Why did God become human?

  • April 24, 2009
{mosimage}While in school, I did a few jobs along the way. (It’s always good to have paying jobs to help avoid getting down to thesis work.)  One I enjoyed was teaching theology to Catholic teachers.

After one class on Christology, a teacher-student said to me, quite seriously:  “Are you saying the church teaches that Jesus was actually God? That God really became a human person? I don’t know if I believe that!” Bill listened so well, really taking in church doctrine, and actually let the question be raised in himself.

It’s incredible, as Bill noted. It’s more surprising that we don’t notice it’s shocking.

There are plenty of good reasons not to become human. My friend Elinor could list dozens without stopping for breath. Elinor and her siblings grew up in spite of themselves, in an atmosphere of drunkenness and violence. As an adult, she took to the streets of Toronto, getting high on every possible substance. Years later, her body has paid a high price; she’s endured several operations and daily suffers the sorts of physical indignities that remind all too much of one’s humanness. Did God become that? Isn’t it unbecoming for God to take on the ignominies of the material world? Why would He want what the rest of us would rather get out of?

This recalls the Christological debates of the early church, in which theologians questioned (some completely rejected) the idea that God could have become fully human. An effect of the question is that we start to explore what it means to be human. Christ leads us to the truth of our own humanity.

Now on the other hand, there are delightful aspects of being human. The other day I was invited to a tea party with three little girls. They took turns whispering secrets in my ear: “pst pst pst … psssssst!” Plainly, they loved the sounds, the secrecy, the interchange, the feeling of whispering in somebody’s ear. Meanwhile they enjoyed the colour of the tea, the feel of the cups, the ways their own arms and legs moved, finding out what would happen if you tipped way over on the chair, and many other dimensions of sheer humanness. Could it be that God became human for the fun of it?

Gospel stories suggest He enjoyed His humanity, watching wildflowers, bread dough rising, widows putting money in the collection. And He touched people in thoroughly human ways, washing His disciples’ dirty feet, holding children, driving the money-changers out of the temple. He let them touch Him, too.

Elinor’s story suggests God became human to share our struggles, sufferings and pains, and help us “know you’re with me, whatever I go through” (as the song says). The tea party story suggests God became human to share the delights of His own creation — ourselves and our humanity — and remind us that “God saw what He had created, and it was good” (Genesis 1). But above all, God became human to fulfill the deepest human longing — to become divine.

May 2 recalls this deepest reason of all why God became human. May 2 is the feast of St Athanasius, theologian, priest and bishop, head of the Alexandrian church in the fourth century — a tumultuous, pivotal time for Christianity. At an Easter vigil long ago, I first head the name of Athanasius in the litany of the saints, and wondered who he was. He holds a unique place in the church for connecting Eastern with Western Christianity, and for his personal sacrifice on behalf of Christian teaching about Christ and salvation. Steeped in church tradition, Athanasius wrote that “God became human so that humans might become divine.”

In becoming human, Christ reveals what humanity is. In showing us our humanity, He brings us face-to-face with the most profound part of our being, that our desire as humans is to become God. No wonder there is always a longing in us, a longing that can be met only by God Himself.

St. Athanasius reminds us that the church holds a treasury of truth. It may not be reasonable, it may be disturbing and it may (let’s hope) cause us to lose the ground we stand on and look at everything with awe and wonder. As Mary Magdalene did on the first Easter morning, at the empty tomb with tears in her eyes. As the two Emmaus disciples did in the moment of breaking bread when they saw Jesus.