Near the end of a long and distinguished life, spanning nearly the entire nineteenth century, John Henry Cardinal Newman (declared Blessed by Pope Benedict in 2010), was asked about something he’d written. Now Newman, who was no slouch by any standard, had written a great many things, all of them of a very high order, both as literature and theology. Whatever he wrote was instantly snapped up by everyone.
Well, almost everyone. It seems that there was this one fellow—a bit of a pest, really—who told the old Cardinal that he was simply too busy to read his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, which has long enjoyed classic status in fundamental theology, and would His Eminence be good enough to provide him with a quick summary. One or two bullet points, as it were, and that should do it.
Newman refused. “Catholicism,” he pointed out, “is a deep matter—you cannot take it up in a teacup.”
Now that’s neatly put, I think. Very clever.
It reminds me of an episode of “Sixty Minutes” I once saw. A famous author was about to retire, having made a fairly big splash in all the usual places, and the interviewer, who had devoted practically every minute recounting all his accomplishments, asked if he wouldn’t mind in the few remaining moments left, summarizing his life and work.
If you can’t summarize a man’s life and work in thirty seconds, how much time would you need to do justice to a religion–the religion, say, of Catholic-Christianity?
Well, you might begin by disclaiming the terms of the question. Christianity is not a religion. It is not the result of human beings attempting to reach God. It is God rather reaching down to reveal himself to human beings. How so? By becoming one himself in that single shattering instant we call Incarnation.
“The absolutely staggering alliance of logos and sarx,” is how Joseph Ratzinger put it in a trailblazing work written almost a half-century ago; called Introduction to Christianity; it is a book on which a whole generation of aspiring young Catholic theologians first cut their theological teeth. My own choppers, for what it’s worth, have never been the same.
“If faith in the logos,” he explains—which is nothing less than an assertion concerning the sheer meaning and intelligibility of being—if that judgment of faith “corresponds perfectly with a tendency in the human reason,” then it surely follows that to believe in the actual enfleshment of God himself is to proclaim
the absolutely staggering alliance of logos and sarx, of meaning and a single historical figure. The meaning that sustains all being has become flesh; that is, it has entered history and become one individual in it; it is no longer simply what encompasses and sustains history but a point in it.
As T.S. Eliot would famously put it, “the still point of the turning world,” without which—“There would be no dance, and there is only the dance…
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual
Here the past and future
Are conquered and reconciled…
A Greek poet, whom almost no one remembers, once said that while the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. I have never seen a hedgehog, but my loyalties are entirely on his side. Besides, who wants to be a fox? Didn’t Jesus call that awful man Herod one? Indeed, I am particularly fond of the hedgehog when it comes to matters of faith, an exact summary of which, I do believe, can quite easily fit into a teacup. The merest thimble is not too tiny a space in which to give the thing expression. One word, in fact, and it isn’t even English, is enough to carry the freight:
That God is with us—that he has truly pitched his tent in the midst of all the muck and the misery of the human condition—is surely the insight of Mr. Hedgehog. It is the one big thing. I mean, is there a pearl of greater price hanging around to match as stunning an intimacy between time and eternity, history and heaven, ourselves and God, as this? As the writer Walker Percy said when asked why he converted, “What else is there?”
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
— John Betjeman
Because, if the Christmas Story turns out not to have been a cropper, then there is nothing else that can possibly compare with it. What could be more stupendous than the truth on which Betjeman concludes his poem? “That God was Man in Palestine / And lives today in bread and wine.”
Only an Anglican would put it that way, of course, which Betjeman clearly was. Roman Catholicism, however, does not require of its members that they accept a sort of co-existence of the bread and wine alongside the Body and Blood of Christ. Rather we are enjoined to accept a total transformation of the substance of the one, in order to effect the real and substantial Presence of the other. Can we do that? Can we grant the transubstantiation of the totality of the reality of the one into the very being of God himself? That he truly breaks himself to become our bread?
If we cannot credit so scandalous a claim, then we’ve no business being Christian at all. No right to own the truth of the Incarnation, either, since the teaching on the Eucharist is but an application of the same principle, that of the God-Man entering so deeply into this material world as to become the very food on which we depend.
In other words, it is not a moral change in how people are to feel about going to Holy Communion that we Catholics propose, because the subjective disposition of the communicant does not finally matter. It is rather the ontological change in the status of the bread and wine that we claim as the centerpiece of our faith.
Why else do the rubrics of the Mass stipulate that the priest genuflect between the two elevations if not to underscore the sacrificial character of the event? It is a death we go to celebrate; there is a real separation of body and blood. And so it is not merely a matter of belief in the unfathomable mystery of God’s “Infinity dwindled to infancy,” to recall that marvelous phrase from Hopkins, but that this particular infant, suffused with the same flesh as all the rest, came into this world in order to die. That his flesh was flayed in order to buy us back from the bitter entanglements of sin and death. His disfigured flesh is the price God freely paid so that we might all be transfigured.
Not everyone believes this, of course, but we need to be very clear in asserting that we believe it. That here is the principal axiom of our faith, which is the Mystery itself entering into human history, inserting God’s story at the heart of all the broken and incomplete stories we tell.
“How is it possible,” asks Romano Guardini, “for God to have become man? How can he remain for all eternity and yet sacrifice himself for man?” Faith, he tells us, readily provides the answer, and it overflows with sanctity:
“Love does such things.”
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Madonna of the Lilies” painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1899.