In the Gospel according to John, the evangelist writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (1:14, RSV). He continues that we have received from His fullness “grace upon grace” (1:16) and that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17). In these few verses, the evangelist highlights the threefold grace of Christ: the grace of union, the fullness of habitual grace that resided in Him as flesh, and the fullness that He pours out upon us as the Head of the Church. Ocáriz, Mateo-Seco, and Riestra describe this fullness in Christ the man:
When discussing Christ’s holiness, we are referring exclusively to Jesus Christ as man, that is, we are dealing with the divinization of his human nature…. A triple grace is to be found in Christ—the grace of union (that is, the hypostatic union viewed as a gift or grace to the humanity of Jesus), habitual grace (so-called sanctifying grace), and capital grace, that is, the grace he has as head of the human race.[i]
The grace of union, according to the authors, is the source of Christ’s holiness and also what makes Him our mediator, sanctifying us and giving us life.[ii] St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, Part III, Questions 7 and 8, reflects on this threefold grace and the essence of each.
“O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”[iii] These words from “The Exsultet” underscore the character of the Incarnation as gift. St. Thomas contrasts this pre-eminent grace in our Redeemer, called the grace of union in Summa Theologica (III, 2, 12), with that grace by which the saints are joined to God (III, 2, 10). This grace is unique to Christ, belonging to Him and no one else, and divinizing His human nature:
[H]uman nature is lifted up to God in two ways: first, by operation, as the saints know and love God; secondly, by personal being, and this mode belongs exclusively to Christ, in Whom human nature is assumed so as to be in the Person of the Son of God. (III, 2, 10)
Through this grace of union, according to Kenneth Baker, it is reasonable to say that Christ’s humanity is “endowed with substantial sanctity or holiness.”[iv] He continues, “[I]t is impossible to have a more intimate union between a creature and God than the Hypostatic Union in Jesus Christ.”[v] Ocáriz et al note that this substantial holiness is also referred to by the early Father as “anointing” or “unction.”[vi] They add that, according to the Thomists, grace of union sanctifies Christ formally (formaliter), and not only radically (radicaliter), as was believed by the Scotists.[vii] This grace is the source of Christ’s impeccability.[viii]
This union, St. Thomas explains, occurs by grace in two ways: first, through bestowal by the will of God; second, as a free gift unpreceded by any merit (III, 2, 10). While the grace of union with Christ the man could not be considered “natural” in regard to an essential property of His human nature (III, 2, 12, ad. 3), it was natural in that it occurred by the power of His Divine nature (III, 2, 12, ad. 1 and 2).
The second of the tripartite graces of Christ (in their common order of reference) is habitual or sanctifying grace. This accidental grace initially or formally justifies the human soul (Denzinger, Syst. Ind. Xf, 799) and enables it by operation to know and love God (III, 2, 10). Ocáriz et al highlight that habitual grace and grace of union are closely linked: “[T]he grace of union (which makes Christ’s humanity ‘substantially holy’) involves the need for habitual grace (which sanctifies accidentally) and for glory as the ultimate perfection of operative union with God.”[ix] As with human persons, the operations of the soul to know and love God require this habitual grace (III, 7, 1 ad. 2). Despite the fact that grace of union granted substantial holiness to Christ’s human nature, His soul still required habitual grace to be divinized. St. Thomas writes, “Yet because together with unity of person there remains distinction of natures… the soul of Christ is not essentially Divine. Hence, it behooves it to be Divine by participation, which is by grace” (III, 7, 1, ad. 1.)
Linked to this accidental grace are the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas defends against the objection that Christ needed no virtues, pointing out that “as grace regards the essence of the soul, so does virtue regard its power. Hence it is necessary that as the powers of the soul flow from its essence, so do the virtues flow from grace” (III, 7, 2). Yet in Christ, not all virtues are present. Because He held the beatific vision through the Hypostatic Union, He had no need for the theological virtues of faith and hope. The Angelic Doctor writes,
As it is of the nature of faith that one assents to what one sees not, so is it of the nature of hope that one expects what as yet one has not; and as faith, forasmuch as it is a theological virtue, does not regard everything unseen, but only God; so likewise hope, as a theological virtue, has God Himself for its object, the fruition of Whom man chiefly expects by virtue of hope[.] (III, 7, 4)
As faith and hope have as their object God Himself, Christ needed them not. However, as Ocáriz et al point out, “any element of perfection which is found in [faith and hope] is found in Him, raised to a higher level of perfection.”[x] Another result of sanctification is the infusion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Ludwig Ott examines the differences between the infused gifts and the infused virtues, noting that the “motivating principles of the virtues are the supernaturally endowed faculties of the soul, whereas the motivating principle of the gifts is the Holy Spirit immediately.”[xi] In Christ, according to St. Thomas, “the gifts were in a pre-eminent degree.” (III, 7, 5).
Finally, Christ possessed uniquely what theologians call captis gratia or capital grace:[xii] grace as the Head of the Church, His Mystical Body. This grace He possesses by virtue of His nearness to God and His perfection in the fullness of all graces (III, 8, 1). Pius XII, in “Mystici Corporis Christi,” writes, “It is He who, through His heavenly grace, is the principle of every supernatural act in all parts of the Body.”[xiii] St. Thomas explains the fitness of the metaphor of Christ as Head and His likeness to the human head in order, perfection, and power (III, 8, 1). In order, the head guides and directs the other members of the body, so does Christ influence both body (secondarily) and soul (primarily) (III, 8, 2). In perfection, the head is the seat of the senses. As Ott says, “from Christ, the Head, grace continuously streams to the limbs of His Mystical Body, by means of which He supernaturally enlightens and sanctifies them.”[xiv] Ocáriz et al note that this capital grace finds its source in the habitual grace of Christ.[xv] This personal grace by which Christ is sanctified, St. Thomas indicates, is the same as that grace which He, as Head of the Church, justifies mankind (III, 8, 5).
In Christ is the fullness of grace (III, 7, 9), finite in that it is a created being, but infinite in that He possesses everything pertaining to grace without limitations (III, 7, 11).[xvi] By His grace, we are brought into participation with His Mystical Body and in the Divine Mystery. The early Church Fathers spoke of this participation as adopted sonship in the Divine Nature.[xvii] St. Clement of Alexandria, writing on the sacrament of baptism, describes the effect of this outpouring of grace on the person: “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.”[xviii] Through Christ’s grace, we have life and have it abundantly.
Aquinas, T. (2000). Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars. Retrieved September 18, 2010, from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4.htm.
Baker, K. (1983). Fundamentals of Catholicism (Vol. 2). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Denziger, H. (2007). Sources of Catholic Dogma. Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loretto Publications.
Gassner, J. (2010). The Exsultet. Retrieved October 8, 2010, from Catholic Culture: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=6341.
Mosey, R. D. (2006). Patristics: Lecture 4. International Catholic University. Catholic Educational Television, Inc.
Ocáriz, F., Mateo-Seco, L. F., & Riestra, J. A. (2008). The Mystery of Jesus Christ. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Ott, L. (1974). Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers.
Pelikan, J. (1971). The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition (Vol. 1). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Pius XII. (1943, June 29). Mystici Corporis Christi. Retrieved October 8, 2010, from Vatican the Holy See: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/
i. Ocáriz, F., Mateo-Seco, L. F., & Riestra, J. A., (2008), The Mystery of Jesus Christ, (Dublin: Four Courts Press), p. 177.
iii. Gassner, J., (2010), The Exsultet, retrieved October 8, 2010, from Catholic Culture: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=6341.
iv. Baker, K., (1983), Fundamentals of Catholicism (Vol. 2), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), p. 260.
v. Ibid., 260–261.
vi. Ocáriz et al, p. 179.
vii. Ibid., 180. Also Ott, L., (1974), Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers), p. 170.
viii. Ibid., 181.
ix. Ibid., 180.
x. Ibid., 183.
xi. Ott, 261.
xii. Ocáriz, 184.
xiii. Pius XII, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_29061943_mystici-corporis-christi_en.html.
xiv. Ott, 293.
xv. Ocáriz, 185.
xvi. Ibid., 186.
xvii. Mosey, R. D., (2006), “Patristics: Lecture 4,” International Catholic University. Catholic Educational Television, Inc.
xviii. Pelikan, J., (1971), The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition,Vol. 1, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), p. 164.