True God and True Man

As unimaginable as it may seem, the unchanging God has taken to himself a human nature in order to suffer like us and for us.

This text, exploring the Divinity and Humanity of Christ through the important and mysterious lens of the Crucifixion, was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.

Our Savior Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Another way of saying this is that he has two natures: one divine and one human, and yet, to the wonder of our limited minds, he is still only one Person. Two natures, one Person. This is an awe inspiring truth, and one from which we could pull on any number of threads to examine its beauty and multi-hued brilliance. But since it is Lent and as we approach Passiontide, let us try to unravel one in particular: the Son of God took a human nature to himself in order to suffer

God cannot suffer. To suffer is to have something happen to you, to experience some sort of change, but God cannot change. To be unchanging is part of what it means to be God. If he were to change, he would not be God. But when the Son of God took on a human nature, when he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, he suddenly became capable of experiencing the changeability of human life: he grew, he ate, he slept; he made friends, made enemies, became tired, angry, sad, elated; and he suffered and died. And because Jesus Christ is not only a man, but is also the true and unchanging God, we can say that all of these things happened to God. In Jesus God slept, God befriended Mary Magdalene, God wept, and God suffered. And yet all the while God did not change. 

As unimaginable as it may seem, the unchanging God has taken to himself a human nature in order to suffer like us and for us. 

One of the most excellent testimonies of the suffering of the incarnate God comes from the epistle to the Philippians. In this letter St. Paul, under divine inspiration, quotes the lyrics of a hymn chanted by the first generation of Christians: Though he was in the form of God, [Christ Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 

It was the will of the Father that his eternal Son should become man and suffer and die in order to save the world. But although it was the Father’s will that this should be the way in which the world’s salvation would come about, it was not absolutely necessary. God could have saved mankind from sin and death, and restored all of creation in some other way. But for some reasons that are accessible to us, and others that are hidden away within the depths of divine wisdom, he chose to make it come about by the suffering of the Son of God.

Why was the passion of the Lord a wise and fitting way to save us?

For one, we are given a perfect example of patience, constancy, humility, and obedience. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth… he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. But above all, the wisdom of the Lord’s suffering lies in its supreme love. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. The unfathomable love held in the divine and human heart of the Savior was perfectly exposed and revealed to us by his laying down his life for us. It was not absolutely necessary, no; but if your God empties himself, humbles himself, and submits in obedience even to death on a cross, how can you not see that he loves you?

Jesus performed many miracles. One of the purposes of these miracles was to demonstrate his divine power. By freely wielding the power of God through miraculous feats, Jesus meant to show that he was really and truly God. When the disciples were being hurled about in their boat and saw Jesus calm the storm with a mere word, the Gospel says, they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” The power the Lord exhibited in performing miracles was a manifestation of his divinity. But could we say the same about his sufferings?

God became man to suffer, and in that suffering he showed us something of God. The God, who until he came in the flesh remained hidden and revealed himself only by hints and whispers in prophecy, put on full display that he is a God who is willing to suffer in agony out of obedience and love. It is by the crucifixion and death of Christ that we come to know who God is. When you have lifted up the Son of Man, Jesus says, then you will know that I am.

Not everyone has been able to glimpse the divinity by looking at the crucifixion. There were many heretics in the primitive Church known as docetists, who, while believing that Jesus was God, thought that he only disguised himself as man, and therefore only seemed to suffer. They could not believe that God could actually suffer. For entirely different reasons, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was also intolerant of the “ghastly paradox of a ‘God on the cross,’” calling “the unthinkable, supreme, and utter horror of the self-crucifixion of a God for the salvation of man… [an] intoxicating, defiling, and corrupting influence.” But as St. Paul says: The cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It requires faith to see in the sufferings of Christ upon the cross a real revelation of God: a God whose power, authority, and dominion is manifested in his sufferings. As we chant during Holy Week, Regnavit a lingo Deus: “God has reigned from a tree.”

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