Something seems wrong with this headline.
A casual reader may be scandalized at the implication that Jesus, as the Son of God, did not have faith in the Father. More to the point: how could it be possible that Jesus, who was fully divine, did not have faith in God?
Others may point to the Church’s teaching that in the fullness of humanity Jesus was like us in every respect except sin. After all, this is why the call to be imitators of Christ is so compelling. As Jesus is our model in all things, wouldn’t this necessarily include faith?
Such criticisms are understandable, but wrong. The error is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the deep meaning of faith.
In the New Testament, faith is described as a spiritual sense by which we perceive things divine even when our normal senses fail us, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous Eucharistic hymn. In 2 Corinthians 5:7, Paul tells us that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This idea of faith as seeing the unseen is reinforced in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.”
The eternal things, to use the phrase of 2 Corinthians 4, are unseen precisely because they are not yet within our grasp. After all, as St. Paul asks in Romans 8, why would a man hope for what he already sees? He elaborates on this in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (This is how it reads in the King James Bible, which one of the most poetic translations of this verse available in English.)
This verse is an unmistakable reference to what we call the “beatific vision”—the sight of God granted to those in heaven. The Catholic Encyclopedia elaborates: “The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven. It is called ‘vision’ to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life.”
It stands to reason that if faith is seeing the unseen that in heaven, it will be supplanted by the beatific vision. (In fact, this is exactly what the Church has said. See Pope Benedict XII’s constitution, “On the Beatific Vision of God,” issued in 1336.)
But in the case of Jesus he did not lose the beatific vision, from the moment of conception to his crucifixion. This has always been the traditional teaching of the Church (although there certainly are nuances to it that have invited debate in recent decades).
Aquinas offers a detailed explanation in the Summa Theologica. Faith is a “nobler virtue than moral virtues,” because it deals with “nobler matter,” Aquinas writes. But, he adds, faith also “implies a certain defect with regard” to that matter. Put another way: moral virtues concern excellence in human nature while the object of faith is God Himself. But there’s a certain irony to this—those of us who have faith in God have this defect: we do not see Him face to face.
But this “defect” was not in Christ, who was perfect, Aquinas says. This teaching of the Church is rooted in the fact of the Incarnation: in becoming fully man, Jesus did not lose any aspect of the fullness of divinity. As God, Christ knew all things, as John 21:17 says and Aquinas reminds us. To say Christ lost the beatific vision would imply his knowledge of God—Himself—had somehow been diminished—certainly an idea with heretical overtones.
This teaching does not make Christ’s life on earth any less relevant to us. If anything, it should enrich our understanding of His ministry and its final conclusion on the Cross: Christ was no lone ranger sent from heaven to save humanity while God the Father nodded on approvingly from afar. Christ, even in the fullness of humanity while here on earth, always remained within the bosom of the Trinity.
Put simply, affirming that Christ never lost the beatific vision is another way of reaffirming the fullness of His divinity. Because Christ retained the beatific vision, our faith can be reinforced that our savior and mediator is effectively interceding on our behalf before God. While the beatific vision is reserved for heaven, in uniting ourselves to Christ—through prayer, sacraments, and virtuous living—we are drawn into this trinitarian intimacy even now.