The Passion AND the Primacy of Christ?
It is an interesting fact that the Franciscans, renowned for centering their spirituality on Christ Crucified, are the very ones who champion the position that if Adam had not sinned Christ would have come unconditionally. At first glance, this might seem to be a contradiction. Why would an entire religious family, whose Founder, St. Francis of Assisi, bore the marks of the Passion (the stigmata), ever imagine that Jesus would have been incarnate through the working of the Holy Spirit in the virginal womb of Mary even if Adam had not sinned?
Yes, St. Francis, who was the very one who inspired the Christmas creche throughout the world by obtaining from the Pope permission to create a live Nativity scene at Greccio in 1223, is the one who meditated night and day on the Crucifixion. Before receiving the Stigmata in 1224, he had already written the little Office of the Passion which he and the brothers prayed seven times a day to meditate step by step upon the episodes of Our Lord’s Passion from Gethsemani to His ignominious death on the Cross.
His religious family is the one who spread, under St. Bonaventure, the tradition of the Angelus and the ringing of the Church bells three times a day to recall the momentous event when the Word become flesh and dwelt among us; yet, this same religious family in the Holy Land and throughout the world (especially through St. Leonard of Port Maurice) is also responsible for promoting the Stations of the Cross which now can be found in almost every Roman Catholic Church and Chapel in the world.
What should be clear, therefore, is that there is no conflict between the absolute primacy of Christ (sin or no sin) and the centrality of the Cross after the fall of Adam for our Redemption from sin. Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan school, in proclaiming the absolute primacy of Christ and thus an unconditional Incarnation according to the divine decree, by no means discard the importance of our Redemption from sin. Actually, as we shall see, the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ makes the Passion of Christ all the more precious because He embraced it freely in a redemptive act of love.
The primary motive of the Incarnation
Why did the Word become flesh and dwell in our midst? What was the primary reason for this dramatic condescension on the part of God? Many motives are offered for the Incarnation (man’s divinization, man’s Redemption, Christ’s example of holiness, etc.), but the primary motive according to the Franciscan school was the maximum glory to God.
According to this thought God willed the Incarnation first (in the sense of priority), and in predestining the humanity of Christ to receive and give the maximum glory of God ad extra, God also willed to predestine the elect to grace and glory in Christ before the foundations of the world.
In essence the Incarnation was willed for itself; it was that supreme good through which and for which all of creation exists. Simply put: God willed Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, and in Him and for Him He created Angels, men and the entire universe.
Hence the predestination of Christ is the source of the predestination of all of the elect: the Virgin Mary, the Angels, the Saints. Likewise, the mediation of Christ and the centrality of His Sacred Heart (and with and subordinate to Him the mediation and Immaculate Heart of Mary) were at the center of God’s creative plan quite apart from any consideration of sin. Adam’s fall did not condition the Incarnation. Sin or no sin, God willed to communicate the maximum grace and glory to a created nature, namely the humanity of Christ, and to receive the greatest possible glory extra sé through the humanity of Christ precisely by the union of the human nature of Christ with the divine nature in the divine Person of the Word.
From the Incarnation we receive every spiritual blessing of the Father. We are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and we receive every grace through His most Sacred Heart as the Mediator between God and man.
Sin and the Redemption
Because of our original sin in Adam and our consequent personal sins, a barrier was created by us between God and ourselves. After sin, even if Christ became incarnate, we would not have been able to benefit from His union and mediation without the work of Redemption. To incarnate love God willed to add redemptive mercy, without which we would be left in our sins with no hope of salvation. As a result, after the fall of our first parents the redemptive aspect of the Incarnation takes on a central place. Without the Redemption we are doomed; and since our first parents and their offspring experienced and continue to experience the effects of sin and separation from God, it is obvious that our attention has been fixed on Christ’s work of Redemption because this alone saves us and reconciles us with God. The bloody Passion of Jesus definitively conquers sin, Satan and eternal death. Without this, while the Incarnation in itself would remain the masterpiece of God’s creation and give the Trinity the maximum glory possible in the created universe, for us the Incarnation would not have been a source of grace; rather, it would have been a source of torment. Why? Because without redeeming mercy we would have been left to beat our breasts and say, “If only we had not sinned, how great would our dignity have been through the Incarnation! If only we had not sought to be like gods through our disobedience in Adam, how blessed we would have been to be God’s children through adoption in Christ Jesus! But alas, there is an impenetrable barrier between us and the Good God.”
Let us rejoice indeed that “God commends His charity towards us, because when as yet we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:9). God in His mercy reached out to us; He sent His Son to seek and save the lost, to redeem us from our sin and its punishment. Yet, even with this added dimension of the Incarnation – essential for our eternal salvation after Adam’s sin – the divine plan remains completely intact: God predestines the elect to grace and glory in Christ; God places the Heart of Christ at the center of the universe and wills it to be the source of every grace and blessing for Angels and mankind. The only difference is that Christ now comes in passible, mortal flesh so as to redeem us through His bitter Passion.
It was the opinion of Bl. John Duns Scotus and his faithful disciple, Bl. Gabriel Mary Allegra, that the absolute primacy of Jesus (sin or no sin) actually underscores the love and mercy of God precisely because Jesus freely willed it. The Incarnation was the highest good in all of creation in sui iuris; it was, to use the happy expression of Scotus, the summum opus Dei. Hence Jesus did not come solely to redeem us; rather, He chose to redeem us in His love. The Redemption was “necessary,” not because He was sent primarily, let alone necessarily, to die on the infamous Cross, but it was only “necessary” in the sense that God, the Father of mercies, willed to add redemptive mercy to His incarnate love (necessary because it was God’s free choice) and, obviously, “necessary” if we were going to profit from the holy Incarnation of the Word (necessary if we were to be reconciled with God). But Christ was not forced to die on the Cross, compelled to take upon Himself the divine wrath as if sent into the world for the purpose of being tortured by the divine justice so that God might show us mercy. No, the Redemption was a free act of love: freely willed by God and freely embraced by Christ in His humanity. He gave Himself freely to His Passion in love for the Father who willed it and in love for us whom He so lovingly wished to redeem. “No one takes it [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself” (Jn 10:18).
Scotus: Redemption is willed by the heavenly Father in order to attract us to His love and so that man might love God all the more
Rather than describe this in my own words, let me cite Bl. John Duns Scotus and Bl. Gabriel Allegra’s comment (my translation of Allegra’s pertinent passages on this can be found here: Part III – Bl. Gabriel Allegra, OFM: The Primacy of Christ in St. Paul & Duns Scotus).
Thus I maintain that all of the things which Christ accomplished for our Redemption were not necessary except for what concerns the preexistent, divine decree – nisi praesupposita ordinatione divina – which decreed/ordered that it be done in this way, and therefore Christ’s suffering was only necessary by way of a necessity of consequence… and therefore we are greatly indebted to Him – multum tenemur Ei. In fact, since man could have been redeemed in another manner and nonetheless God, in His free will, redeemed us in this way, we are much more indebted to Him for this than if we necessarily had to be redeemed in this fashion with no other alternative; He did this above all, as I believe, in order to attract us to His love and because He willed that man be even more bound to God. [emphasis mine]
Bl. Gabriel Allegra comments:
In this [assertion of Scotus] Christian anthropology and the mystery of the Cross are, in my opinion, integrally kept intact – no part of the revealed truth is lost or mitigated. Rather, the mystery of the Cross is actually immersed in the most ardent and tender flames of divine love. This is how Scotus argues, like a new John of Patmos: Given that a finite being cannot, in sinning, commit an offense which has an infinite malice; given that the abasement of the Incarnation in passible flesh was sufficient to reconcile us with God, or further still, that had God disposed it differently the satisfaction given by an Angel or man himself, strengthened anew by grace, would have been sufficient, it follows that the sorrows of the Son of God crucified were willed by God: ad alliciendum nos ad amore suum… et quia voluit hominem amplius teneri Deo, that is, these unspeakable sorrows were willed by the heavenly Father in order to attract us to His love and so that man might love God all the more. Therefore, Scotus continues, no grace which concerns salvation is given to man as wayfarer by the most Holy Trinity except through the merit of this oblation of Christ, consummated on the Cross, through a most beloved Person – the Son – and through the maximum love – the love of the Son. [emphasis mine]
Following this synthesis of Christology Christ is always the First, the One who is above all – proteuon en pasin. In the most tender and delightful mysteries: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary, the Eucharist, and in His most glorious mysteries: the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, the glory of His Immaculate Mother and that of His Church, His Sacred Humanity irresistably draws hearts to the love of the Father, of His Christ, of Mary and of His Church. And this is because: ad alliciendum nos ad amorem suum sic fecit… et quia voluit nos amplius teneri Deo… ideo multum tenemur Ei.
In conclusion we can see that the fact that Christ would have come sin or no sin actually deepens our debt to Him for His work of Redemption. There is no conflict between the Passion of Christ and His absolute primacy. Rather, God’s love for us manifested in our Redemption presupposes and builds upon His love for us in the Incarnation. Christ’s Passion is precisely that exceeding charity to which St. Paul refers: “But God, who is rich in mercy, by reason of His very great love wherewith He has loved us even when we were dead by reason of our sins, brought us to life together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and seated us together in Heaven in Christ Jesus, that He might show in the ages to come the overflowing riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-7). Our Lord Himself spoke of it: “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
God’s love for us in the Passion of Jesus is exceedingly great; it is overflowing, superabundant, beyond measure. Let us meditate profoundly on this divine love for us in Christ Jesus. And let us respond to His love freely and fully. “You are My friends,” says Jesus, “if you do the things I have commanded you” (Jn 15:14). Believing and experiencing God’s love for us in Christ, especially in His Passion, Death and Resurrection, should “attract us” to love God, to repay His Love with our love.