The Divine Exchange
Sister Claire Waddelove looks at the mystery of the Incarnation
… grant we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Collect, Mass of Christmas Day
As is well appreciated in the Faith Movement, this prayer takes us to the heart of the mystery we celebrate in the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is echoed at the Offertory of every Mass as the priest adds the water (our humanity) to the wine (Christ’s divinity). It resounds in ringing tones in the first antiphon of the Solemnity of the Holy Mother of God at the start of each new year:
O wonderful exchange! The Creator of human nature took on a human body and was born of the Virgin. He became man without having a human father and has bestowed on us his divine nature.
The theme is taken up by the Fathers of the Church of both East and West, as well as by later writers. “He who had only one Son made him a son of man, and so in turn made the son of man a son of God” (St Augustine). 1 “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St Athanasius). 2 “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (St Thomas Aquinas). 3
It is, of course, well rooted in Scripture. The Prologue of St John’s Gospel, read at the Mass of Christmas Day, tells us that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12). The apostle returns to it in his first epistle: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are”(1Jn 3:1).
It is also the teaching of St Paul in his epistles to the Romans and Galatians, “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son … so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5; cf. Rom 8:14-17); while St Peter says explicitly:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature (2Pet 1:3-4).
Adam, seduced by the devil’s lie, “You will be like God” (Gen 3:5), grasped at divinity by eating the forbidden fruit. Our Lord, on the contrary, “did not count equality a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”(Philip 2:6-7). He whose glory fills heaven and earth, who dwells in inaccessible light, who is clothed with honour and majesty, deigned to be born as a helpless babe in obscurity, in the darkness of an earthly night, in the darkness of a sinful world, clothed in human flesh and confined in swaddling clothes.
Small as I am, weak as I am, naked as I am, poor as I am. In all things he made himself like me, taking upon himself what is mine and giving to me what is his. 4
He emptied himself in order to fill us, for from his fullness we have all received, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. Pope St Leo the Great exhorts us not to regard lightly the treasure we have been given. The divine life within us bestows immortality, but we can kill it!
Recognise your dignity, O Christian, and having been made a sharer in the divine nature, do not by your evil conduct return to the base servitude of the past. Keep in mind of whose head and body you are a member. Never forget that you have been plucked from the power of darkness and taken up into the light and kingdom of God. By the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not through your depraved actions drive away so great a guest and put yourself once more in bondage to the devil. 5
On the contrary, the divine Child, born not only in Bethlehem but also in our souls, is to be nourished and cherished. An ever deeper attention to the abiding presence of God within us, an adherence to the will of God expressed not only in the commandments but in the subtle stirring of our heart united with Our Lord’s, this is the goal of the Christian life. And this is our peace.
And so let the Son of God grow in you, for he is formed in you. Let him become immense in you and from you; and may he become to you a great smile and perfect joy, which no one can take from you. 6
He grows in us in the measure we allow our false self, our selfish self, our proud self to diminish and ultimately die: “He must increase, but I must decrease” as St John the Baptist put it (Jn3:30). St Paul speaks of the same process:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
In our own time we have the teaching of St Teresa of Calcutta: “Believe that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is life – and sanctity is nothing but that same Jesus intimately living in you”7, and “In loving him we come more and more into that oneness with him, and we allow him to live his life in us. And this living of Christ in us is holiness.” 8
This is how the saints live. We try to follow in their footsteps albeit with stumbling steps. The Queen of saints, the Mother of Christ, who is our heavenly Mother too, will foster the life of her son within us, if we invoke her aid. She, above all others, knows the secret.
A rich source of meditation is to be found in the Post Communion prayers at Mass. That of the 24 th Sunday of the Year, for example, prays that the power of the sacrament received – the Body and Blood of Christ – may so take possession of our body and mind / soul, that its power may always prevail over our own feelings / instincts / attitudes of mind. The one of the 27 th Sunday asks that we be transformed into what we have consumed, which is Christ himself. On the 23 rd Sunday, it prays that the faithful “may so benefit from your beloved Son’s great gifts that we may merit an eternal share in his life”. By making such prayers our own whenever we receive Holy Communion, we can contribute to the efficacious effects of the Sacrament in our souls.
Bishop Hugh Gilbert speaks eloquently of what he calls “the Christmas of faith according to St John”, entering into the Son’s relationship with the Father and living with his life.
‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ (Jn 15:5). I am close to the Father’s heart and you can be close to mine. The love I have from the Father will be yours as well. If my commandments are in you, if you eat my flesh and drink my blood, I will live in you and you in me, just as I keep my Father’s word, and he is in me and I in him. My unity will be yours, my prayer, my obedience, my service, my self-sacrifice, my mind, my whole life, my love. And so my Father will be yours, my God, your God. And you will live for ever. 9
1. St Augustine, Sermon 185, 3.
2. St Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54, 3.
3. St Thomas Aquinas, Opusculum 57, 1.
4. St Ælred of Rielvaux, Sermon for the Annunciation.
5. St Leo the Great, Sermon I for the Nativity of the Lord, 3.
6. Isaac of Stella, Sermon 52
7. Quoted in A Novena to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
9. Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB, Homily for Christmas Day, 2016.