Christ the Firstborn of All Creatures – Firstborn of the Dead

In the messianic Psalm 88 (89) Christ cries out to God the Father, “Thou art My Father: My God, and the support of My salvation” (v.27). Then God the Father says, “And I will make Him My firstborn, high above the kings of the earth” (v.28). While the second divine Person, the Word, proceeds eternally from the Father as His Son, He can never be said to be “made” nor “firstborn” in His divinity. The eternal Word is uncreated God with the eternal Father and the eternal Spirit. As the eternal Son He is called “only begotten” (only-born), not the first begotten (firstborn). If the Word is spoken of as the Firstborn it is solely in reference to the Word made flesh. The appellation “firstborn” when applied to Christ describes the Word as Incarnate. This is the teaching of the Councils and the Church Fathers.

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians speaks of Christ as Firstborn on two levels: essere [being] and agire [action]. Essere always precedes agire. Or put conversely, action presupposes being. On the ontological level (essere) Christ is “the Firstborn of every creature” (1:15); on the tropological or moral level (agire) Christ is “the Firstborn from the dead” (1:18). In both cases it is His Sacred Humanity that is Firstborn.

Firstborn of every creature

When Christ is spoken of as Firstborn on the ontological level it is de facto a reference to His eternal predestination as the God-Man and thus a consistent affirmation of His absolute primacy. Here are some examples from Scripture:

  • Ps. 88:28 – “And I will make Him My firstborn, high above the kings of the earth.”
  • Col. 1:15 – “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.”
  • Rm. 8:29 – “For those whom He has foreknown He has also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.”
  • Apoc. 3:14 – “Thus says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, who is the beginning of the creation of God.”

Allow me to cite a section from my short treatise A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ:

The next part of verse 15 reads that He is “the firstborn of every creature.” (Col. 1:15). If, as we have maintained, Jesus Christ is the firstborn of every creature (as opposed to the Uncreated Word), then the Franciscan thesis is immensely enriched.

In support of this position, we recall the Hebrew notion of the ‘firstborn’ (cf. Ex. 13:2,12-13). Of the flock, the firstborn male was to be redeemed or sacrificed; of the family, the firstborn son was to be redeemed. This Hebrew notion of the firstborn would not make sense if Paul were referring to the Divine, Uncreated Word as such. Moreover, the firstborn of a flock of sheep was itself a sheep; the firstborn male in the human family was a man like his brothers. In other words, the expression “firstborn of every creature” presumes that He Himself has a created nature just as “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) presumes that He has a human nature.

Finally, if the reference were to the Divine Person of the Word as Uncreated and Eternal quite apart from the Incarnation, then why the specific reference to the second Divine Person as opposed to the Father or the Holy Spirit? Why would there be a specific reference to the Uncreated Word instead of the Godhead? As we have noted, it is more consistent in this passage to see the subject of this Canticle as the Incarnate Word; it is inconsistent and even illogical to say that Paul suddenly changes the subject from Christ to the Uncreated Word.

This being the case, it is Jesus Christ who is “the firstborn of every creature.” In the purpose of God’s will, Christ has primacy over everything created. By this metaphor of the ‘firstborn’ the Apostle shows all creation as a family with Jesus Christ as the firstborn in the family of God’s creation. He shares their nature by assuming the created, human nature from the Blessed Virgin Mary—firstborn of every creature. Chronologically, as we know, our Divine Lord is not the first creature born into the world; but in the plan of God, He is. Once again, what is first or ‘firstborn’ in the intention is last in execution, as we have frequently noted. Christ’s primacy is, therefore, a primacy of excellence and priority in the intentions of God.

Here is my explanation of this back in 2007:

So on the level of essere (being) Christ is the Firstborn of all creation in His foreseen hypostatic union. But what does St. Paul mean in referring to Him as the firstborn of the dead?

Firstborn from the Dead

Christ IS King – by the very fact of who He IS. Being true God and true Man He is the King of kings and Lord of Lords (cf. 1 Tm 6:15; Apoc 1:5, 17:14, 19:11-16). This is not merited. This is not earned. This is a pure gift of love of God to the Sacred Humanity of Christ. The union of the created, human nature of Christ with the divine nature in the Person of the Word makes Him the absolute Lord and King of all creation. And since we have been predestined to be God’s children in Christ before the creation of the world (cf. Eph 1:3-10) it follows that His Humanity was predestined first (otherwise how could we be predestined in Him before creation?).

But St. Paul and St. John both speak of Christ also as the Firstborn of the dead:

  • Col 1:18 – “Again, He is the head of His body, the Church; He, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the first place.”
  • Apoc 1:4-5 – “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: grace be to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is coming, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Death enters the world of men through sin. Therefore Christ, in order to conquer sin, dies and rises from the dead. Because of Christ’s death and Resurrection those who die in Him will rise to new life in Him. His Resurrection is a ‘birth’ after passing through the ‘birth canal’ of death. He is the first to rise from the dead to eternal life, the “firstborn from the dead.” But this birth is merited. Christ merits His Resurrection and merits our Redemption through His life, passion and death. It is because of Christ’s life on earth, because of His actions (agire) that He becomes the Firstborn from the tomb.

From a Franciscan perspective, then, Christ was always absolutely, unconditionally predestined to be the Firstborn of all creation irregardless of man’s fall from grace and need for Redemption; however, because of Adam’s sin Christ also suffered death to atone for our sins and rose from the dead and became the Firstborn from the dead.

We thank and praise God for eternal life in Christ Jesus! If Adam had not sinned our life would still have been life in Christ, the Firstborn of many brethren; but because of sin He also becomes our Redemption, a propitiation for our sins, the Firstborn of the dead: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He has first loved us, and sent His Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). Had we not sinned in Adam He would not have had to become “a propitiation for our sins” but would have come nonetheless sent by the Father’s love.

Essere (being) precedes agire (action); and conversely agire presupposes essere. Applied to Christ as Firstborn of all creation and Firstborn of the dead this means that He is King first in His being the Incarnate Word and then in His work as Redeemer. Put conversely, Christ’s becoming Redeemer King presupposes that He is the Incarnate King. Christ is Firstborn of all creation absolutely on the ontological level; Christ is Firstborn of the dead relatively because, after Adam’s fall, He chose to merit our Redemption by dying on the Cross and rising from the tomb.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Christ the Centerpiece of All Creation

The Centerpiece of All Creation

The Incarnation is at the center of history (time) and the universe (space). St. Paul speaks of a fullness of time and a fullness of space, both of which converge in the God-Man Jesus Christ. The fullness of time is that moment when chronology and eternity intersect: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman…” (Gal 4:4; cf. Eph 1:8-10). At the moment of the Incarnation the eternal Son of God becomes the temporal Son of Man – He becomes man without ceasing to be God; He enters time without ceasing to be timeless. Time and eternity kiss.

Altar inscription at Nazareth: HERE the Word became flesh

The fullness of space is that location where divinity and humanity meet: “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9; cf. 1 Jn 1:1-2); in fact in the Byzantine and Orthodox Liturgy they pray to Mary thus: “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.” At the Annunciation the immense, infinite Godhead dwells corporally in a finite space, and thus a human mother is pregnant with God, a creature bears her Creator, Mary is true Mother of God. Creator and creature embrace.

God created the universe with this moment and place in mind – His divine plan from the beginning was that all things would hinge on the mystery of Christ. It seems appropriate to cite the words of St. Maximus the Confessor, a prominent Greek Father of the Church (d. 662), here.  He taught that Christ, the Word made flesh, “is the great and hidden mystery, at once the blessed end for which all things are ordained. It is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of created beings. In defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing. With a clear view to this end, God created the essences of created beings, and such is, properly speaking, the terminus of His providence and of the things under His providential care. Inasmuch as it leads to God, it is the recapitulation of the things he has created. It is the mystery which circumscribes all the ages, and which reveals the grand plan of God (cf. Eph 1:10-11), a super-infinite plan infinitely preexisting the ages… Because of Christ – or rather, the whole mystery of Christ – all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ.” (Ad Thalassium, q.60; PG 90; 620-621) [one can see more of St. Maximus’ writings on the mystery of Christ here].

The axiom of Aristotle, adopted also by the Subtle Doctor, applies here in a particular way: “What is first in intention is last in execution” (Metaphysica, VI, t.7, c.23). Christ, “the firstborn of every creature” (Col 1:15) and “the beginning of the creation of God” (Apoc 3:14) is first in God’s intention. The entire universe is designed with a view to realizing the centerpiece of all creation, namely the hypostatic union. The realization of this plan, viz. the execution, comes “in the last times” (1 Pt 1:20), “last of all” (Heb 1:2).

As a concrete example, the new foundation of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Fairfield, PA, began with a design, then a shovel. What is first in the intention – a Monastery – is last in the execution.  The project continues moving from the less perfect towards the perfect so that what commenced with a shovel will be fully realized on the day the stunning architectural masterpiece is completed and dedicated (click here for a rendering of the Monastery and Church). The driving force behind the construction is the intention to realize this work for the glory of God. Although God is not constrained by space and time in accomplishing His works, nonetheless, He has freely chosen to operate in this fashion when realizing the Masterpiece of all of His creation, Jesus Christ.

When God begins His work of creation He does so with the end in mind, namely the Incarnate Word who is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (cf. Apoc 21:6). God speaks: Fiat lux, “Let there be light!” (Gen 1:3), and this sets the plan in motion. Mary speaks: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum – “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38) and God’s plan is fully realized. At the “yes” of God the plan is set in motion and light is created; at the “yes” of Mary God’s plan is fully realized and Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), “the true Light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1:9; cf. v.4-8) comes into this world. God’s words, fiat lux, were uttered in full view of that day when Christ would be manifested in the flesh. Indeed God saw that “fullness of time” and “fullness of space” when he created time and space in the beginning. Consequently, all history either points towards or flows from that moment when the Word became flesh and all space is ordered to and guided by that locus where the Creator and the creature are united in the Divine Person of the Word.

Carmelites on the Absolute Primacy of Christ

Like all of the Religious Orders you will find Carmelites on both sides of the fence when it comes to the absolute vs. relative primacy of Christ. I know that in Divine Intimacy Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, O.C.D., clearly stands with the thomistic school – no sin, no Incarnation. But there are some noteworthy voices from the Carmelite Order who would beg to differ.

St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi says:  “If Adam had not sinned, the Word would have become incarnate just the same.”[Oeuvres…, p.3, c.3 (trans. from the Italian by A. Bruniaux; Paris, 1873) II, 35]. Leave it to a Mystic to state it so succinctly 🙂

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, O.C.D., although not explicit on this point, nonetheless shares the same feast day as Bl. John Duns Scotus (November 8th) and repeatedly reflects on her eternal predestination in Christ according to St. Paul’s stupendous canticle in Eph. 1:3-10 (you can see my commentary on this passage here). She underscores the fact that we must always live in His presence and that we must do this in Love, namely in Him who is Love. She says that this call “in Him” is the “divine and eternal unchanging plan” (Last Retreat – 2nd day) – a turn of phrase which would indicate that our predestination in Christ is not conditioned, but divine, eternal and immutable simply because it is His plan from the beginning.

My all time favorite is the line of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, O.C.D. (a.k.a. Edith Stein). I read this in the National Catholic Register back in 1998 at the time of her beatification. After translating several volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas into German, one of the nuns of her community asked the Saint during recreation what she thought of St. Thomas’ writings. She responded more or less like this, “I agree with him in everything; but when it comes to the Incarnation, I follow Scotus.”

St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church, gives us a unique view into the primary motive of the Incarnation in his usual poetic and mystical style. He wrote a series of “Romances” describing the inner life of the Trinity, creation and the Incarnation. Here are some of the pertinent verses:

“My Son, I wish to give you
a bride who will love you.
Because of you she will deserve
to share our company,

and eat at our table,
the same bread I eat,
that she may know the good
I have in such a Son;
and rejoice with me
in your grace and fullness.”

“I am very grateful,”
the Son answered;
“I will show my brightness
to the bride you give me,

so that by it she may see
how great my Father is,
and how I have received
my being from your being.

I will hold her in my arms
and she will burn with your love,
and with eternal delight
she will exalt your goodness.”

In Romance 7 on the Incarnation he continues:

“Now you see, Son, that your bride
was made in your image,
and so far as she is like you
she will suit you well;

yet she is different, in her flesh,
which your simple being does not have.
In perfect love
this law holds:
that the lover become
like the one he loves;
for the greater their likeness
the greater their delight.

Surely your bride’s delight
would greatly increase
were she to see you like her,
in her own flesh.”
“My will is yours,”
the Son replied…

In this beautiful series of poems we have a mystical, poetic expression of a Doctor of the Church on the inner life of the Trinity, the creation of the universe as willed by the Father to be the Bride of the Son (so all things exist for Christ prior to any consideration of sin) and so that He can share with creation the joy that He finds in His Only-Begotten, the Incarnation as the coming of the Bridegroom who ever wishes to become “like the one He loves” and to consummate the mystical espousals with His Bride. Obviously St. John does not neglect the Redemption nor downplay it, put simply squares it away in the framework of the immutable divine decree to so love the Son as to create the world (and more specifically the Church) as His Bride and to so love the world as to send His Only-Begotten Son so as to delight the beautiful Bride who, after the fall, is stained with sin and must be sanctified by the Son delivering Himself up for her, “cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word; in order that He might present to Himself the Church in all her glory, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26-27).

This dogmatic poetry of St. John of the Cross, while having unique nuances of its own, clearly syncs up with the Franciscan school. From the first moment of creation everything is directed towards Christ the King who will be born of a Virgin at Bethlehem; from the first matrimony of Adam and Eve every marriage is to be a reflection of “the great mystery” of the nuptials of Christ with His Bride the Church (Eph 5:21ff).

Θεοσις – Sin or no sin, God’s plan was to make us partakers of the divine nature in Christ

St. Maximus the Confessor, a prominent Greek Father of the Church (d. 662), in his Questiones ad Thalassium (q.22) argues that all of history is rooted in the Incarnation because that is when our divinization (or deification) took place. The truth of our divinization in Christ is prominent in the writings of the Greek Fathers and is called theosis (in Greek – Θεοσις). Although the Western Church tends to focus on adoptive sonship, the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites divinization as one of the motives of the Incarnation and ties it in with divine sonship (#460):

“The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pt 1:4). ‘For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.’ (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haeres. 3,19,1; PG 7/1, 939). ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.’ (St. Athanasius, De Inc. 54,3; PG 25, 1928). ‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that He, made man, might make men gods.’ (St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. 57, 1-4).”

The notion of theosis [Θεοσις] is, of course, rooted in Scripture and Tradition. St. Peter is cited in the Catechism above (cf. 2 Pt 1:4). St. Paul alludes to this truth when he writes, “For you know the graciousness of our Lord Jesus Christ – how, being rich, He became poor for your sakes, that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s wealth is His Divinity and He becomes “poor” by assuming our human nature, all of this so that by His “poverty” (viz. His Sacred Humanity) we might become “rich” by partaking of the divine nature. And St. John tells us that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… And of His fullness we have all received grace for grace” (Jn 1:14,16) which ties in nicely with Paul’s text to the Colossians, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodliy, and in Him who is the head of every Principality and Power you have received of that fullness” (Col 2:9-10).

St. Athanasius (besides the quote cited in the Catechism above) wrote, “for as the Lord, putting on the body, became man, so we men are deified by the Word as being taken to Him through His flesh” (3rd Discourse Against the Arians, n.34). He, in essence, is reiterating the words of St. Irenaeus: “If the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods” (Adv. Haer V, Pref.). This sublime teaching is exquisitely expressed in the Divine Liturgy of the East and West in the prayer during the mingling of the water and wine: “By the mystery of this water in wine, may we come to share in the Divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity” (Roman Missal – deacon or priest at the Preparation of the Gifts); “You have united, O Lord, Your Divinity with our humanity and our humanity with Your Divinity; Your life with our mortality and our mortality with Your life. You have assumed what is ours and You have given us what is Yours for the life and salvation of our souls. To You be glory forever” (Rite of Intinction – Maronite Rite).

For St. Maximus all of salvation history can be divided into two periods: the time preparing for the Divinity to take on human nature in the hypostatic union and the period thereafter wherein humanity is invited to partake of the divine nature. I will conclude this post with his teaching which I believe speaks for itself:

Q. If in the coming ages God will show His riches (Eph 2:7), how is it that the end of the ages has come upon us (1 Cor 10:11)?

R. He who, by the sheer inclination of His will, established the beginning of all creation, seen and unseen, before all the ages and before that beginning of created beings, had an ineffably good plan for those creatures. The plan was for Him to mingle, without change on his part, with human nature by true hypostatic union, to unite human nature to Himself while remaining immutable, so that He might become a man, as He alone knew how, and so that He might deify humanity in union with Himself. Also, according to this plan, it is clear that God wisely divided “the ages” between those intended for God to become human, and those intended for humanity to become divine.

Thus the end of those ages predetermined for God to become human has already come upon us, since God’s purpose was fulfilled in the very events of His Incarnation. The divine Apostle, having fully examined this fact […], and observing that the end of the ages intended for God’s becoming human had already arrived through the very Incarnation of the divine Logos, said that the end of the ages has come upon us (1 Cor 10:11). Yet by “ages” he meant not ages as we normally conceive them, but clearly the ages intended to bring about the mystery of His embodiment, which have already come to term according to God’s purpose.

Since, therefore, the ages predetermined in God’s purpose for the realization of His becoming man have reached their end for us, and God has undertaken and in fact achieved His own perfect Incarnation, the other “ages” – those which are to come about for the realization of the mystical and ineffable deification of humanity – must follow henceforth. In these new ages God will show the immeasurable riches of His goodness to us (Eph 2:7), having completely realized this deification in those who are worthy. For if He has brought to completion His mystical work of becoming man, having become like us in every way save without sin (cf. Heb 4:15), and even descended into the lower regions of the earth where the tyranny of sin compelled humanity, then God will also completely fulfill the goal of His mystical work of deifying humanity in every respect, of course, short of an identity of essence with God; and He will assimilate humanity to Himself and elevate us to a position above all the heavens. It is to this exalted position that the natural magnitude of God’s grace summons lowly humanity, out of a goodness that is infinite. The great Apostle is mystically teaching us about this when he says that in the ages to come the immeasurable riches of His goodness will be shown to us (Eph 2:7).

We too should therefore divide the “ages” conceptually, and distinguish between those intended for the myster of teh divine Incarnation and those intended for the grace of human deification, and we shall discover that the former have already reached their proper end while the latter have not yet arrived. In short, the former have to do with God’ descent to human beings, while the latter have to do with humanity’s ascent to God. By interpreting the texts thus, we do not falter in teh obscurity of the divine words of the Scripture, nor assume that the divine Apostle had lapsed into this same mistake.