"Like Us In All Things But Sin": Christ's Humanity and Our Self-Deception

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine January-February 2010

Fr James Tolhurst shows how the realization of the divinity and primacy of Christ draws us to a high definition of human nature in contrast to a perennial tendency to deny our woundedness. Manhood is defined by God made Man, not fallen Man.

Fr. Tolhurst is the author of The Glory of These Forty Days, Gracewing

The man whom Jesus cured of his blindness was asked if he believed in the Messiah and, rather plaintively, answered "Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?" Jesus' response is well known, as is the man's reaction, worshipping Jesus.

In a sense, we are all blinded by our culture, our background, our prejudices and, especially, our sins. But we need to start by recognising our handicap instead of persisting in saying we see when our blindness remains (John 9:41). The call to conversion which was placed at the heart of ecumenism by Vatican II and was reiterated by Pope John Paul as an adjunct of the millennial celebrations must be taken into consideration when we respond to Jesus' question about belief which he first put to the man born blind.

Maintaining Balance of Full Divinity and Humanity

St Paul told the Christians at Corinth that many of their deepest problems could be put down to their failure to respond with complete faith to Jesus present in the Eucharist. He writes "That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died" (1 Cor 11:29). Without going into the whole question of the impact of sin on the physical creation, we can note that St. Paul highlights the failure to recognise Christ in the Eucharist for who he is. The incidence of illness and death allowed Paul to bring to draw attention to the underlying cause of sickness: the failure to recognise the Real Presence of Christ. This failure had repercussions on the whole Christian community which manifested themselves in the divisiveness which had entered into the agape (1 Cor 11:21).

The same issue was at the root of Jesus' question to his apostles: "Who do people say the Son of man is?" (Matt 16:13). If there is disagreement on this matter (as there clearly was) then one could not respond unequivocally as in fact Peter did. There was no question that Jesus was not a reincarnation of John the Baptist or one of the ancient prophets, but rather, the Son of the living God (Matt 16:16). This realisation was not one that human beings are able to reach of their own accord, anymore than they can distinguish, without revelation, ordinary bread from that which has been consecrated by a priest. There is a connection: both realities, the eucharistic body and the physical body, are the Body of Christ: they are both the mystery of faith.

From earliest years Christians themselves have found difficulty accepting that Jesus was truly God from God, light from light, begotten not made. Granted that nobody spoke like him, worked the miracles he did and defied the laws of nature; but this could be possible, it was argued, by drawing on divine support. This would make Jesus perhaps the greatest of the prophets, but not the Son of the living God. By making use of Greek patterns of thought, that is by appropriating and refining the notions of substance, person and nature, the bishops in the Councils at Nicea, Ephesus and Chalcedon arrived at a delicate but necessary explanation of the mystery of the Incarnation: one Person (the Son) in two natures (divine and human) without confusion or commingling.

But although it was affirmed that the human nature was assumed not absorbed in the mystery of the Incarnation, there continued to be doubts raised about the exact consistency of that humanity. In the fourth century it was argued (by Apollinarius of Laodicaea) that Jesus lacked a human soul since he was the Word of the Father. This almost has an attraction because it seems to give a greater dignity to the human nature of Christ. Unfortunately it thereby undermines the complete human nature which the Son of God assumed, since human nature requires both a human body and a human soul. But in a sense this is somewhat abstract. It is when we consider the 'workings' of the soul -willing and knowing that the problem becomes more acute. Constantinople III (681) taught that Jesus possessed both adivine and a human will operating in harmony. This is complemented by the teaching that Jesus enjoyed divine wisdom and human knowledge at the same time.

Jesus's Knowledge: Not Lacking Divinity

But these are difficult concepts to conjure with, given the fact that all human nature, except that of our Blessed Lady, is wounded by sin (original and personal) which prevents us from understanding what perfect humanity is. How for instance are we to interpret the words of St Luke that "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favour before God and man" (Luke 2:52)? Does that entail a diminishing of the wisdom belonging to his divinity? By becoming man, did the Son of God undergo a creaturely limitation in his divine powers? In one sense, it is true that he humbled himself to take the form of a slave for our sake: this is the divine condescension which is a familiar theme in the Fathers of the Church. He needed to acquire experiential knowledge for the sake of his human nature. Theintriguing mystery is what interpretation are we to put on Jesus' remarks about the final coming of the Son of man: "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32)? Are we to conclude that this was hidden from the Son of God? Yet on his own evidence "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 10:38).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (474) is rightly circumspect in its treatment of this question. It does not go beyond what Christ himself tells us. That of which he claims to have no knowledge, he declares himself not to have been sent to reveal. But this still leaves us wondering. It has led some theologians to put forward the position that Jesus, as Son incarnate, is somehow subordinate to his Father in heaven. They argue that being "son" implies a relationship to a Father to whom one is subject at least in honour. The problem with this concept is that while seeming to solve one problem, it creates others. If we are to avoid Subordinationism (an offshoot of Arianism) we must not talk of Jesus' sonship in human terms, because in the Trinity there is equality of majesty "andno opposition of relationship" (Council of Florence 1442). This is not changed when the Son of God assumed our humanity. When he proclaims that he always does what is pleasing to his Father (John 8:29) this argues a complete unity of purpose which expresses itself also in a human nature aware that it achieves its fullest stature in doing the will of God. A theology which seeks to explain the Incarnation in terms of "from below to above" merits from Pope John Paul the withering criticism "inadequate, reductive and superficial" (Fides et Ratio 97) because it tries to view the Incarnation from a human philosophical perspective without taking into consideration the aspect of divine mystery which is essentially "from above".

We have to preserve in harmony both the experiential knowledge which Jesus gained during his life on earth and his continual awareness as only Son of the Father, sharing his glory. We cannot explain how both awarenesses can subsist in one person, but we are not dealing with a human personality but rather with the divine second Person of the Trinity. It does a disservice to theology if we say that Jesus was human like us because his humanity was assumed by the Word of God - our humanity is our own, and fallen at that. We must consider how we approach the humanity of Jesus without in some way diminishing the dignity of the identity of Jesus as Son of the Father.

Some writers seem to talk of a sort of identity crisis in Jesus himself. If we discount the grosser depictions of him as portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ, we are left with the various insinuations regarding his knowledge and his will. Some ask bluntly "Did Jesus know who he was?" If we accept that awareness is a kind of knowing, then the answer must be in the affirmative. The tiniest infant is aware of its mother, even if it cannot articulate what motherhood means. Jesus explains: "I am not alone, the one who sent me is with me" (John 8:16).

Jesus's Humanity Not Sinful

When the Fathers of the Church talked of divine condescension in the Word become incarnate, they were developing the hymn in the letter to the Philippians : "Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave." (Phil 2: 6-7a). But, given that it brought him to death on a cross, how far are we to understand that 'humiliation' as extending? The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer says that Jesus was "a man like us in all things but sin". We can compare this with the Letter to the Hebrews "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). There is the faintest suggestion to some that Jesus shares inour humanity to the extent that he is tempted (cf. The Temptations in the wilderness) but did not succumb. This makes him more human, argue certain writers, because it brings him into the intimate psychological traumas of our humanity.

But this is to argue that human weakness necessarily involves some aspect of sin. For us, this is often the case, due to concupiscence. It will always be for us that "Sin is crouching at the door hungry to get you. You can still master him" (Gen 4: 7). We have this leaning towards sin, even if we do resist with God's grace. But with Jesus, as with his mother, there was no concupiscence because there was no trace of sin. As Leo the Great says : "True God, then, was born in the complete and perfect nature of true man, completely human and completely divine. By human, I mean that nature which the Creator founded in us at the beginning, and which he undertook to restore. For there was no trace whatever in our Saviour of those elements which were introduced into us by the deceiver,and to which man, when deceived, allowed entrance. Nor does it follow that because he undertook to share with us our weakness, he thereby shared our sins (Letter 28).

Jesus did completely share our humanity, but our humanity as it was in the beginning and as it will be in the new creation. If we are to accept the conclusions of St Thomas then, since he was the Wisdom of the Father, his capacity for intimate participation in our humanity was that much greater, since sin darkens our intellect, as it weakens our will. As Jesus' will was always centred on the Father and his mind was not clouded by the attractions of sin, he was able to grasp the true tragedy of our human condition in a way that only great saints have understood. We glimpse this in St Luke's description of Jesus' lament for the holy city: "As he drew near and came in sight of the city he shed tears over it and said, 'if you too had only recognised on this day the way to peace! But in factit is hidden from you eyes!'" (Luke 19:41-43).

But how much lies beneath the words called forth by his impending passion when in Gethsemane: "My soul is sorrowful to the point of death" (Matthew 26:38). This was no mere rhetoric. The suffering which Jesus was to undergo, which was a result of many individual sins (the betrayal of Judas, the envy of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice of Pilate, the injustice of the crowd) was seen by the Son of God against the background of Sin itself as an assault on the will of an all loving Creator uttering it forth through his Word. The Venerable John Henry Newman claims that such was the nature of Jesus' perfect humanity that he could not "turn off" his sensibility to anguish and pain (hence the sweat of blood) and that for him there was a perspective of almost unending suffering.

In the light of all this, it almost seems impertinent to speak of Jesus' weakness when only the greatest of martyrs have been able to share, in some measure, his cup of suffering but without being able to absorb the anguish in the way that he did. He struggled not with sin, as we do with part of us leaning towards it, but as "A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came. Should strive afresh against their foe, should strive and should prevail". (Cardinal Newman: Dream of Gerontius). He overcame for us in order to overcome in us, so deeply did he share our humanity. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it "Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, andfree those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life" (Heb 2:14-16).

The modern preoccupation with psychological weaknesses and personal failings must not be allowed to insinuate itself into our perspective of the Incarnation. The continual unmasking of human sinfulness does nothing to enhance our respect for an underlying goodness in human nature; rather it panders to our own deep inadequacies. We need to feel that Jesus shares in our human condition - in its fragility and its mental anguish. He suffers with us in our pain and accompanies us in our death, because he has experienced it himself. But he also shows us an aspect of the dignity of our humanity that no person - no saint even can show because of who he is. Yes, he is like us in our humanity, but as it is meant to be, and one day will be. He is at the same time the revelation of the Father, fullof grace and truth "He came to us out of the fullness of time contained in the mystery of God, and it was to this mystery that he returned after 'he had moved among us'" (Romano Guardini: The Lord. Chicago 1954 p. vi).

Faith Magazine

January - February 2010