OBSERVE that the fullness of time, with all the mysterious spiritual resonances that the phrase has, actually is in time. It belongs to history. It has indeed been dated for us with some precision. Time came to its fullness during the reign of Augustus who, having defeated Mark Antony and his ally, Cleopatra, ruled from 27bc to ad14. Out of the ancient Roman Republic and its conquests fashioned the Roman Empire, whose destiny was to be closely linked with that of Christ's Kingdom on earth. St. Luke tells us that Augustus decreed a census of the whole Empire: as a consequence, Joseph, a carpenter, a man of David's clan and family, went from Nazareth in Galilee to register in David's city of Bethlehem in Judea. With him was his wife, Mary, also of David's line, still a virgin and ever to be a virgin. In Bethlehem she gave birth to Jesus, who was the Christ, the Anointed One, the expectation of the nations.
For this, the highest function to which any human person had ever been called, God had prepared Mary most exquisitely. Her own conception in the womb of Anne, her mother had been in the ordinary way of nature. But in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Church teaches that from the moment that she was conceived, sanctifying grace was by the power of the Blessed Trinity in her soul. She was never stained by Adam's sin. Throughout her life she was, by the power of the same most Holy Trinity, preserved from all personal sin. In due course she was betrothed to Joseph the carpenter, whose glory in the eyes of God's Church has grown steadily, eventhough we have not one word of his recorded.
During the time of betrothal, God (as St. Luke tells in his first chapter) sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth where Mary accepted God’s request and the Holy Spirit came upon her. Thus, she conceived the Son of God. And to Joseph, profoundly troubled, an angel appeared in a dream and explained His plan for the birth of Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins. Now in Bethlehem Jesus is born. At His Presentation Simeon inspired by God hails Him as “The light which shall give revelation to the Gentiles, the glory of God's people Israel”.
For the first thirty years of His life we know almost nothing. Warned that Herod sought the life of the new born Messiah, Joseph fled with his wife and the Child to Egypt: After Herod’s death (ad4) the family returned to Nazareth. When Jesus was twelve, there was a curious episode (to which we shall return) when they lost the child and found Him again in the Temple. Apart from that, there was nothing.
St. Luke dates the moment for us. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Augustus's successor, Tiberius, (who reigned from ad14 to 37) John the Baptist went all over the country around the Jordan, baptizing and preaching that the Christ was at hand. From then we may date the three years of Our Lord's public life, ending in His death by crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven.
We have to consider what Our Lord actually came into the world for. The angel Gabriel who announced His coming to the Blessed Virgin Mary, His mother, told her that He was to be called Jesus, which means savior, and that He was to be ruler of a kingdom which should never end (Luke 1:31-34). The angel who appeared to St. Joseph added a precision to the word savior - He was to save His people from their sins. John the Baptist, sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Christ, said: This is the Lamb of God. This is He who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1: 29)
The second phrase repeats what we already know, that He is to save, and to save from sin, and adds, with the word Lamb, the hint that He will be offered in sacrifice. Our Lord Himself says many things upon what He had come for. We must concentrate upon His direct statements as to the purpose of His coming. To Zacchaeus, the chief publican, He said: (Lk. 19:10) That is what the Son of Man has come for, to search out and to save that which was lost. Compare this with what He had said earlier to Nicodemus (Jn. 3:14): This Son of Man must be lifted up, as the serpent was lifted up by Moses in the wilderness; so that those who believe in Him may not perish, but have eternal life. Following this, we have either as part of Our Lord's speech to Nicodemus or written in commentary by the Evangelist: God so loved the world, that He gave up His only begotten Son, so that those who believe in Him may not perish, but have eternal life. When God sent His Son into the world, it was not to reject the world, but so that the world might find salvation through Him. To the Roman governor Pilate, He said (Jn. 18:37): What I was born for, what I came into the world for, is to bear witness of the truth. To the Pharisees and Scribes He said (Lk. 5:32): I have come to call sinners to repentance. He sent out His Apostles (Lk. 9:2) to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to work miracles in support of their message. To the Apostles, angry with James and John for seeking the first place in His Kingdom, He said (Mt. 20:28): The Son of Man did not come to have service done Him; He came to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for the lives of many. To the Pharisees He said (Jn. 10:10): I have come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.
What He says of Himself is simply a development of what had already been said about Him - He is to save, to save from sin, to found a Kingdom. St. John's word "Lamb" is now made explicit - He is to give His life as a ransom for many. He was to save a world that was lost, a race in danger of perishing. A profounder statement as to what salvation was to be - life, more abundant life, eternal life. A life in union with God, as sons of God. Upon every element in this summary of His purpose in coming, we get great light from the rest of His teaching.
St. Paul more fully and closely than any, analyzed what Our Lord came to do. He uses a number of unique words to express the work Our Lord did, because what He did was as many sided as the damage we received from Adam and the spiritual needs of man. We may note three words which he uses often: the word REDEEM, which means literally to buy back, to pay a price for something lost, which is roughly equivalent to RANSOM. The word RECONCILE which means restoring good relations, bringing harmony where there is discord, and so represents the heart of atonement. Finally, the word JUSTIFICATION which means giving us that natural and supernatural rightness which God designed for us and is a way of expressing the result of reconciliation with God. As an example of redeem,” we have in the Son of God, in His blood, we find the redemption that sets us free from our sins.” (Col. 1:14)
Reconcile we find in: “Enemies of God, we were reconciled to Him through His Son's death.” (Rom. 5:10); “It is God who, through Christ, has reconciled us to Himself and allowed us to minister this reconciliation of His to others. Yes, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, establishing in our hearts His message of reconciliation, instead of holding men to account for their sins”. (2 Cor. 5:18-20)
For justification, we find: We have found justification through His blood. (Rom. 5:9), So being justified by His grace, we were to become heirs, with the hope of eternal life set before us. (Titus 3:7)
In the Epistle to the Romans (3:24) St. Paul gives us all three effects:” Justification comes to us as a free gift from His grace, through our redemption in Christ Jesus. God has offered Him to us as a means of reconciliation, in virtue of faith, ransoming us with His blood”. The new relation to which reconciliation brings us, the living element in justification, is to be sons of God by adoption, sharing the inheritance of Christ: “The spirit you have now received is not, as of old, a spirit of slavery, to govern you by fear: it is the spirit of adoption which makes us cry out Abba, Father”. (Rom. 8:14-15.)
If we were to go no further than this into the meaning and mission of Christ Our Lord, we should still have enough to see Him as our only hope. If we had never heard of Adam's sin (or having heard of it, did not believe it), we should still know our own sinfulness and need of cleansing. If we knew nothing of all the past, one look at the world would tell us of its urgent need for healing. Knowing these things, we need no very profound theology to tell us that in Christ Our Lord is salvation for us and for all men. Millions have found Him, and millions will still find Him. Yet it remains that there are depths below depths of understanding possible, and theology can open them to us. There is immense gain in seeing the detail of the relation between men's need and Christ's work. For our special purpose in this study - to get some understanding of what life is about - it is indispensable.
St. Paul's words, "redeem" and "reconcile" and "justify", are the fundamental ways of saying what Christ Our Lord came to do, for they state the ways in which His one single action solved the twofold problem set by the one single sin of Adam.
The race had lost its oneness with God, and Our Lord did the work of at-one-ment or reconciliation, restoration of man to sonship. In this restored sonship lies man's right relation to God which St. Paul calls "justification". The race had, by its sin, put itself in debt to God's justice, and Christ paid the debt. He offered to God an act which expiated, balanced, compensated for the act by which the race had itself chosen to be apart from God. This is the root idea of the word redeem, buying something back, or paying a price for the recovery of a captive. God was not holding men captive until Christ paid a ransom to free them. What held men captive was not God but sin, and the object of redemption was not to take men from God but to bind them to Him in a life-giving union. Something was due from man as a preliminary to restoration, and Christ rendered it for us by His death. St. Paul can say (1 Cor. 6:20): “You are bought with a great price”, and St. Peter (in his first Epistle 1:19-20): “You were not redeemed with corruptible things as gold and silver ... but with the precious blood of Christ as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled”.
We have two elements in what Our Lord did. He made satisfaction for man's sins, and He merited for men the new life of sons reconciled to their Father. The word Redemption,
though in its literal meaning it seems to apply especially to the element of satisfaction for sin, is ordinarily used also to cover the whole restoring work of Christ: to include the reconciliation and the justification. To redeem is to buy back, and if the buy suggests the satisfaction, the back suggests the restoration. The important thing, when we use the word Redemption for Christ's whole work of reestablishing humanity, is that we should see that there are two elements.
The Council of Trent (6.7) says that Our Lord through the great charity wherewith He loved us, by His most Holy Passion on the wood of the cross, merited justification for us and made satisfaction to God on our behalf.
It was not a question of redeeming individuals, but of redeeming the human race composed of these individuals. St. John the Baptist speaks of Our Lord as taking away the sin of the world: not sins. The sin of the world was the breach between the human race and God, and it stood between men and the sonship of God. Christ healed it. He is the Savior of mankind. An individual need not sin in order to have Christ as his Savior. The child who dies in the moment of Baptism never having committed any personal sin, still has Christ for its Savior. Our Blessed Lady, Christ's mother, who had God's grace in her soul from the first moment of her existence could still call God her Savior. Not only because He saved her from committing sin, but because He had saved the race of Adam from which she descended.
We have seen from the Gospels that Christ is God. We have seen also that Christ, not ceasing to be God, is man too. The opening of St. John's Gospel tells us how the Word, who was God, was made flesh, was incarnate. The Incarnation was God's answer to the double problem which faced fallen mankind. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, became man, took to Himself and made His own a human nature; and in that nature offered to God the sacrifice which outbalanced the sin of mankind, and merited the supernatural restoration of man: so that Adam's offense was expiated, the breach it had caused between God and man was healed, so that God and man might be at one again, and man brought back from servitude to sonship.
To see how the Incarnation answers the problem, we must closely consider the relation of the humanity of Christ to his Godhead. Chapter 6 (section 2), details the distinction between person and nature in some detail. In summary: given a rational being, the nature answers the question what, the person answers the question who; the person does what is done in the nature, but the nature conditions what the person does. The person does what his nature enables him to do. The nature is a source of possible actions but if any of those actions get done, it is the person who does them, not the nature. Where it is question of a finite rational nature, there is a question not only of doing things but of having things done to one, suffering, in a general way experiencing. Here again the nature is decisive as to what may be done or suffered or experienced; but the person does and suffers and experiences.
We may now apply these distinctions to God-made-man as we applied them to the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. God the Son was a Person, a Someone, possessing the nature of God in its fullness, and this in the eternity of the Divine Being. At a certain point in time He took to Himself and made His own a human nature. We have the unique instance of one single person with two natures, divine and human. To the question "Who are you"? Christ would have but one answer. He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, the Word. But to the question "What are you"? Christ Our Lord would have two answers, for He has two natures; He is God and He is man. Note the consequences for Our Lord's actions. Nature decides what the person can do. This one Person had two natures, two sources of action from which He could draw. He had the Divine Nature, and so could do all that goes with being God. He had a human nature, and so could do all that goes with being man. Whether He was doing the things of God in His Divine Nature or doing the things of man in His human nature, it was the Person Who was doing them: and there was but the one Person and He was God.
Christ Our Lord, having a human nature, was able to perform a human act; but He who performed it was a divine Person. Being able to perform a human act, He could offer it in expiation of the human act of Adam. Because He was a divine Person His human act had a value which no act of a merely human person could have had. This same union in Him of human and divine which was the ground of His work of expiation, was the ground of His work of reconciliation, too. If the human race were to be brought back from servitude to sonship, here was the man who in Himself was Son and not servant. If the human race were once more to be at one with God, here in Christ Jesus humanity was already united with the Godhead in a union of inconceivable closeness. Christ Our Lord was the atonement before He made the atonement. He alone could perform an act at once human and divine. He could offer to God an act of obedience in love which as human could rightly be set against humanity's sin of rebellion in self-love, and which as divine must have all the value needed, or immeasurably more than all the value needed, to satisfy for it.