Christmas, the Infinite, and the finite

The title of Father Edward Oakes’ new book, “Infinity Dwindled to Infancy,” nicely captures the imaginative challenge posed at Christmas: the mystery of the infinite God become finite man. In truth, however, the challenge to our imaginations has less to do with the how of what the Divine Office calls this admirabile commercium (marvelous exchange) than with the why.

Posit an all-powerful and infinite God, and most of us wouldn’t have too much trouble with the idea that such a God could do anything, including coming into the finite world he created. The real question is why such a God would want to do such a thing: to submit his divinity to the limits of our humanity, to dwindle into infancy and then to go farther—to die as a tortured criminal at the hands of his own creatures. Here is the “scandal” of Christianity. For the answer faith gives to the question of why is salvific love: a love so great that it required, not an argument, but a demonstration.

Eastern Christian theology helps us understand the full dimensions of the why of the Incarnation through its concept of theosis, or divinization: God becomes man so that we might become like God—so that we can live comfortably with God forever. Here, then, is the admirabile commercium: God “exchanges” his divinity for our humanity, thus enabling us to “exchange” our weakness for his divine glory—the glory of which the angels sing to the shepherds of Bethlehem. The years St. Paul spent in the desert, pondering just how the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which had been revealed to him on the road to Damascus, fulfilled God’s election of Israel, led the Apostle to the Gentiles to be the first to formulate this “exchange”: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

The Fathers of the Church took up the theme and developed the idea that, in the “exchange,” men and women were empowered to become godlike. Thus St. Gregory Nazianzen: “Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.” If the language of “becoming gods” strikes our ears as odd, that may be because we have not quite plumbed the radical depths of the divine love: for in the Incarnation, “God so loved the world” (Jn 3:16) that he doubled-down on the divine humility, dwindling himself into infancy so that we could share, really and truly, in the divine life.

The indictment of Christianity that began in the 18th century and metastasized in the 19th was that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus kept humanity infantile, such that only by throwing the God of the Bible over the side could humanity ever achieve maturity and liberation. This was, of course, a complete inversion of the truth: the Christian faith, proclaimed by the Second Letter of Peter, is that God, by the Incarnation, has made us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). And in doing so, the divine humility, manifest as love, brings us into the fullness of human maturation and the fullness of true freedom. Thus Pope St. Leo the Great, in the Christmas homily the Church reads in the Office of Readings for Christmas Day, could admonish his Roman congregation in 440: “Realize, O Christian, your dignity. Once made a partaker in the divine nature, do not return to your former baseness by a life unworthy of that dignity.”

Christmas faith inspires righteous living, not by fear, but by love: the love that expresses itself in history in the humility of the Incarnation and the Holy Birth;  the love that speaks of the glory of God, “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash