One of the most challenging questions that faced me when I was on Sabbatical in Jerusalem was the question posed by one of the Non-Christian Scholars that taught us. He said that the difficulty that Muslims and Jews had with Christianity was that the Incarnation, in their minds, was unnecessary. God’s power is infinite. Why did God have to become human to save the human race? Certainly a God who can create a universe out of nothing can save us simply by fiat, that is, just by willing it. Why the birth at Bethlehem?
This was a challenging question. At first I struggled with my inability to come up with an answer. So I prayed about it and asked others who were studying the same things I was studying. For a long time, I could not find a way to resolve this theological problem.
What made this problem worse is the assertion that, not only did the Son of God have to be born, but he had to die for our offenses. This only heightened the mystery and made me search more deeply into my theological understanding of our faith.
The answer came through an obscure Franciscan Theologian from the Middle Ages! His name was Duns Scotus and his national origin was either Scottish or Irish. Definitely he was a Celt by ethnicity (hence the Latin name ‘Scotus’). He should be especially dear to us here at Immac since he defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary against some formidable opponents like St. Thomas Aquinas!
His thought centered on the importance of the Incarnation. He wrote that the Redemption of Humanity from Sin was accomplished through the taking on of our humanity and not simply by Christ’s death on the Cross. Even if Jesus died a natural death, He would have been able to say at his dying breath, “It is accomplished.” The assumption of our humanity was the free act of a loving God who wanted to share in the ups and downs of human existence. It was not necessary that it happened that way. God could have redeemed us through His almighty Word and Will. But through the Incarnation, that is the earthly life of the Logos, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, He chose freely to redeem us through His own condescending affection for us.
Hence the answer I found to the challenge given by Jewish and Muslim scholars was: Yes, God could have redeemed us by Fiat (pure will), but that He chose a more dramatic way to do it! It was a deeply loving response. It was an extravagant display of loving-kindness. To echo something that the philosopher-theologian (and mathematician-physicist!) Blaise Pascal once said: “The heart has reasons that the mind is ignorant of.”
The Drama of the Passion, Crucifixion and Death of the Redeemer, while not necessary for redemption, became inevitable because of the sinfulness of humanity and its long record of violence and resistance to the Divine initiatives. This, perhaps, puts into stark relief the utter evil of the Crucifixion of Christ. It did not have to end this way. The brutality of it was not willed by the Father. This horrible moment in history was a consequence of the cold-heartedness of humanity’s rejection of the ways of God.
There was an old ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about a visitor from another planet who landed in a small Texas town. Because of fear and ignorance, the towns-people destroyed him as he tried to give them a gift: a book. After their destruction of the alien, they looked in the ashes of what they did and could not find the book, but did find its title page. What they read shocked them: the book contained the cure for cancer! They destroyed the giver of an immense gift to mankind.
While that episode ended in futile hopelessness, the story of Christ’s death ends in His vindication by the Father on Easter Morning. Even after all that hatred, the Incarnation of the Word of God has redeemed humanity!
The originality of the thought of Duns Scotus is that he places the Incarnation at the very center of the Redemption. In fact, he states that even if Adam and Eve never sinned, even if there was nothing like Original Sin, even if the history of humanity progressed without the sad legacy of opposition to God, God would still become incarnate!
For Duns Scotus, the reason why God became human was not because He had to do it to save us. God freely chose to become human out of love for Humanity. He did not have to become human to save us; He chose to freely do it that way for it more accurately reflected the intense and all-encompassing love He has for us.
This makes Christmas an even more important feast than it is now. For the Incarnation of God was salvific in its own right even without the Easter event. Holy Week and Easter are but the natural outgrowth of the confrontation between the love of God and the sin of man.
That little Baby in the manger is, therefore, the triumphant sign of the love of God and His commitment to love us extravagantly and totally.
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