Sense & Nonsense: The Faintest Clue

Among some clippings, I came across the following letter from Brian Tubbs in The Washington Times. The letter began:

What happened to Merry Christmas? For the past few years, America has drifted away not only from the original meaning of Christmas, but also away from the name of “Christmas.” Already, Santa Claus, Rudolph, and the Christmas tree had become the cultural icons for Dec. 25. Now there is a powerful movement to remove even some of those nonreligious icons to avoid conjuring up in anyone’s mind even the faintest clue as to the traditional understanding of Dec. 25. Christians are in a multicultural dilemma. If they say, “Merry Christmas,” to a non-Christian, they are said to insult him. If they do not say, “Merry Christmas,” to the same gentleman, they are accused of keeping their riches to themselves.

What struck me about the above passage, however, was the growing lack of “even the faintest clue as to the traditional understanding” of Christmas. I pulled down my copy of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae. In the Third Part, Questions 35 and 36, St. Thomas discusses the Nativity of the Lord. “Here are some good clues,” I thought to myself.

St. Thomas’s approach to the Nativity of the Lord might at first confuse us. His first question is “Whether the Nativity Is of Nature or of the Person?”

 

He assures us that what is properly born is a person, not a nature, though Christ is born with a human nature. Aquinas was protecting the fact that a real subject, with a divine and a human nature, was born.

What about the purpose of the Nativity? St. Thomas answers that “the Nativity of Christ is ordained to human salvation.” How do we know this? “Through faith,” he answers. “Our salvation bearing faith confesses both the divinity and the humanity of Christ.” Anyone seeing the child in the manger in Bethlehem would definitely see there a human child. That this child’s purpose in life is the salvation of human beings, or that this child is both human and divine, he would not know just by looking, though he would not not know by just looking either. By faith, however, he would know.

A question that I particularly like is entitled, “Whether Christ Was Born at a Fitting Time?” Aquinas argued that Christ was born at a fitting time. He cited the authority of St. Paul in Galatians: “When the fullness of time came, God sent His only Son, born of a woman, and made under the Law.” Behind this question is the wonder about whether Christ might have been born elsewhere or in another time. Thomas does not deny here that, had this been his will, God could have devised some other plan of salvation for men. Aquinas asks rather what makes us think that this time, in the reign of Caesar Augustus, was a “fitting” time?

Aquinas answers this question by observing that between Christ and all other human beings there is this difference: “All other human beings were born under the necessity of time, but Christ, as Lord and Creator of all times, chose for Himself the time in which He would be born, just as He chose His mother and the place.” I like Aquinas’s answer because of his reasoning for the appropriateness of this time. In other questions Aquinas explains that the whole world was at peace. Here Thomas simply says, “those things that are from God are ordered and conveniently disposed. The consequence is that Christ was born at a most convenient time.” Granted this reasoning, we are free to pose arguments, in our own terms, for the “fittingness” of this time.

Then he asks, “Whether the Birth of Christ Ought to Have Been Made Known to Everyone?” This question implies the oft-asked question about why the Nativity did not take place in Japan or in Hawaii? St. Thomas gives three reasons: (1) Had Christ been made known immediately to everyone, this would have impeded the plan of salvation through Christ’s Crucifixion. (2) Had the Nativity been made known in some glaring fashion, it would have impeded our knowing by faith. (3) Had Christ been immediately known as divine at birth, we would have doubted his real humanity, made more obvious in the fact that he was a child.

So it is good to recall that there are indeed faint clues that still affirm the truth of what we mean when we wish one another, “Merry Christmas,” when we remind one another of who was, in fact, born at a fitting time.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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