Ethical Implications of the Incarnation

Prof. Michael Hull, New York

December 18, 2004

The Incarnation has perforce ethical implications. Indeed, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) in order to reconcile us to God, to make known the depths of God’s love, to allow us to partake in the divine, and to reveal the paradigm of holiness (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 456–60). The principal ethical implication of the Incarnation is the enjoinment to imitation, imitation of Jesus Christ, the exemplar of holiness, who "is the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15; cf. 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Eph 5:1; Phil 3:17; 1 Thess 1:6).

Since Creation, God has imbued man with the imago Dei (Gen 1:26); yet since the time of Adam and Eve man had been dead in trespass and sin only to have been made alive in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:1–5). As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, Jesus Christ "is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin [Heb 4:15]" (Gaudium et spes, no. 22; see Redemptor hominis, no. 8). With the Incarnation, the "son of God becomes man so that man . . . should become a son of God" (St. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3.19.1), God "becomes man so that we might become God" (St. Athanasius, De incarnatione 54.2).

It is Jesus Christ, the perfect man, whom we must imitate by doing good and avoiding evil. In such imitation, the Old Law of the Decalogue is surpassed by the New Law of Love, and natural virtue is surpassed by supernatural virtue. Man finds his end—and therewith his happiness—only in imitation of the Lord. This truth is highlighted in the Gospels by the account of the young man who followed the Commandments but could not put the things of this world aside to follow the Lord (Matt 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; Luke 18:18–30; see Veritatis splendor, nos. 6–27).

The Incarnation mandates an incorporation into the Lord’s Paschal Mystery and Ascension to the Father. At the beginning of the first part of the second part of his Summa theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas presupposes that man’s ultimate end is happiness (ST, I-II, q. 1 pr.), but Thomas realizes that such happiness can only be achieved in the beatific vision (ST, I-II, q. 3, art. 8), an achievement made possible only by the Incarnation and man’s participation in the divine life. God made us, revealed himself to us, and became one of us so that we might be happy with him forever in heaven. The principal ethical implication of the Incarnation enjoins us to imitate the Lord, who is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).