Jesus may be the most controversial person of all time. Not necessarily in what he said and did (while that is pretty controversial), but rather, in what he is. For every other human ever, we can safely say what he/she is: human… with a couple exceptions. I have seen all the Men in Black movies and Will Smith has made me question the humanity of some people. (e.g. John Mayer, Andy Serkis, Stephen Colbert). For the most part, however, we can say that all humans are merely human with one major exception: Jesus.
Today we continue our Christmas celebration with the Solemnity of the Epiphany which is the “manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God, and Savior of the world” (CCC 528). The magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh reveal that Jesus is a true king (gold), who is both divine (frankincense), and human (myrrh). This reveals that Jesus is more than merely human like everyone else. He is true God and true man. He is Son of God and Son of Mary. On January 1 we celebrated the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. This Solemnity is a celebration of Mary and a great proclamation that Jesus is both true God and true man. We say these words all the time but what are we actually saying when we say Jesus is true God and true man?
It may be easier to establish what we are NOT saying first. This will take us on an extremely brief and rough examination of Church heresy history.
Arianism: we are not saying that Jesus is created. Although Jesus is truly human and was born of the Virgin Mary, he is not created by Mary or the Father. Arius thought that Jesus was something different from the Father and that he must have been created at some point because he was from another substance. Arius was condemned in 325 with same words that we recite every Sunday at mass “begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Jesus is eternally begotten by the Father and of the same substance. So even though Jesus was born, he was not created.
Nestorianism: we are not saying that the divine Word united Himself to a human body. Nestorius had a popular heresy that proclaimed that the divine Word and second person of the Trinity simply united himself to a human person to make Jesus. We can call this human person Kevin. Nestorius would make for us a nice math equation that says: Divine Word + Kevin = Jesus. Thus, we could separate the divine actions and the human actions of Jesus by saying that God was not born from Mary and God did not die on the cross. Kevin was the one that was born of Mary and died on the cross, not the Divine Word. Nestorius would call us a bunch of heretics for calling Mary the Mother of God… she should be called Mary the Mother of Kevin (who then was united with God). This creates a confused mixture or fusion of the divine and human which was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Monophysitism: we are not saying that Jesus was entirely divine in nature. Jesus was true God but that does not override his true humanity. Jesus took on all of human nature which includes body, soul, intellect, and will. Jesus was not just God in a human suit. He was entirely human body, soul, intellect, and will. Monophysitism was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
With all of this being said… What exactly are we saying when we proclaim Jesus true God and true man? We are saying that Jesus is one person with two natures: human and divine. Jesus is the true second person of the divine Trinity who “allowed the limitations of manhood to have dominion over himself” (St Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ). We take nothing from His divinity and we take nothing from his humanity. This ultimate humility of God which allowed human limitations to have dominion over him is how we can proclaim the infant in swaddling clothes to be our eternal God and King. The magi visited King Herod and treated him as merely another human. However, when they encountered an infant lying in a feeding trough, they prostrated themselves paying homage to God. They showed how divine a little human baby could be.
“The Son of God… 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” – Gaudium et spes 22
When we proclaim Jesus as true God and true man, we are proclaiming the ultimate love of God. God longs for intimacy with us so much that he became one of us in full, thus, opening the door for us to intimately participate in His divine life. Jesus redeemed all that he assumed: body, soul, will, and intellect. We are proclaiming that God himself truly suffered and died on the cross because it was truly his body and blood that was shed. How did God do this? How could Jesus be both 100% God and 100% man? “This event was a type of a mystery, of how the divine nature of the Word supported the limitations of the manhood; because he chose to. Absolutely nothing is impossible to him” (St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ).
Jesus is more than human. He is both fully human and fully divine, true God and true man. Through communion with Him, we all can become more than merely human. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St Athanasius).
For more on the mystery of Christ’s nature see On the Unity of Christ by St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Catechism of the Catholic Church 456-478.