A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
The Strange Humility of Christmas
December 29, 2017
Of all the tremendous mysteries of our faith, there is none more stupefying in its reality than the Incarnation. That God would deign to assume human flesh is a staggering fact, and it is one that a thousand different heresies has sought to doubt or deny. And yet, it is a fast so critical to the creed that the whole edifice of Christianity would collapse without its solemn affirmation. We do not genuflect before any other reality.
Beyond the theologically dizzying reality of the ground of all Being assuming human nature, there lies an even more startling fact—that he became not just a man, but a baby. For in truth, the eternal Logos could have quite easily assumed the flesh of a mighty man, even the mightiest man. He could have come in physical splendor, fully grown and fearful to behold, with all the attributes we normally associate with beauty and physical prowess. But he did not.
No, the Light from Light, true God of true God, descended into the frail helplessness of an embryo in his mother’s womb. A more fragile and perilous entrance into the world can scarcely be imagined. As the ancient hymn, the Te Deum puts it, he “did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” He embraced the weakness of the smallest of beings, the single cell from which we all begin.
And if I may say so, it is the very weakness of God made flesh that is the central fact of Christmas. For there is a sense in which God does not delight in the mightiness as we conceive it, but rather takes pleasure in confounding our ideas of strength with his profound weakness. Such is the seeming foolishness of love that overcomes the wisdom of the world.
There are indeed some Christians who recoil at the thought of God becoming weak. Their conception of God is one strictly of power, of sovereignty and might. In the minds of such Christians, any human weakness displayed by Christ was very near to playacting or pantomime. It was not real weakness or helplessness, for their God could never surrender his dominion over every atom of the universe for a single instant. He could never truly sacrifice himself to helplessness or dependence on his creatures.
Yet, such a God of exclusive mightiness is a distortion, a caricature. The God of the manger is the God who empties himself. He is not interested in dominating his creatures and humiliating them into the dust to display his awesome sovereignty. Words like power have no meaning to him who is beyond all such categories. Rather, he strips himself, empties himself, and lays aside all pretense of strength. He humiliates himself in a race to the lowest place. If he could have been born in more despicable circumstances, he would have been. He reveals himself as a God of kenosis, of love, a love that lays down its life. He is a God who reveals his strength in the frail dependence of an infant.
We live in a world that celebrates success and strength. We want our rights. We want power and privilege. We recoil from poverty and weakness and the loss of control that it brings. But for Christians who follow Christ, such grasping at control and self-determination is at complete odds with the spirit of the one we profess to serve. If there is any lesson that the stable of Bethlehem teaches, it is that love strips itself of what it could rightfully claim. The spiritual childlikeness the saints speak of is a descent into dependence. It is a humbling and taking on the form of a servant.
The same infant in the stable of Bethlehem grew into a man, but his humility never departed. The Messiah was the rightful heir to the throne of David, and his disciples knew it. They spent three years fighting over who would have the highest place in the Messianic kingdom. Power and prestige were their quest and aim. Yet, on the night in which he was betrayed, their Master literally stripped himself before them in radical humility and washed their feet. The disciples were bewildered, even affronted, and so might we be if we pondered the true import of this act.
The God of the cradle is indeed the eternal Logos who upholds all things with his power. He is a burning inferno of holiness, before whom the six-winged angels veil their faces. But he is also the one who laid aside his glory for the love of us. He is the one who was despised and rejected of men, and who had no place to lay his head. He is the God who confounds all our paradigms of power, who emptied himself and took on the form of a servant, the one of whom the angels said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
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