Christmas: the Infinite, and the Finite

The title of Father Edward Oakes’ new book, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy, nicely captures the imaginative challenge posed at Christmas: the mystery of the infinite God become finite man. In truth, however, the challenge to our imaginations has less to do with the how of what the Divine Office calls this admirabile commercium [marvelous exchange] than with the why.

Posit an all-powerful and infinite God, and most of us wouldn’t have too much trouble with the idea that such a God could do anything, including coming into the finite world he created. The real question is why such a God would want to do such a thing: to submit his divinity to the limits of our humanity, to dwindle into infancy and then to go farther—to die as a tortured criminal at the hands of his own creatures. Here is the “scandal” of Christianity. For the answer faith gives to the question of why is salvific love: a love so great that it required, not an argument, but a demonstration.

Eastern Christian theology helps us understand the full dimensions of the why of the Incarnation through its concept of theosis, or divinization: God becomes man so that we might become like God—so that we can live comfortably with God forever. Here, then, is the admirabile commercium: God “exchanges” his divinity for our humanity, thus enabling us to “exchange” our weakness for his divine glory—the glory of which the angels sing to the shepherds of Bethlehem. The years St. Paul spent in the desert, pondering just how the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which had been revealed to him on the road to Damascus, fulfilled God’s election of Israel, led the Apostle to the Gentiles to be the first to formulate this “exchange:” “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” [2 Corinthians 8:9].

The Fathers of the Church took up the theme and developed the idea that, in the “exchange,” men and women were empowered to become godlike. Thus St. Gregory Nazianzen: “Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.” If the language of “becoming gods” strikes our ears as odd, that may be because we have not quite plumbed the radical depths of the divine love: for in the Incarnation, “God so loved the world” [John 3:16] that he doubled-down on the divine humility, dwindling himself into infancy so that we could share, really and truly, in the divine life.

The indictment of Christianity that began in the 18th century and metastasized in the 19th was that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus kept humanity infantile, such that only by throwing the God of the Bible over the side could humanity ever achieve maturity and liberation. This was, of course, a complete inversion of the truth: the Christian faith, proclaimed by the Second Letter of Peter, is that God, by the Incarnation, has made us “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Peter 1:4]. And in doing so, the divine humility, manifest as love, brings us into the fullness of human maturation and the fullness of true freedom. Thus Pope St. Leo the Great, in the Christmas homily the Church reads in the Office of Readings for Christmas Day, could admonish his Roman congregation in 440: “Realize, O Christian, your dignity. Once made a partaker in the divine nature, do not return to your former baseness by a life unworthy of that dignity.”

Christmas faith inspires righteous living, not by fear, but by love: the love that expresses itself in history in the humility of the Incarnation and the Holy Birth; the love that speaks of the glory of God, “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” [Luke 2:12].

George Weigel

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George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Sarto

    George, you done good. But his comment about the 18th. century got me to thinking about the Church’s ongoing battle with rationalism. Up until Francis Bacon and the scientific method, the strongest arguments were from authority. You can see this when you read Aquinas, who frequently cites authority to clinch an argument. But after the discovery of the scientific method, the opinion of somebody in authority can be seen only as a hypothesis that has to be proven. Better logic, new information, or a different perspective can challenge the wisest authority.

    The Church, which claims to be THE authority, found itself in a quandary it still has not resolved. I was thinking of this when I was reading Humanae Vitae for the umpteenth time. Over and over again comes the admonition: Listen to the Magisterium…as if the author himself understands that his argument is not that strong and authority must somehow be the clincher. But millions of married people conclude: That doesn’t meet my experience, and choose to differ. Is this rebellion, or simply a better perspective than some celibate in his ivory tower?

  • JP

    Sarto,
    As far as I can gather, Christ ultimately used his own authority when exhorting His disciples to action. And, even despite the miracles he performed, many if not most his his followers left him (see the Gospel of John Chptr 6). Judas himself was one of the more educated of his inner circle, but chose not to follow him. Reason can go only so far. And I wonder if Christ himself appeared to every Catholic couple in private and told them to follow the Chuch’s teaching vis-a-vis birth control, that most would still follow thier own “reason” .

    And it is not that the Church has been silence concerning human sexuality these last 43 years. The late Pope JPII wrote extensively about human sexuality.

    Obedience is a virture that gains a person little in this world, but much in the next.

    • Sarto

      Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body makes really good sense. His writing is hard to follow, but there are some gems there worth memorizing.

  • BJ

    Sarto,
    I think your comment brings up a really good point. To that, I would only respond that to the believer no argument is necessary, but to the non believer no argument is possible.

    That is why I believe Christ said we must be like children, trusting in our parents (God in this case). But, it is hard in the example you used… there is no joy in this life without clouds. Suffering is a given.

    However, pure rationalism ends in despotism and death. I am currently a student and it is apparent that things without God are on their way downhill… once a society has given up the good things (God) they do not even have a way in which to tell that they have given up the good things.

    The Church’s authority is a valid reference, but it is not rational. People are not even capable of understanding the reasoning behind a choice unless it is rational… people no longer believe and trust, but rather suspect and guess. That is they way we are taught in school and people no longer know the difference.

    • Sarto

      BJ, hang in there as a student and make it a lifelong habit.

      The problem is, the Church’s teaching on birth control is based on natural law and is a rational deductive process. The problem is, you have an unchallengeable obvious primary truth: Do good, avoid evil. And then you deduce from that truth further conclusions. How many logical steps does it take to conclude that artificial birth control is intrinsicly evil? How good was the logic leading to that conclusion? Are there new facts that must be considered, such as only a handful of sexual acts being open to the transmission of life in what is a random process? Is the perspective of a celibate not really familiar with or engaged in the sacrament of marriage a better perspective than a prayerful married person trying to live his/her sacrament with the help of the Holy Spirit?

      I am particularly struck with the fact that the three bishops who had most to do with Humanae Vitae–Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Ottoviani, and the future Pope John Paul– did not attend the discussions of the special panel convened by Pope Paul VI to discuss birth control and which included some of the best married Catholics on the planet. Did their refusal to attend the meetings give them a better perspective, or was it an arrogant, even dishonest refusal to listen to what devout Catholic lay people had to say?

      • http://theorist-wwwsummaomniacom.blogspot.com/ Theorist

        Sarto,

        Aquinas didn’t use argument from authority in the “logical fallacy” sense and when he needed to illustrate what he meant he would use authorities but this isn’t “argument from authority”. And don’t forget that all Church teaching is rational (natural theology/prudence) though not everything rational is Church teaching.

        As for whether it is better to have experience of something before you discuss it or not I do not know; but I have some good arguments either way.

        1) if you needed experience about everything before you reach a conclusion concerning it, then a good man has to be evil in order to judge evil, but that is not true, so you don’t always need experience.

        but

        2) if humans learn by experience then you need experience of anything to know anything. Marriage is a thing, so you need to experience it before you talk about it.

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