redeem our situation from within, as he who is the most human of all, and simultaneously as he who is infinitely holy. Christ atones for human sin by being himself humanly loving and obedient in our stead, as our sinless representative before God.
Because Christ is God, his self-offering on our behalf is one of infinite holiness, reconciling us with God’s absolute righteousness. His atonement acts as a compensation for human sin that is more than sufficient for all the sins of the human race. Consequently, even in the face of our own sinfulness we should not live in alienation from God, but in confidence and friendship with God by faith.
The first of these classical explanations portrays salvation primarily in terms of divinisation; the second portrays it primarily as atonement. In fact, they are deeply interrelated. If man is the bridge between the visible and invisible worlds, then Christ became human to repair that bridge. In classical language, Christ is the “one mediator between God and men”. By atoning for our human faults before God, Christ makes possible the hope and expectation of divine mercy, grace and friendship with God. He thus opens the doors of heaven, so that the human being – even in his frailty and mortality – can aspire to union with God. We can hope to be “divinised” or made children of God by grace not despite but even in the midst of our suffering and mortality, because Christ has opened up a way toward the Father even in the midst of the very real limitations that each human being encounters in this world.
St Catherine of Siena says that Christ is the bridge, or “pontiff”, between heaven and earth that God has undertaken to build, so as to offer human beings a way back toward God. In effect, even after each of us has wandered in darkness or sinned, God does not annihilate us or eradicate our human freedom. Rather, he himself steps into our human drama, shares our history and invites us to be remade freely from within by the grace of his love. Christ is a new creation born out of the old, and we are remade by being united to him. God became human and subjected himself to a human death like ours so that even through death we might be united to God, in the mystery of the Resurrection. The Cross is a passage for every human being back to the absolute.
Fr Thomas Joseph White OP is a professor at the Pontifical Academy of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC. This is an extract from his new book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (The Catholic University of America Press)
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