The Saving Work of the Son of God

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the supreme manifestation of God's Mercy is the sending of His divine Son into the world to share our human nature, and to make "atonement" or "satisfaction" for our sins, meriting for us superabundant graces of regeneration and sanctification.

1. The Divine Son Shares our Human Nature

The British theologian John Saward sums up St. Thomas' viewpoint on this matter as follows ("Love's Second Name: St. Thomas on Mercy," Canadian Catholic Review, March, 1990, p. 92):

It is through the mercy, affective as well as effective, of his real human heart that Christ manifests the infinitely effective mercy of God.... In his manhood the Son of God knows by experience the human misery, which as God he knew from eternity by simple knowledge. God incarnate does not just know about human misery; he has felt it.

In other words, in His divine nature the divine Son remained beyond suffering, but in the human condition that He assumed, He could actually experience the depths of human suffering and sorrow. In fact, according to St. Thomas, our Savior experienced every general kind of human suffering. He suffered at the hands of all kinds of people; He suffered desertion by His friends, blasphemies against His good name; He suffered in body and soul, and in all His senses, including the emotions of grief and sorrow. Moreover, according to St. Thomas, our Lord suffered the greatest pain (bodily, emotional, and spiritual) that any human being could possibly experience. St. Thomas writes (ST III.46.6):

His body was superbly put together, for it was formed miraculously by the operation of the Holy Spirit ... and so his sense of touch, the sense through which we experience pain, was extremely keen. His soul, likewise, by all its interior powers, perceived all the causes of sorrow with the greatest clarity.

In addition to His bodily and affective sensitivity, according to St. Thomas, our Lord also possessed a far greater wisdom and love than any other human being. This is the case because Christ's human nature, united to the person of the divine Word, was "full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:13). Thus, through His infused and beatific knowledge, He foresaw prophetically the entire future of the human race " all human sins and miseries for which he was offering His life on the cross. As Saward puts it: "To remove the vast burden of the world's guilt, the incarnate Son lovingly endures the vast burden of the world's pain" (p. 92).

However, Jesus Christ does not just suffer alongside of us. Again, Saward explains:

Christ's humanity, without losing any of its concreteness, has a certain inclusiveness. He is our Head, and we are his members, forming together, as it were, a single mystical Body. As man, but because he is God, Christ our Head is able to identify more profoundly and more completely with human wretchedness than any ordinary man could ever do.

In fact, one could argue that it is implicit in St. Thomas' Christology that it is precisely the beatific and infused knowledge of the whole human race " past, present, and future " that Jesus possessed in His human soul, coupled with the infused virtue of charity that He possessed in His human soul, that enables Him, in a unique way, to "include" all humanity within His own concrete humanity, since He embraces all human beings with such unsurpassable wisdom and love. (See, for example, Gal. 2:20, and Pope Pius XII, encyclical letter "Mystici Corporis," section 75).

2. He Makes Satisfaction for our Sins

St. Thomas states that the purpose for which the Son of God took our frail flesh was not just to identify with our human condition by sharing our pain, but to make "satisfaction" for our sins. "God as man did for man what man by himself could not do" (Saward, p. 93). St. Thomas explains (III.1.2):

For man to be liberated through the passion of Christ was in harmony both with his mercy and justice. With justice because by his passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race, and so man was liberated through the justice of Christ. But also with mercy, because, since man by himself could not make satisfaction for the sins of all human nature... God gave his Son to be the satisfier... and in so doing he showed a more abundant mercy than if he had forgiven sins without requiring satisfaction.

St. Thomas obviously sees the suffering, redemptive work of Christ as fulfilling the demands of divine justice " i.e., making "satisfaction" (compensation) for human sin " but at the same time, as the most stupendous act of merciful love for us, because God does all this for us Himself, out of nothing but sheer mercy for us in our plight, since we are unable to help ourselves. In doing so, He manifests His merciful love far more than if He had just forgiven sins by letting "bygones be bygones."

Moreover, St. Thomas insists that rescuing us from our sins in this particular way (that is, by making satisfaction for our sins) was the sole purpose of the Incarnation. This teaching later would be opposed by the "Scotists" (the followers of the Franciscan theologian Bl. John Duns Scotus), who argued that the Son of God would have become incarnate even if humanity had never fallen into sin.

(This series continues next week on the Mercy theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Once again, we want to acknowledge our debt for many of these reflections on St. Thomas, to the magnificent essay by Fr. John Saward, "Love's Second Name: St. Thomas on Mercy" that appeared in the Canadian Catholic review in March, 1990).

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If our definition of Divine Mercy is accurate, then it has to fit not only with the meaning of the Biblical terms for mercy, such as "hesed," "rachamim," and "eleos," but also with the whole story of God's dealings with His chosen people Israel, and with all that He has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. As the Catholic biblical scholar John L. Mackenzie claimed: "the entire history of the dealings of Yahweh with Israel can be summed up as 'hesed'."

Divine Mercy is an attribute of God

Mercy presents us with a semantic problem. After all, the word mercy in contemporary English has a very restricted meaning. It is usually used to refer to an act of pardon, as in "Let me off, judge; have mercy" or "He threw himself on the mercy of the court." In the Catholic tradition of theology, however, mercy means far more than just the cancellation of punishment. Far more then that.