December 17, 2021


God emptied himself to become human

Christians are all familiar with the story that St. Luke and St. Matthew tell about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, along with angels appearing to shepherds, and a star alerting wise men that a new king has been born. We will hear Luke’s and Matthew’s readings in liturgies during the Christmas season.

But let us also meditate on the beginning of a very early Christian hymn, quoted by St. Paul in the second chapter of his Letter to the Philippians. It describes the mystery of the Incarnation:

“Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7).

This hymn shows that the early Christians, certainly at the time that St. Paul wrote his letter in the 50s, believed that Jesus was God.

They sang this hymn at a time when there were a number of gods in the Roman Empire. Many of those gods, though, were humans who, their followers believed, became gods. Jesus was different. He was God, who existed from all eternity, who lowered himself to become a human being.

The hymn says that Jesus was willing to empty himself to take the form of a slave. He was emptying himself of the outward qualities of his divinity to be born as a human. For someone with the divine power of God, that is humbling himself indeed.

He did not abandon his divinity when he became human. Rather he took on the form of a slave while continuing in the form of God. He was the only one in history to have two natures, the divine and the human.

He was in the form of God, which means that he was part of the Holy Trinity, fully equal to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. As the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults says, “All three persons work together in the works of creation, Redemption and sanctification” (p. 62). Yet he was also a distinct person.

The prologue to the Gospel of St. John, calling Jesus “the Word,” tells us that “the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3).

And yet he emptied himself of those powers to become a human, like us. Well, maybe not completely. He showed himself capable of performing feats beyond human capacity like multiplying food, or healing the sick with only a word, or calming a storm at sea.

But he also took on the weaknesses of humans. He was truly a human. He felt pain, cried when his friend died, slept when he was tired.

This, then, is what we celebrate at Christmas—the doctrine, and the mystery, of the Incarnation. We believe that the second person of the Holy Trinity, fully God, humbled himself to become fully human, born of a human mother through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why did he do that? Why would someone with the powers of God lower himself to become a human? In Jesus’ case, because that was the will of his Father. As the First Letter of St. John says, “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4:9).

St. John was even more direct in his Gospel when he told us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

The Incarnation must lead to our redemption, which is what we celebrate during Holy Week. God determined that no mere human being had the power to reconcile us with God, that it had to be done by a divine person. So, he sent his Son to do it.

Let us rejoice in the fact that God’s love for us was so great that he gave us his Son in the Incarnation. May you all have a merry Christmas.

—John F. Fink

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!