We are in Ordinary Time—and will be until Ash Wednesday. One of the purposes of this present liturgical season is to give us time and space to reflect on what we have just celebrated at Christmas; namely, that our God became flesh and lived among us. That is a mystery of our faith: God the Son, God from all eternity, became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth born of the Virgin Mary.
He was fully human and fully divine—that’s what our faith tells us. We are certainly not going to plumb the depths of this mystery in these few, short weeks before Lent, but we can start by asking what does it mean to say that the Lord was fully human? And what significance does it have in my life?
The questions are historical. In the early centuries of the Church, one source of contention was the relationship between Jesus’ humanity and divinity, and whether he was human and/or divine. It wasn’t until the fifth century, at the Council of Chalcedon, speaking directly to the question of whether the Son of God was truly human, that the Church community confirmed that Jesus is like us in all things but sin. That, they said, is one ramification of Christ being fully human. And it has become a statement of our faith and is based on the Letter to the Hebrews, which says that he was tested in every way that we have been, but without sin (cf Heb 4:15), and Saint Peter, who says: “He committed no sin” (1 Pt 2:22). But then I want to ask: If Jesus is sinless, is he truly like us since we are all sinners? If he was sinless, then, it seems he was not like us.
To add to the discussion, Father John Kavanaugh, SJ, recently made the argument in a homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, that he “is truly human precisely because he does not sin.” So he’s saying that to be truly human I must be sinless? Where does that leave us sinners? It appears that we have a problem. But maybe the resolution of this apparent conflict lies in our understanding of what it means to be human.
Turning again to the doctrines of our faith for insights, we know that when God the Son became human in the mystery of the Incarnation, he came to reveal to us not only his divinity, but also our humanity. He came to reveal what being human is truly all about from God our Creator’s perspective, for our notion and experience of human nature had become clouded by weakness and sin. He came to reveal to us the beauty of a life lived without any rejection of the Father’s will, without sin, for that is God’s intent for us. And he did this, in Saint Paul’s words, by becoming sin for us and destroying sin and death and offering us a share in his divine life (“For our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2 Cor 5:21]).
So, really, it’s we who are not fully human because we are sinners. We could say that we are like Christ in all things but sin. We have rejected God’s eternal vision for our happiness by messing it up with sin. And he came to give us the where-with-all to correct that; namely, salvation.
So a part of the mystery that we just celebrated at Christmas, is the God-given awareness that we are called to be perfected as our heavenly Father is perfect. We are called to be sinless as is Jesus so that we can be fully human, human as God intends us to be. And don’t we talk about this in our belief about purgatory—purification in preparation for enjoying heaven; purification so that we become fully human? And this can begin right now because Christ made it possible for us to live the truth about ourselves. He calls us to salvation, to full humanity.
Saying that we must be perfected is not intended to make us feel guilty or to set an impossible goal, but to help us admit our sin and let God save us. Only he can perfect us. We need to recognize our brokenness and trust in the merciful love of our God. And this is made possible by the Son of God coming to reveal the true meaning of our humanity and making it a reachable goal by destroying sin and death. Sin has no part in God’s loving vision for us. It is not a part of being truly human.
Reflecting on this wonderful fact should be enough to chew on until we begin the sacred season of Lent and prepare to celebrate our salvation at Easter.