Which is it–Love or Mercy?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

The Christmas season brings before our eyes Mary and Joseph gazing lovingly upon the babe in the crib.  We cannot pass through this time of the year without this enthralling scene capturing our focus and attention.  In thinking of God the Bethlehem scene says it all—all, that is to say, about the relationship between God and ourselves.

The birth of Jesus among us as a human being like ourselves is an act of pure initiative on the part of God.  We certainly had no idea it was going to happen.  How could we?  Who would have thought it possible that the infinite and ineffable God would become a human, and a baby, at that?

This reaction is all well and good, and is quite appropriate.  But if we push a bit on it, and ask WHY?  Why did God go to such extremes to bond with us?, well, then, things begin to get a bit fuzzy.  Now, they may not be fuzzy for us.  But, in ages past, as theologians did their usual pondering on matters of faith, they found themselves discussing this question among themselves, and, not only discussing, but also disagreeing.  Now, in a way, we’re not surprised, since theologians have a tendency to disagree—at times, even about matters that seem crystal clear, to the point where they become fuzzy.

WHY did God become human?  Why did He “leave” that most wonderful of all homes (heaven) and, as we say, descend to earth to live among us?  Why did He do this in a rather obscure place (Israel, a tiny nation), and not in a major nation like Rome or Greece or Egypt or Assyria?  And, since presumably He knew from all eternity that He was going to do this, why did He do it at this particular time rather than another?  Why didn’t He choose to be born early on in the history of the human race rather than at a later date (depending on how old we think the human race is)?

One group of theologians, largely Franciscan, maintained that God did what He did out of love—no other reason.  He is so good that He sought a further expression of His goodness, in a compelling and forceful way.  For He is infinitely good.  The birth of His Son in our ranks was His way of expressing  all this—no other reason is needed.  From all eternity He planned to be born and live among us for reasons completely internal to Himself.  He didn’t need us to prod Himself into doing this.  He had His own motivation—to express His love for us.  That explains it all.

But another group of theologians, mainly Dominicans, said: wait a minute.  That doesn’t seem to square with the “facts” (that is, the “facts” we find in the bible).  God became human, in the form of a tiny infant in the crib near Bethlehem, because He was concerned on our account: to help us, to save us from our sins.  We were in big trouble.  We needed all the help we could get.  God came among us, not only to be born one of us, but to grow to adulthood, preach the good news, and, most of all, to die on the cross: why?  For our sins.  Read the bible.  That’s what it says.

To which the Franciscans reply: yes, read the bible.  But it insists that God loves us.  That alone explains why He came among us.  He’s not dependent on our situation determining what He should do.  He operates for His own reasons, and does not need our initiative in His regard.  If there had been no sin on our part, it would have made no difference to God.  He would have chosen to be born among us simply because he loved us.


Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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