Sense and Nonsense: “An Admirable Exchange”

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In And the Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together, there is a sequence on the Great Pumpkin, Charles Schulz’s not-so-subtle homage to Christmas, about how the Great Pumpkin rises out of the Patch and looks for sincere boys and girls to whom to give lots of toys. Peppermint Patty and Linus are sitting under a tree, both looking off in the distance in different directions. Peppermint Patty, in the previous sequence, had been the only one who would believe Linus’s story. Linus is actually astonished that someone else would believe him.

Patty explains to Linus, “You know why I believe your story about the ‘Great Pumpkin’?” As they walk away, Linus behind her, Patty continues, “Because I am very superstitious that’s why! The more impossible something is, the more I believe it! That’s the way I am!” The next scene shows a perplexed Linus asking Patty, “You think the Great Pumpkin story is impossible?” Patty replied, “Oh, it’s impossible all right. . . . It’s impossible, ridiculous, and stupid.” But in the final scene, she turns to Linus with a yell that blows him over, “BUT I BELIEVE IT!!”

Credo quia impossibile, quia absurdam. . . . But of course, the Christian account of the Nativity is not based on impossibility or absurdity as many would like us to believe. It is based on fact, which requires us to change our definitions of what we think possible and impossible. If it happened, it is not impossible. Then, granting that it happened and is therefore possible, we are required to think about this event, this possibility, this “but I believe it.” To explain the Nativity, we have to explain the world and more than the world. We also have to explain ourselves to ourselves. And we cannot fully explain ourselves to ourselves without Christ.

In his Pensees, Pascal wrote, “Through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, we prove God, and teach morality and doctrine. Jesus Christ is then the true God of men” (546). We find a deliberate paradox here, of course. “True God of men”—Jesus is man-God, true God and true man, as the creeds say. We might argue that the Pascal’s “true God of man” need not be a man-God, though what Pascal probably meant was that we men will never really understand God unless He is like unto ourselves somehow. The very meaning of the Nativity is that He is like unto ourselves. We prove God and teach morality and doctrine because the Word is made flesh.

Christmas falls on a Saturday this year. We also know that it falls in the Summer in the Southern Hemisphere, that it can be very warm on Christmas in California, very cold in Minnesota, that different lands celebrate Christmas in different manners. The Christmas tree, the Yule Log, the carols, the mangers, the presents. We know of efforts to bring “Christ back into Christmas.” We are aware that His presence in Christmas is looked upon by many as a threat, and it is in a way. The public imagery of Christmas in our society has been almost entirely secularized with bells and trees and dippy Santas. And even Santa brings objections from some. Yet, at least till now, we keep the day, keep the day holy even.

Christmas is said to be overly commercialized and secularized, and of course it is. Yet this is not such a bad thing. Overreaction to something good is not nearly so dangerous as a kind of parsimonious refusal to be excited about anything at all, particularly about something of the proportions of the Nativity.

What is this Christmas anyhow? It is about the birth of a Child into the world, at a definite time, in a definite place. This Child was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the whole world was said to be “at peace.” Very few noticed this event at the time—records talk about the parents, a Mary and a Joseph, about some shepherds, some

Magi, some angels. Later there is a search for this Child. The Magi get the local king into the act because he thinks this Child might be a threat to his power. So he kills off a number of male children under two hoping to get this Child, who evidently escaped to Egypt in time thanks to his father.

Le Catechisme de l’Eglise Catholique has this to say about the Nativity, that “the coming of the Son of God on earth is an event so immense that God wished to prepare for it during the centuries.” All the rites and sacrifices and symbols of the Old Testament converge toward Christ’s coming (522). We are not prepared to contemplate these striking words, that there was long preparation, lasting centuries, for His coming. This teaching means that the events of the world, one way or another, have purpose and order, in spite of their seemingly haphazard sequences. Christ was not an accident or an afterthought.

When it comes to the mystery of this “Nöel,” we are told that “Jesus is born in the humility of a stable, in a poor family. Some shepherds are the first witnesses of the event. It is in that poverty that the glory of heaven is manifested” (525). We wonder why it was this way, in such odd circumstances?

Would it not have been more effective were the glory of heaven to have been manifested directly in the household of, say, Caesar Augustus, right at the center of things, to where Paul and Peter had to go later anyhow? We have to assume that the way via Bethlehem was not only a much less flamboyant way, but also a more effective way to manifest the reasons why the Incarnation and Nativity took place in the first place.

The Catechism then cites an ancient antiphon or anthem from the Octave of Christmas: “the Creator of the human race, assuming a body and a soul, has deigned to be born of a virgin and became man without the intervention of man. He has made us a gift of His divinity” (526). This Christ becoming man and our receiving the gift of His divinity is called “an admirable exchange.” Indeed it is.

It is striking that the few paragraphs on the Nativity in the Catechism talk mainly of the “admirable exchange” of God becoming man and man becoming in turn divinized so that he might live the life of God in grace. The Nativity, of course, presupposes the Incarnation, about which the first question to be asked is, why did God become man? The answer is startling, yet it is that of the creeds: “The Word became flesh in order to save us while reconciling us with God” (457).

So Christ was not born in a manger in Bethlehem in order to demonstrate the power of God. At first sight, for God to become man in the form of an infant seems rather an act of humility, not power—which is, of course, the way Christians have always seen it since Paul’s notion that God emptied Himself out becoming a man. We are not wrong, no doubt, to suspect that this peculiar way, the way of Incarnation and Nativity, is a better way, a way that, when thought about, leads to the most profound of insights into the ways of God and the meaning of man.

The nativity of Christ, like all births, is a new beginning. Things are never the same once it has taken place. Things are new, unexpected. Yet this Nativity took place in order to reconcile us with God. The great Cowper Madonna in the National Gallery shows Mary holding the Child with little John the Baptist at their side. All three are gazing at a Cross. Things are being prepared.

But the “admirable exchange” has taken place and is being carried out. God has become man; we are divinized. “The Word became flesh in order to save us while reconciling us with God.” This is why we celebrate the Nativity. This is what we could not do by or for ourselves. That is our belief—it is not impossible, it is not absurd. The coming of the Son of God on earth is an event of such immensity that we are still preparing for it, even as it is being carried out in time before our very eyes. The Nativity—the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.

Jesus Christ is, then, the true God of man.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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