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Imitating Jesus Christ, Incarnate God
by John A. Hardon, S.J.
We believe, that the Son of God assumed human flesh, body and soul, and dwelt among us, like one of us, in order to redeem us. We believe that His divine nature was substantially united to our human nature. We believe that Jesus Christ is God who became man and will remain man for the endless
Since the dawn of Christianity, the divinity of Christ has been the single most frequently and strongly challenged mystery of our faith. We say that the Church is going through the most serious crisis of the twenty centuries of her history. At the center of this crisis is the widespread doubt and denial that Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary, is the Son of the Living God. There is nothing else in our Catholic faith that needs to be more clearly understood and firmly believed than Christ's divinity.
The Testimony of St. John
As we know, the Apostle John was the only one of Christ's apostles who did not die a martyr's death. He lived until the close of the first century of the Christian era. All of this was providential to ensure that the beloved disciple could write his Gospel, letters, and the Book of Revelation. Between Christ's Ascension and the death of St. John were circulated the earliest heresies which denied that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.
That is why the writings of the fourth evangelist are such a precious treasury of revealed wisdom testifying to the divinity of the Savior. The Apostle is so explicit about Christ's oneness with the Father and Christ's divine nature, that critics of the faith have resorted to dismissing John's writings as Hellenistic theory superimposed on the simple message of the other three Gospels. The heart of Christianity is faith in the Incarnation. We believe that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became man. We believe the Incarnation is the union of the Divine and human natures. John begins his Gospel with a prologue that leaves nothing to the imagination. "In the beginning" says John,"was the Word, and the Word was God ... and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1,14).
Even if the Gospel were not the last inspired writing of the Apostle, it was certainly occasioned by the rise of Gnosticism. The Gnostics claimed to know the mysteries of the universe. According to them, matter is hostile to spirit. On these terms, God could not have become man. Why not? Because God, who is pure spirit, could not have united Himself with a human body. More importantly, the Gnostic denied an objective divine Revelation that was completed in the apostolic age and which the Church, founded by Christ, alone has the teaching authority to interpret decisively the meaning of what God has revealed.
All the errors that are plaguing the modern age are rooted in Gnosticism. That is why the cardinal heresy among professed Christians is some form of Gnosticism disguised under a variety of clever names that fill so many books that are supposed to be Catholic.
It is St. John who records the dialogue between a group of Jews and Jesus. The Jews picked up heavy stones to throw at Him. So He asked them, "I have done many good works for you to see; works from my Father; for which of these are you stoning me?" The would be stoners answered Him, "We are not stoning you for doing the good work, but for blasphemy: you are only a man, and you claimed to be God" (John 10:24,33).
The crowning witness to His profession of divinity occurred a week after the Resurrection. The doubting Thomas was not among the apostles when the Savior appeared to them on Easter Sunday night. When the others told Thomas that they have seen the Lord, he stubbornly replied that he would not believe unless he put his fingers into the wounds in Christ's hands and his hand into Christ's opened side. A week later, Jesus appeared to the disciples, called Thomas to Him and asked him to do exactly what Thomas had demanded as a condition for believing. Thomas repented of his doubt and pronounced the words that by now have been repeated millions of times by believing Catholics at the elevation during the Mass. "My Lord and my God," Thomas declared. Human language could not be more clear. Jesus Christ is our Lord and our God.
Teaching of the Church
Within less than three hundred years after Christ's Ascension, the Christian world was challenged by a deluge of ideas that questioned Christ's divinity. These ideas have come down to us as heresies. To protect the faith of believing Christians, a series of general councils was convened. One after another of the condemned heresies has survived over the centuries. By now there is no new heresy undermining the true faith in Christ's divinity. The heretics, who in our day call themselves "dissidents," are all theological descendants of Arianism, which was condemned by the first ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 A. D.
The Council of Nicea issued a Creed which is now part of the Catholic liturgy throughout the world. It reads:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, only-begotten of the Father, that is , of the substance of the Father, Son of God, Light of Light true God of true God, being of the same substance with the Father, by whom all things were made in heaven and on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, was made man, suffered, rose again the third day, ascended into heaven, and He will come to judge the living and the dead.
The heretic Arius was condemned by the Council of Nicea because he refused to say that Christ existed from all eternity as God. Ever since Nicea, this has been the position of all heretics who do not accept Christ's divinity. At the same time, everyone who not only calls himself a Christian but is a Christian, firmly believes that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, is the Son of the infinite God.
Imitation of the Incarnate God
All that we have said so far was a prelude to what is the single most important premise of Christian sanctity. Thousand of volumes have been written and millions of words spoken on how to become holy. But all of this literature and verbiage is only as useful as it is founded on a deep, uncompromising faith in Christ's divinity.
There is no holiness in the practice of virtue unless the mind is convinced that the Man from Nazareth is the God who made the universe. The depth of my conviction that Jesus is God determines the strength of my will to surrender to the divine will.
God became man for many reasons. Among these reasons is to provide us with the motivation we need to live a holy life. Christ gives us this motivation beyond all human calculation. He wants us to follow His example and accept His teaching so that we might join Him, with the angels and the saints, in a heavenly eternity.
All of this is beautifully synthesized in the opening paragraphs of Thomas A Kempis' Imitation of Christ.
He who follows me walks not in darkness, says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ. The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden strength. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must strive to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.
If we ask why a clear faith in Christ's divinity is the indispensable foundation for sanctity, the answer is obvious. What else is sanctity except God-likeness? God became man precisely to teach us by word and example how we are to become holy.
Before we go any further, let me be as plain as I can. You might object, "All I want to do is save my soul. I have no ambition to become a saint." My reply is, "Sorry, my friend. Whatever was the case in former times, today you have no choice. Either you strive after sanctity or you will not survive as a Christian." Pope John Paul II is, dare I use the word, brutally clear about the necessity for sanctity in today's paganized world. Ours is the age of martyrs. We must be willing to shed our blood, if need be, to remain faithful to the Redeemer.
We return to the imitation of Christ. As we know, the imitation of Christ means the following of Christ. In the last analysis, the following of Christ means following His example as man in submitting His human will to the divine will of His heavenly Father. After all the virtues are identified and all the qualities of sanctity analyzed, what is the one condition for following the teaching of the Master and imitating His way of life? In Christ's own words, He tells us, "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." This seems difficult for human nature to accept.
But it would much harder to hear that final words "Depart from me you cursed, into everlasting fire." Those who hear the word of the Cross and follow it willingly now, need not fear that they will hear of eternal damnation on the day of judgment. This Sign of the Cross will be in the heavens when the Lord comes to judge. Then all the servants of the Cross, who during life made themselves one with the Crucified, will draw near with great trust to Christ the Judge.
This is the sum and substance of the imitation of the Savior. We believe He is the God of heaven and earth. We believe He became man in order to lead us to the eternal glory which, as man, He earned by dying on His cross out of love for us. But we also believe that if we follow His example and accept His teaching we shall join Him in that everlasting home where He is waiting for us.
Everything depends on our faith in Christ's divinity. We know that God cannot deceive. We also know that God can only practice the most sublime virtue. That is why our following of Christ, who is God made man, is the infallible road to sanctity. This same incarnate God is the source of all the graces we need to become holy. As He told us, "Without me you can do nothing." Without His grace, our minds are blind. Without His grace, our wills are helpless to do what He wants of us to reach that blessed destiny for which we were made.
Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.
Copyright © 1997 Inter Mirifica
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