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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 4: The Church's Jesus
Part 1

Investigating the figure of Jesus as he appears via the materials of the historian is vital. How can we be expected to commend our faith to informed unbelievers if we cannot show that the historian's Jesus is at any rate something like what the Church believes? Yet the historian's Jesus is incomplete: the full picture of who Jesus was is inseparable from the special experience of the Church, the continuation in space and time of the apostolic fellowship with its sharing in Jesus' unique consciousness of himself.

As we have seen, the historian can argue that Jesus thought of himself as the ever-living messianic Son of the Father sharing in the latter's prerogatives vis-à-vis the world. The historian may go so far as to say that Jesus understood the God of Israel to be living in him and even as him. Through the work of the Paraclete, in the development of doctrine, the Church can see the picture more fully. The man Jesus is the taking-on of humanity by the eternal Word who, in obedience to the Father, entered our sinful flesh for our salvation. His entire life-story is, therefore, a revelatory sign of salvation, a disclosure of the mystery of God in his plan to bring true welfare healing and wholeness to humankind. While his life has its high points and decisive moments, each of these shares in the mystery of that life as an entirety, and so, in the last resort, can be validly understood only from out of that fullness.

Just as the God of Jesus Christ is only accessible via the man Jesus, so the humanity of Jesus is only seen aright from the perspective of the God of Jesus Christ. Without the eyes of faith (that is, without the empowerment of our intellectual gaze by the Holy Spirit who is the communion between the Father and the Son), there can be no sufficient understanding either of the God of Jesus Christ or of Jesus Christ himself. And the faith of the Church, as expressed in Scripture and Tradition, is the Spirit's means of drawing our minds and hearts into their communion.

The overall impression made by the life, personality, death, and subsequent transfigured appearances of Jesus turned erstwhile supporters of a strictly monotheistic religion, Judaism which holds to a rigorous separation between Creator and creature into apostles of a Trinitarian religion, Christianity in which the one God is adored not only as the unique source of all other being (the Father), but also as the subject of a human life (Jesus, the Son) and as their mutual love (the Holy Spirit). Such was the transforming power of this revolution in religious understanding that it turned upside down the cultural world of its day, and has not ceased since to affect a variety of cultures (massively or peripherally, directly or indirectly), to the point that its influence (at any rate, in the form of its ethos) extends throughout practically the whole world. The members of the Church of Christ testify to the continuing presence of Jesus as the Son of God in worship, in mystical prayer, and in daily life. Catholic theology, as the exercise of. reason on the resources of faith, has elucidated the coherence of this fundamental proposition that God was, and remains, incarnate in a human being. It finds no contradiction in the affirmation that the personal existence of God the Son, who, as God, is our Creator, can be realized as both the subject of the divine nature and the subject of a human nature, solidary with our own. The who of my personal existence is not, after all, exhausted by the what of my human nature, whether we are thinking of the nature I share with all my fellow­humans, or the particular way in which I receive that nature, in the culture, place, and time where I was born. I am more than my nature; the question, What am I? no matter how fully answered, still does not satisfy the further query, Who am I? the question of personal identity.

It is the faith of the Church that the two natures were indeed held together in Christ's own person.

The Incarnation of the Word

During the public ministry, awareness that Jesus is the divine Son in the full sense is always an exceptional act of divine revelation. Jesus tells Peter it is not flesh and blood but the Father who has revealed to him that he is the Son of the living Cod (Matt 16:17), and Paul echoes this when he tells the Galatians (1:15-16) that it was God who, by grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to him. At the baptism of Christ, as also during his transfiguration, it is the voice of the Father that marks out Jesus as the "beloved Son." Only after the resurrection does Christ's divine sonship appear more manifestly in the power of his exalted humanity (cf. Rom 1:4; Act 13:33), enabling the apostolic community as a whole to confess how they saw the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

The first seven ecumenical councils of the Church (and the lesser synods that prepared and complemented them) unfolded little by little this basic datum of the apostolic faith, that Jesus, while true man, is also one with the Father as his Word. If the Council of Antioch (284) defined against the heresiarch Paul of Samosata that Jesus is Son of God by nature, not adoption, the first ecumenical council, Nicaea I (325) anathematized the teaching of Arius that he came out of nothing (as creatures do) and thus was of another substance than the Father. The relevant clauses of the Nicene faith were solemnly reiterated and embodied in the final version of the ecumenical Creed, at the second ecumenical council, Constantinople I (381). Not all, however, was pellucid yet. While Nestorius saw in Christ a human person conjoined with the divine person of the Son of God, Cyril of Alexandria persuaded the third ecumenical council, Ephesus (431), that there is no other subject of Christ's humanity than the person of the divine Son who assumed it in making it his own. The fourth ecumenical council, Chalcedon (451), taught that in the single hypostasis (underlying subject, and so, for beings endowed with spiritual activity, person) of our Lord Jesus Christ the two natures are united inseparably but without confusion, while the fifth ecumenical council, Constantinople II (553), cleared up a possible ambiguity in the text of Chalcedon by insisting that this single hypostasis was indeed that of one of the Holy Trinity who was, therefore, the subject of (even) Christ's sufferings and death. With this "neo-Chalcedonian" conviction thus integrated into the public doctrine of the Church, it was safe enough at the sixth of the councils, Constantinople III (680-681), to speak freely of a duality of wills in the Redeemer, such that he chose in a properly human fashion to do, in his living service of the Father as man, all that, as the divine Word, coresponsive with the Spirit to the Father, he had willed as God from all eternity. Finally, at the seventh ecumenical council, Nicaea II (787), the union of divinity and humanity in Christ was pronounced so close that veneration of the painted image of the body of Jesus could count as homage to the uncreated person of the Son.

The faithfulness of this doctrinal development to what was given in the ministry of Jesus appears when we consider the way Jesus claimed the title Kyrios, "Lord" the typical name of God in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible during his discussions with the Pharisees about the meaning of Psalm 110 (cf. Matt 21:41-46: David calls the Messiah his "Lord"; how can he be merely his son?), and made gestures expressive of dominion over creation both the physical world, in mastering nature, sickness, death itself, and the spiritual world, in dealing with human and angelic sin. And if, during his ministry, some people use the title "Lord" simply through respect and trust, others, moved by the Holy Spirit, may use it in recognition of his divine mystery (Luke 1:43; 2:11), while, in encounter with the risen Christ, it becomes outright adoration ("My Lord and my God!": John 20:28). Since, as the New Testament affirms, everything found a fulfillment in him, this can only be because, from the beginning, everything was likewise made dependent on him (Col 1:15-21). He is the everlasting Word through whom all things were made.

The basic proclamation of belief in the incarnation was well stated by the twelfth-century Cistercian theologian and homilist Guerric of Igny:

"The Most High himself ... came down to his mother's womb, he who always abides in the bosom of the Father, with whom he lives and reigns through every age."[1]

Guerric accepted Bernard of Clairvaux's proposal that the Son's union with our flesh is the true meaning of the kiss offered by the divine bridegroom to Israel in the Song of Songs; the incarnation fulfills the articulate hope of Jewry and of the dumber longings of humanity at large. In his sermons Guerric celebrated that union in a series of contrasts. The Ancient of Days becomes a child; the God of majesty empties himself. Here we see a speechless infant; yet he gives all eloquence to human tongues. He comes before us as one who knows nothing; but he is God's Wisdom and Word, teaching knowledge to human beings and angels. The child wrapped in swaddling clothes is he who is robed in light boundless and unapproachable.

This is what Paul in the Letter to the Philippians calls the or self-emptying of the Word (2:7). It entails no discarding of the divine nature or attributes, for with God, as James remarks, there is neither change nor shadow of alteration (1:17). In its wondrous simplicity God's nature has everything that God is, and what God does alters his world, not him. So the is a change in creation. It is the assumption by the divine Son of our human nature, our sinful flesh. As Bernard says, he took not Adam's nature before the Fall but my nature, in its slave-like condition of susceptibility to the fallen passions and to death. This verifies the words of Paul on the :

"Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).

Christ's human nature could have been pervaded from the first moment of its existence by his divine glory and happiness, as it was at the transfiguration and would become with his resurrection. But instead he chose to live out his earthly life under the conditions of the Fall. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it:

"We have not a high priest ... unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15).

Yet Guerric (to return to our Cistercian guide) realizes that the incarnate Word is not set before us simply to be the object of faith and wonder. Rather he will act so as to solve our basic problems, redeeming us from the power of evil and winning for us eternal happiness.

"The Son, doing the work of God, suffering the lot of man, is a sign to us that he will bring over to God the man for whose sake he is con­ceived and brought forth, indeed for whom he suffers."[2]

What Guerric calls "the craft of mercy" blends divine bliss and human misery in a "sacrament of union." Through the mediator, by the power of his resurrection, bliss is to absorb misery, life swallow up death, and the whole person pass glorified to a sharing of the divine nature.

The sophisticated metaphysics invoked by Catholic theology to express the reality of this union have been worked out in the service of this salvational plan of God for (at least in hope) all our futures. It was to this redemptive end that the person of the eternal Word so activated the human nature of Jesus as to make it one being with himself, with the result that what stands before us in the gospel narratives is a person at once divine and human. For Thomas Aquinas, the unity of Christ flows from the fact that there is in him only one esse, "act of being," the eternal act of existence of the Word. Identical with the divine nature itself, this everlasting energy of existence becomes in the incarnation the esse that sustains and, even more, is the unique act of existence underlying Christ's human nature also. There is no human nature in Christ apart from that nature's existence in the esse of the Son; there is no man Jesus apart from his existence in the esse of the uncreated Word. Here we begin perhaps to understand the conundrum bequeathed us by the historian's Jesus, the conclusion of the investigator of Jesus' self-understanding: namely, Jesus knew that the God of Israel existed not only in him but also as him.

On the basis of this union, we can say that what Jesus does and suffers is, simply and directly, what God does and suffers no symbol but brute fact. The Council of Ephesus, in defending devotion to the mother of Jesus as Theotokos, the "God-bearer," vindicated the "communication of idioms" whereby we can say, "The Eternal One was born in time" and "God hung for us on a tree." It remained for the Council of Chalcedon to provide a theological account of this in its doctrine that the attributes of the two natures may be "exchanged." We may speak, for instance, of a crucified divinity and an omnipotent humanity, so long as these adjectives are being applied to the single hypostasis or person who is in both these natures.

Moreover, all this concerns not only Christ but us as well, we who are the Word incarnate's fellow human beings. Hilary of Poitiers, that great defender of Christ's divinity in the fourth-century Latin Church, the Athanasius of the West, wrote, "He became our flesh universally." Christ is the universal man, the new Adam in whom our humanity is remade. Yet for the Word's relation to the humanity of Jesus to become a relation with all human beings individually it has to be reproduced, so to say, in another mode. From the moment of the hypostatic union, when our Redeemer began to exist in the womb of Mary, such was the mighty effect of his solidarity with us that humankind was recreated in him as in a new principle of being. But this did not happen in such a way as to be automatically effective for all. We benefited personally only when, with the resurrection, his eternal sonship became fully effective in and through his history and the accomplishing of his destiny on the cross, and that efficacious power began to be received by us in the free response we call "faith."

Just as the mysterious constitution of the God-man, as one person in two natures, was not brought about by God simply for our contemplation (and therefore his own glory), but in order that Christ might act, energetically, to save us from evil and raise us up into the blessedness of God's life, so the identity of the new Adam is inseparable from his mission. That is already clear at the annunciation when the angel communicates to Mary the name she must give her child: Jeshua, that is, "God saves," for, in Paul's words (2 Cor 5:19), God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

But why did God send his only Son into the world? The Word was made flesh so as, in the first place, to manifest the Father's infinite love (1 John 4:9), but also in order to make us sharers in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), free from sin and raised up to gracious union with our maker. Both creation and incarnation reveal a primordial freedom whose action consists supremely in giving though the grace of the incarnation, as the communication of the Godhead itself, altogether exceeds the gift of our created being. Christology, by conceiving the unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus as an act of divine liberty in its self-insertion into the history of salvation to be that history's center, changes both theology (our understanding of God) and anthropology (our understanding of the human being).

First, the incarnation reveals God as sovereignly free even vis-à-vis his own nature. It is not in the nature of the aweful and infinite divinity to be united with its frail and fallible creature. But God now shows himself not to be the prisoner of his nature (if we may dare express it so), but to transcend that nature in the freedom of his triune love. The world has, as the philosophers surmised, an infinite principle, but that principle is the Trinitarian love and so is radically free in the world's regard. In the Creed we say of the Word that "he came down from heaven," and this poetic language discloses the deepest metaphysical truth of things: the divine movement of love towards the world, and above all towards humankind.

Second, the incarnation discloses to us what, by divine grace, we are capable of: union with God.

Nothing could so provoke us to love God than that his very Word, through whom all things were made, should assume our nature, for its healing, and be himself both God and man. We have, in this fact, the greatest sign of his love for us, and to know oneself to be loved strongly urges to love in return. Moreover, man's mind and affections are tied to material things; he does not easily rise above them. Yet anyone can know and love another man. To meditate upon the sublimity of God and be borne to him by worthy love is for those only who by divine help and long and laborious effort are lifted from the corporeal to the things of the spirit. But, that he might provide a way to himself for\all, God wished to become man, so that even the lowly could know and love him as one like themselves. Thus, through that which they could grasp, they might eventually advance towards perfection. Again, because God has become man we have the hope of obtaining a share in that perfect happiness which belongs by right to him alone. Man knows his limitations. If someone had promised the happiness of knowing and joyfully experiencing God for which the angels even are scarcely fitted, he would hardly have dared hope for it, unless he had been shown the worth of human nature, which God so highly prized that he became man to redeem it. So it is through his taking flesh, that God has given us the hope that even we may reach union with him in blessed happiness.[3]

So the incarnation presents a double aspect to us. It is God who reveals himself, but in this very act of self-disclosure, it is also revealed what we ought to be, what we are called to be and indeed what in our deepest essence, which the wounds of the Fall leave intact, we actually are. So the Fathers will say that the incarnate Son is at one and the same time the manifestation of God and a representation of the original humanity, created in God's image, which Adam was meant but failed to be.             -

The first Adam was taken from the dust of the earth (the Bible's version of the truth of the evolution of the body discovered by Wallace and Darwin); the incarnation of the Word, the second Adam, is also the crowning of matter, and its evolution. The earth has provided the flesh of the "humanity assumed," as the point of insertion into the natural world of God's own eternal life. As Ephrem the Syrian, the early Church's greatest poet, sang:

From the thirsty earth
a Fountainhead sprung forth
capable of sustaining
the thirst of all peoples.
From the virgin womb,
as though from the rock,
a seedling has sprouted
to provide a great harvest

The French priest-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stressed this in his account of the incarnation as a new epoch in evolution, which now begins to take the form of "Christification." There will be no more true progress for humanity, in its place in nature, without assimilation of the grace Christ brought by his life, death, and resurrection.

Reminding ourselves that the Lord of all, He Who Is, became human brings us up with a shock against the question of the mind of Christ. What could be the understanding of the world on the part of one who was fully human and yet entirely divine? Unless we are to think of the divine mind and the human mind of the Word incarnate as hermetically sealed from each other, we must postulate not only the integrity of each but also their intercommunication. The content of Christ's human mind will therefore include not only that experiential knowledge acquired by him in the course of his development from infancy to adulthood in a way substantially the same as our own (though more consistent and unimpeded) that is, through the senses. It will extend also to an infused knowledge directly communicated to his human nature from the divine person who is its subject. As the divine person of the Son, he was in continuous possession of the divine knowledge which is an inherent attribute of the Godhead (and distinct from the divine nature itself only to our apprehension, not in reality). As completely man, he had a human mind subject to all the limitations that belong to human nature. The conditions under which his human mind could apprehend what was in his divine mind may be thought of as analogous to those that regulate the process of translation from one language to another. Without "translation," divine knowledge could have no more meaning in a human mind than the words of a language would to one for whom it was totally unfamiliar.

We should expect that, as Jesus grew in wisdom, his human mind would grow in its capacity to draw on the divine mind so intimately united with it. Thus Jesus' human intellect would go from strength to strength in power of understanding pari passu with the development of his human holiness in moral force, as the latter passed from one immaculate state and stage of life to another until finally, in the resurrection, his human mind and will reached total transparency to the, divine mind and will possessed everlastingly by the Son as the gift of the Father in the Holy Spirit. We can think, then, of the human intelligence of the Lord as receiving from his unimpaired divine knowledge as the Word whatever at each fresh juncture it was capable of receiving. In dependence on the Father's economy, his wise plan, Jesus' human mind would thus transmute into human knowledge, and so make available for the Lord's use in his incarnate mortal life. whatever it was thus able to receive.

The exegetical and doctrinal tradition of the Catholic Church ascribes to Jesus not only an awareness of the saving plan of the Father for the world (without which he could not have carried out his mission at all), nor simply an understanding of the foundation of his role in his procession from the Father, his unique Sonship (without which he would have been bizarrely unaware of his own deepest identity), but also an immediate vision of the Godhead: the Beatific Vision. Even here, however, we must think in terms of a real development in Christ; that vision will not be enjoyed in the same manner by the soul of a baby as by that of a mature man.

The upshot is that while in some ways Jesus was in continuity with his culture resembling to some degree, for instance, the Jewish teachers of his time in other respects he towers above them by discontinuity. He "speaks of what he knows" (John 3:11), appropriately for one who is the truth of God incarnate. The freshness and intrinsic authoritativeness of his teaching astonished his hearers (Mark 1:22, 27), and this will not surprise us for it manifested the creativity of one who is no less than the Creator, come into his own world. Hence Jesus' extraordinary, effortless confidence, and a behavior that is as bewildering, often, as much to friends as to enemies.

Jesus, as the humanity assumed by the Logos, was not, however, a superman or Titan. His sinlessness meant that he did not achieve ethical perfection. He came into this world already full of grace, bringing to our sinful flesh, as he assumed it, that gift of wholeness which as man he received in his conception by the Holy Spirit. Since, consequently, he was without moral limitation, his sympathies could be universal, and lead him to relate to sinners in unexpected ways. The greatest miracle of the public ministry is the moral miracle of his own personality.

He realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of art is the sole secret of creation. He understood that leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich.... His entire life also is the most wonderful of poems. For "pity and terror" there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it.[5]

His human personality was the visible sacrament-at once ethical and aesthetic of the invisible mystery of the incarnation.

We could call the life of Jesus preeminently a charitable life except that the word charitable is now, in English, offputting. One says "as cold as charity," whereas originally caritas came from carus, meaning "held warmly in affection." Perhaps we should use the Greek, and call his human personality "agapeistic." For Jesus' summary of the Torah as love of God with one's entire being and of one's neighbor as oneself accurately expressed the law of his own life. Only perfect love achieved complete solidarity. This is what his baptism signified: association with his fellows in their direst need. But Jesus did not love people ineffectually, leaving them as they were. Rather, he established himself as the nucleus through which the demands of God's righteousness and the grace of God's forgiveness are alike disseminated through the body of humankind. This task he took to its consummation when, on the tree of Calvary, he gave himself for us with the words, "It is finished" (John 20:30).

In Jesus we see humanity raised to its highest capacities, so that it becomes the instrument and organ of God's great act of love for our salvation. Because the human perfection of Jesus upon earth is relative to the accomplishment of God's work through his humanity and that work is unique, Jesus' life cannot present in all respects a comprehensive example for the imitation of other human beings. That is why the Church has the saints: to spell out what the work of Christ means for every human condition and walk of life. Our judgment of Jesus' ethical perfection is based, then, less on minute examination of his particular deeds and words in relation to some generally accepted rule of human conduct, and more on recognition of the fitness of his whole existence to be the human instrument of the divine love for that saving purpose which his life revealed.

The "high" Christology to which the Catholic Church is committed by the seven ecumenical councils of the patristic era does not, therefore, prevent a full exploration of Jesus' humanity. In the Church's history, devotion has focused ever more sharply on the Lord's human figure, from the cradle to the cross. Notable already in the twelfth century with Bernard of Clairvaux, spreading in the thirteenth thanks to Franciscanism, the stress on Jesus' "kindness" his kinship with human beings reached an early climax on the eve of the Reformation. From that age modern piety has inherited many of its forms: meditation on the life of Christ, the Way of the Cross. the Seven Words from the Cross, and so forth.

Thus on the one hand the Church confesses the authenticity of the human experience of the Lord his temptations, prayer, weariness, tears, fear, suffering, dereliction, death, as well as his religious exultation, feasting and fellowship, friendship with both men and women, compassion, welcome for children, tender and inquisitive attitude towards nature yet, on the other hand, she also proclaims his everlasting Godhead, for in him the two natures are united without confusion, but without division.

The Mysteries of Christ's Life

To the eyes of faith, conscious of who Jesus is, his two natures are fused. The life of Christ, portrayed dramatically by the evangelists in the main episodes of their narrative, becomes the "sacrament" of his divinity. What was visible in his earthly life leads into the invisible mystery of his divine Sonship and mission. As the seventeenth-century French spiritual writer John Eudes put it:

We must continue and accomplish in ourselves the states and mysteries of Jesus, and pray him often to complete and accomplish them in us and in all his Church.... For the Son of God has it in mind, by making us share in his mysteries, to extend and continue them in us and in all his Church, by the graces that he wills to communicate to us, and by the effects that he chooses to produce in us through these mysteries. And by this means he wishes to fulfill them in us.[6]

Those mysteries what the twelfth-century theologian Arnold of Bouneval called "the cardinal works of Christ" are laid out in the course of the Church's liturgical year: to present Catholic Christology by way of these mysteries, as celebrated liturgically, is the main approach adopted by the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church and will be echoed here.

The Mysteries of the Birth and Infancy

The unique manner of Jesus' virginal conception does not make him what he is: true God and true man. Jesus is the God-man only because of God's free decision from all eternity that the eternal Son should be identified with the man from Nazareth. However, the virginal conception of Jesus is essential to the gospel as a sign that God gives in history of his new creative art. Whereas in human generation the partners are highly active, achieving something themselves in procreation, in the work of salvation only God takes the initiative; only he achieves. In the case of Jesus, the male is removed entirely, while the virginal woman is present simply as the one upon whom though also with whom God acts.

At the annunciation, Mary gives the consent long prepared, and wholeheartedly embraces the saving will of the Father, dedicating her­self as the ancilla Domini, the "Lord's handmaid," in the service of the person and work of Christ.

"By her obedience she became for herself and for all the human race the cause of salvation."[7]

In this moment, the most stupendous metaphysics and the earthiest biology combine. The eternal God, by his Spirit, fertilizes an ovum in the womb of the Virgin Mary, uniting that embryonic human being to the person of his untreated Word. The divine Son entered the human environment as a fetus and the feast of the Annunciation (25 March) is not the least reason for Catholicism's reverencing unborn human life.

Since the Son's taking flesh from the Virgin is the outcome of God's great love for humankind it was fitting, so Aquinas points out, that the active principle in his conception should be the Holy Spirit, who is personally the love of the Father and the Son. Aquinas describes Mary's cooperation as having from the first a bridal quality:

"In order to show that there is a certain spiritual wedlock between the Son of God and human nature, in the Annunciation the Virgin's consent was besought in lieu of that of human nature as a whole."[8]

For Bernard, when the angel speaks, all Israel, all humankind, indeed all creation wait breathlessly for a reply:

In his sorrow, Adam is asking this of you, O loving virgin.... Abraham and David too implore. The holy men of old, your ancestors, those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, earnestly beseech this of you.... The whole world, on bended knee before you, is waiting for it ... for on your word depend consolation for the afflicted, re­demption for captives, liberation for the condemned, in short, salvation for all the sons of Adam.... O Virgin, give your answer quickly![9]

At this moment something happened so different from all other events since time began that it resembles a new beginning for the world. The Creator assumed the life of a creature so as to bring his creation back to himself from within, by providing us with a new model for our activity, Jesus Christ his Son, and a new set of resources for our acting, his Holy Spirit.

In Christmastide, the Church celebrates Jesus' birth and the mysteries of his infancy. Jesus is born in lowliness, in the marginalized condition of a family without a roof, but in this poverty the glory of heaven is revealed, as the bells rung at the Gloria of Christmas night proclaim.

The Lord of all comes in the form of a servant. He comes as a poor man, so that he will not frighten away those people he is trying to capture like a huntsman. He is born in an obscure town, deliberately choosing a humble dwelling place. His mother is an ordinary girl, not some great lady. And the reason for all this lowly state is so that he may gently ensnare mankind and bring us to salvation. If he had been born amid the splendour of a rich family, unbelievers would surely have said that the face of the world had been changed by the power of wealth. If he had chosen to be born in Rome, the greatest of cities, they would have ascribed the change to the power of her citizens.... [But] he chose nothing but poverty and mean surroundings, everything that was plain and ordinary and (in the eyes of most people) obscure. And this was so that it could be clearly seen that it was the Godhead alone that was to transform the world.[10]

When we humble ourselves and can be born again "from above" (John 3:7), Christ is formed in us (Gal 4:19), and the "wonderful exchange" between God and humanity, transacted at the birth of the Son as a human being, is continued in the world. John Henry Newman wrote in a Christmas sermon:

The Word was from the beginning, the only-begotten Son of God. Before all worlds were created, while as yet time was not, he was in existence, in the bosom of the Eternal Father, God from God, and Light from Light, supremely blessed in knowing and being known of him, and receiving all divine perfections from him, yet ever one with him who begat him. As it is said in the opening of the Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). If we may dare conjecture, he is called the Word of God as mediating between the Father and all creatures; bringing them into being, fashioning them, giving the world its laws, imparting reason and conscience to creatures of a higher order, and revealing to them in due season the knowledge of God's will.... He indeed, when man fell, might have remained in the glory which he had with the Father before the world was. But that unsearchable Love, which showed itself in our original creation, rested not content with a frustrated work, but brought him down again from his Father's bosom to do his will, and repair the evil which sin had caused.... Thus he came, selecting and setting apart for himself the elements of body and soul; then, uniting them to himself from their first origin of existence, pervading them, hallowing them by his own divinity, spiritualizing them, and filling them with light and purity, the while they continued to be human, and for a time mortal and exposed to infirmity. And, as they grew from day to day in their holy union, his eternal Essence still was one with them, exalting them, acting in them, manifesting itself through them, so that he was truly God and Man, one Person as we are soul and body, yet one man, so truly God and man are not two, but one Christ.[11]

This means, from God's side, his unconditional self-committal to humanity. Contrasting the old and new covenants in this regard, Basil wrote in a sermon for Christmas night:

"To the prophets he came; and he went from them. But this night he is coming as the One who has assumed our human nature in its entirety, and for ever, for by making our flesh his, he has raised up to himself all of humanity."

So the effect is, from our side, the union of fallen humanity in a transformative fashion with its own all-holy maker.

"Tonight Adam's condemnation is over. People can no longer say to one another, Dust you are and unto dust you will return. Now they must say, You are united to him who is in heaven, and unto heaven will you be lifted up."[12]

The implications are at once ontological (a matter of being ethical, of acting) and sacramental (a matter of worshipping). Basil's own emphasis in this address is concerned with a metaphysical transformation: though heaven does not lose the One who contains the heavens, earth welcomes into its bosom the One who is in heaven. For Ephrem, the entry of the Word, unchanged, into our nature ethically reorders the existence and action that flow from that nature.

On this day that claims all things, let no one threaten or disturb. This day belongs to the Gentle One; let none be bitter, none be harsh in it. This day belongs to the Meek One; let none be high nor haughty in it. This is the day of pardoning; let us not be unforgiving. This is the day of gladness; let us not spread sadness. This day is too mild for us to be harsh in it. This is the day for peaceful rest; let us not be wrathful in it. This is the day when God came to sinners; let noone think himself and despise the sinful. This is the day when the Lord of all came to his servants; let all men who are masters love their servants with a love like his. This is the day when he who once was rich for our sakes became poor; so let the rich man amongst us bring the poor man to share his table. Today for us came forth the Gift for which we had not asked; let us therefore give alms to those who cry and beg of us. Today was the day that opened for us a gate on high to our prayers, let us also open the gates of forgiveness to those who have offended us and ask to be our friends.[13]

For Aelred, the sign of the swaddling clothes, the lowly integument of the Word incarnate, points us ahead to where, in the Church, he will remain accessible: in the sacraments, and above all, the holy Eucharist. Recalling that, in Hebrew, "Bethlehem" means "house of bread," he identifies the city of the incarnation symbolically with

Holy Church, in which is administered the body of Christ, the true bread. The manger at Bethlehem is the altar of the Church; it is there that Christ's creatures are fed. This is the table of which it is written, "You have prepared a table for me." In this manger is Jesus, wrapped in the swaddling bands which are the outward forms of the sacraments. Here in this manger, under the species of bread and wine, is the true body and blood of Christ. We believe that Christ himself is here, but he is wrapped in swaddling bands; in other words he is invisibly contained in these sacraments.[14]

And to sum up, the Pseudo-Chrysostom in his homily for Christmas night finds the whole redemptive outreach of God in his Word, and its response in the multifarious sorts of human being, precontained in the divine condescension of Bethlehem:

See how kings are coming to adore the king of heavenly glory. Soldiers come, to serve him who leads all the warriors of heaven's army. Women come, to worship him who was born of a woman to change the pains of childbirth into joy. Virgins are coming, too, to the virgin's son, and with joy they see that he who is the giver of milk himself sucks from a virgin mother the food of infancy. Infants are coming, to worship him who became an infant to perfect praise from the mouth of infants and of babes. Children come, to the child who through the rage of Herod raised up martyr children. Men come to him who became a man to heal the miseries of his servants. Shepherds come to the good shepherd who had laid down his life for his sheep. Priests come to him who has been made a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Slaves come to him who took upon himself the form of a slave that he might bless our slavery with freedom. Fishermen come to him who chose fishermen to be made fishers of men. And tax-collectors come to him who from amongst them named a gospel-writer. And sinful women, to him who exposed his feet to the tears of the penitent. In short all sinners have come to Bethlehem, here to look upon the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.[15]

The event of the circumcision on the eighth day after Jesus' birth must be interpreted in terms of the principle that the Son of God has taken nothing into his human existence that lacked some special meaning for salvation, in its own fashion. This has to be especially true of what concerns his relation to the divinely willed rites and uses of the old covenant. The circumcision, though now incorporated in the Church of the Latin Rite into a "Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God" is, evidently, a Christological occurrence. Today Jesus took his place within the people of the covenant, entering on a life of obedience to the Torah, and of participation in the cultus of Israel, both of which issued from his Father. The Son of the promise made to the patriarchs is subjected to the Law that accompanies the promise, so that by fulfilling all that the Law required he might bring the promise to pass in its fullness. Just as the ordinary Israelite became a bearer of the promise through circumcision and so (appropriately enough) was required to become spiritually "circumcised" in his manner of living, so the Son must suffer in all the dimensions of his being in order to enact our redemption. For the rabbis, the blood of circumcision carried the same religious value as the blood of the paschal lamb: it was worth the blessing of the covenant between the Lord and Israel. Jesus' circumcision looks ahead, to the bloody sacrifice of Calvary where he will fulfill all the "types and shadows" of Israel's history.

The Epiphany, the feast of the manifestation of the Word made flesh to the Gentiles in the persons of the wise men come from the East, anticipates the universality of God's salvation as offered by Jesus to all the nations. Today (6 January) the hidden God is seen on the wintry earth. And the Magi bring before the face of the invisible God now made visible the questions their gifts signify. Gold as the metal from which royal insignia were wrought and by which the trade of antiquity was conducted stands for questions about the nature of power, and its use for the human good. Frankincense as the material of worship, burnt aromatically in divine worship, represents the theological questions that probe the being of the gods. Myrrh, as the stuff used for mummifying the dead, raises that great question mark of mortality which, set against human activity as a whole, is the philosophical question above all others.. The Church then sees in the Magi types of the whole humanum in its search for final truth. On Epiphany humanity finds that God really can be found by humankind. In his kindness God even allowed astrology, foolish as it may be, to succeed (this once) for those who, in purity of heart, knew no better, and set out on this strange journey equipped with only some fragmentary knowledge of the Jewish expectation of salvation, and a prescientific astronomy. That does not prevent today's feast from celebrating the epiphany, or shining forth, of the Wisdom of God in Jesus Christ as something that can draw to itself the doubting intelligentsia of the pagan world of all times and places so beautifully portrayed in the Anglo-Saxon ivory which forms the frontispiece of this book.

In the West, by. the third century the Magi were held to be kings, thus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies of how the rulers of lands afar would hail the divine Lordship in the last age. Bede would suggest that they represented the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia (the only ones known to him) and Christian art would take this cue in its depiction of their varied ethnicity. Their gifts were now reinterpreted Christologically as gold for Christ's kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for the bitterness (the root meaning of the word) of his suffering and death. In the East, by contrast, up to a dozen wise men are reckoned, and their retinue lavishly described. But on any arithmetic, this is a feast of fullness.

Let the whole pagan world enter into the family of the patriarchs, yes, let it enter, and let the children of the promise receive in Abraham's seed the blessing which his children according to the flesh rejected. In the three Magi let all the nations worship the Author of the universe; and let God be known, not in Judaea alone but throughout the whole world, so that everywhere his name may "be great in Israel."[16]

The Jewish Law required a mother to present herself for purification after childbirth at Nicanor's gate of the Jerusalem temple. It also commanded the biological father to redeem his firstborn son, since the firstborn of human or beast was holy to (the property of) Israel's Lord. On the feast of the Presentation (2 February), called in the Eastern Churches the "Meeting of the Lord with Symeon," the old man Symeon and the elderly prophetess Anna greet the infant Jesus as the Christ long awaited: he is acclaimed as a light for the nations and the glory of his people Israel. This he can be in the last analysis only because, in the words of the Creed, the Son (now made human as this infant) is "Light from Light." That affirmation of the Fathers of Nicaea had, in part, the aim of preventing any projection into God of the creaturely, or corporeal, ingredient in our words father, son, offspring, generation. But it also had the effect of making clear that, as light is never without its radiance, so the Father is never without the Son, the Word. As the eternal radiance of God, the divine Son is himself eternally, light, without beginning or end. Today the Church's faithful carry lighted candles in liturgical procession, witnessing to the entry of the Light into the world.

The Mother of God, the pure Virgin, carried the true Light in her arms and offered him to those who were lying in darkness; so let us hasten to meet him, enlightened within by his brightness and carrying in our hands a light that all can see.... This is our mystery, so it is right for us to come together with lights in our hands to signify the light which has shone on us and to point to the brightness he has brought with him for us men.[17]

More somberly, however, the Child, being incapable of "redemption" by an adoptive father, must, under the Law, later redeem himself. Thus the presentation has its dark hues to set beside the bright. Jesus' life commission will be the surrender of his life in a death which makes him the firstborn par excellence. To be the "firstborn from the dead," and to be recognized thereby as the "firstborn of all creation," he must first make the offering of the Cross. So his mission will constitute a "sign of contradiction," and a sword will pass through his mother's soul at the costly redemption made on Calvary's tree. The flight into Egypt, and the massacre of the innocents, caused by the opposition of the Herodian monarchy to messianic rumors, continue this theme, pre­figuring the full realization of John's judgment on the Messiah's fate: "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:11).

Still in Christmastide, the Church also celebrates Jesus' years of uneventful daily living of labor, and of life in the family and in the social community. The obedience of the divine Son-made-man to his mother and adoptive father, and to the ordinary familial and communitarian norms they represented, constitutes both a beginning of his work of reestablishing what the disobedience of Adam had destroyed (cf. Rom 5:19), and the gospel foundation of the Church's own concern for the structures of the family and of society, seen as pregiven in the natural law. The only event that interrupts the silence of those years is the episode of the finding in the Temple, where Jesus gives his parents a glimpse of his divine sonship, subsequently stored up by his mother in her heart a source of her standing as the Church's model contemplative. The feast of the Holy Family (the Sunday after Christmas) celebrates these themes. Instituted in the late nineteenth century, it nevertheless gathers up the Church's long­established beliefs in Mary of Nazareth as the all-pure Mother of God and in Joseph as holy Joseph, participating in the divine calling and blessing that distinguished his predecessors, the patriarchs. The feast considers these convictions in relation to Jesus himself, so as to explore and celebrate the relations that bind these three individuals to­gether. Nothing can make the family of Nazareth into a typical human family which is why it is an archetype of the Catholic home, not an instance or example of it. Yet as numerous remarks in the gospel tradition show (most notably the episode of the losing and finding of the child in the Temple), the holy family was not sacred because it knew no troubles, difficulties, even crises. It was sacred because of the resources of grace it brought to these negative moments, and because of the way in which human freedom struggled with and triumphed over those negativities by continuing conversion, self-denial, sacrifice, until it became, in Mary, the nucleus of the Church of the resurrection.

The hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth is also a life of labor, a working life, and Catholicism has seen in this fact a consecration of work, a divine declaration that toil is more than its penal aspects. Labor also has dignity, a dignity that derives from the creativity of the human agent who is its subject. At the same time, the Church marvels at the contrast between the infinite work of the God-man in his divine nature, and the finite work in which he consented, in his humanity, to find meaning and fulfillment. The priest-poet John Gray's Ad matrem is to the point:

Mary is busy sewing. Jesus stands
Beside St. Joseph, working through the day.
He did not come into the world to play
At being man, but worked with both his hands. . . .
Thus He who built the world now condescends
To learn the joiner's trade, and handled saws
And chisels for His bread, who made the laws
Which guide a million planets
to their ends.

The Lucan episode of Jesus' loss and re-finding in the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple anticipates the moment of his coming of age, when in the following year, thirteen years old, he would be bound by all the commandments of the Law. He marks this crisis of growth by asserting the rights of his heavenly Father. During the Week of Unleavened Bread, which followed the Passover celebration, some of the Jewish doctors would give lectures of a more popular nature than was customary on the Temple terrace, as a way of honoring the festal season. It would have been normal for the family to have begun its return to Galilee two or three days after Passover. Doubtless because Jesus was almost of age, his parents would not have been surprised had he not been with them from the start. Probably they missed him at the first night's halt and spent most of the next day making sure of his absence. On the third day they found him... .



1. Guerric of Igny,
Sermons on the Annunciation 1.6.

2. Ibid., 3.4.

3. Thomas Aquinas, On the Reasons for the Faith 5.

4. Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity 4.84-85.

5. O. Wilde, De profundis, 2d ed. (London, 1969) 86, 87, 89.

6. Oeuvres complètes du vénérable Jean Eudes (Paris, 1905) 1:310-12.

7. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.22.4.

8. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3.70.3.

9. Bernard, Homilies in Praise of the Virgin Mother 4.8-9.

10. Theodotus of Ancyra, On the Day of the Lord's Nativity. This homily was preached at the Council of Ephesus (431).

11. J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (London, 1880) 2:29-30,32.

12. Basil, Homily on the Sacred Generation of Christ 6.

13. Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity 1.88-96.

14. Aelred, Sermon 2, on the Birthday of the Lord, with an internal citation of Psalm 23, 5.

15. Pseudo-Chrysostom, Homily on the Birthday of Christ 1.

16. Leo the Great, Sermons on the Epiphany 3.2.  

17. Sophronios of Jerusalem. Orations 3.6-7.

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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