Among the many great Catechism questions in the old Baltimore Catechism such as "Who made Us?" , "Why did God make us?", and "Who is God?", one of my favorites to discuss is, "What is Man?" The answer to that question is "Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.” Did you ever look in the mirror and wonder how it is that you are like God? The Catechism goes on to explain that this likeness is chiefly in the soul, and that the soul is like God because it is a spirit having understanding and free will, and is destined to live forever.
Before going any further, it helps to take a look at the "Cast of Creatures" in our world and to sort them out. In descending order we have:
Angels: They are alive, have no bodies, have a mind and will, can think and choose, are very intelligent, are persons made in the image of God
Human Beings: They are alive, have bodies, have a mind and will, can think and choose, are intelligent, are persons made in the image of God
Animals: These are alive, have bodies that move and need food, have a brain, not a mind and will, they cannot think and choose, are not made in the image of God. (although they declare the glory of God)
Plants: These are alive, have bodies, need sun and water to grow, are not made in the image of God (although they declare the glory of God)
Rocks: These are not alive, are not made in the image of God (although they declare the glory of God)
(adapted from Who Loves Me Always? from the Image of God Series; Ignatius Press)
From this list you can see that only angels and men are made in the image of God. It is true that all that God has created in some fashion or another shows forth his glory, but not all is made in his image. So what is it then that makes men and angels like God? The answer lies within the soul, which is a spirit that is destined to live forever, and within the two powers of the soul: a rational mind with which we can know God and a free will with which we can choose to love or not love God.
"There is a hierarchy of life in the universe and the life of man is higher than any other life, not because he has nutritive powers like a plant, not because he has generative powers like a beast, but because he has thinking and willing powers like God. These constitute his greatest claim to life and in losing these he becomes like to a beast." (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Three to Get Married)
As we reflect on the above list of creatures, we can easily see just how unique we are. Like the angels, we are immortal spirits who can think and choose, but unlike the angels, we have material bodies. Like the animals, we have material bodies that move and need food, but unlike the animals, we are immortal spirits that can think and choose.
In man, spirit and matter are united and we stand curiously unique in all of creation. Heaven and Earth are joined in man. "The universe God called into being has in it these two great divisions—the world of spirits and the world of matter. It is a special reason for man's existence that he makes these two worlds—locks these two worlds, we might say—into one universe by belonging to both. Without man, spirit and matter would be two spheres, not touching; but man, belonging to one by his soul, to the other by his body, joins them together." (Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners)
And then from Holy Scripture, "What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels. . ." (Hebrews 2: 6&7)
So then what is our response to such knowledge of how we are made? To begin with, we respond with humble hearts and gratefulness to God for this awesome life which he has bestowed upon us and which will last into eternity. And then, we move on to ponder the responsibility that we have to use these powers of the soul rightly, to feed our minds with truth, to surrender and unite our wills to God's will, to read the Scriptures, and to pray, pray, pray and pray some more.
We have now entered into the Advent season, a good time for such ponderings. It is also a time to consider an even greater mystery than man being made in the image of God. It is a time when we cast our gaze toward a little town called Bethlehem, where there is a lowly manger holding our God who has come to earth in—wonder of wonders—the image of man!