The Story We Live By and the Foundations of Our Faith: Implications of the Incarnation and of the Bethlehem Nativity

[Originally authored 13 December 2003, the Feast of Sancta Lucia]

At this time of the Christian Feast of the Nativity, when we are also expectantly considering the coming year of 2012 (as was so in 2003) and the pressures of deepening war and religious conflict, we more openly allow ourselves to consider the foundations of things.

Did the Incarnation happen? Or was it an illusion, or even a deception? Did the Humility of God come into history in such a quiet way in Nazareth unto a pure and lovely woman, and then later also consent to be humbly born in Bethlehem? Or is that only an imaginative fiction like the “miscegenation” of the gods and mortal women in the Greco-Roman myths? From some such questions “we may run, but we can’t hide.”

They must be faced with existential earnestness and decided upon. We do not live by “question marks” but by “exclamation points.” We do not live by doubt or denial, but by AFFIRMATION!

We all live by some kind of belief or faith (as in German Glaube) and thus we affirm something to be true and not otherwise, while implicitly trusting in a reliable witness and AUTHORITY (namely, a trustworthy someone) who vouches for the veracity of what is claimed to be true and real.

The Latin language puts this essential twofold matter very tersely: Ad fidem pertinet aliquid et alicui credere. Commenting on these words of St. Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper says: “To believe always means: to believe someone and to believe something….The believer — in the strict sense of the word — accepts a given matter as real and true on the testimony of someone else. That is, in essence, the concept of belief.”

On the premise that “we are only as courageous as we are convinced,” what are we really convinced about? What do we really believe?

Our uprooted culture of growing despair and death cannot avoid these questions — unless it would completely extinguish or “drug” human rationality and human intelligence (logos).

For those who hold the historic Christian Faith, Divine Revelation and Divine Prophecy really happened, as a fact of history; as a personal intervention (irruption) of Eternity into Time (and finite Temporality). For those who hold the historic Christian Faith, moreover, Divinely Revealed Sacred Tradition is temporally and logically prior to Divinely Revealed Sacred Scripture, when (and wherein) received Revelation was to some extent, and in an essential way, written down and then transmitted intact, thus with trustworthy integrity. Such a fundamental belief — such a faith — also implies the unavoidable question of trustworthy religious authority.

On what grounds, and by what authority, is there a trustworthy personal religious witness to vouch for the veracity of what is claimed to be true Tradition and true Scripture? Who, for example, reliably chose the canon of Scripture, including some books, while excluding many others which were also proposed for one’s believing assent. As in the case of Judaism and Islam, so, too, in the case of Christianity, the question of trustworthy religious (sacred) authority cannot be dodged, at least not rationally. What is their distinctive, or unique, Norm of Faith?

Most importantly for us in this context, it is furthermore the case (for those who hold the historic Christian Faith undiluted and unattenuated) that, not only did the Incarnation happen, but also it means that the Incarnation is an intimate and altogether consequential manifestation of the Humility of God: the Gift of the Humility of God.

It was the Humility of God who came to teach us how to suffer well, and therefore how to love. (For true love hurts.) He came to teach us how to love selflessly, generously with joy, and faithfully to the end. Loyal Love. (But we cannot love, or live, in such a way without supernatural Grace — without the indispensable Grace of Christ. Our Nature is not enough.)

Yet, how do we adequately (and fruitfully) conceive of this actual and abiding Humility of God?

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in a moment I shall never forget, once told me that the Humility of God is much more difficult to understand than the Glory of God. It is easier to understand God’s Personal Transcendence of His Creation than to understand His intimately in-dwelling Humility within his Creation. In other words, how are we to understand — and then respond to — the Immanence of His Humility, where “Immanence” (In-Dwelling) implies “the perfection that lies within, within His own Creation”? For, it is part of the historic Christian Faith that, in the very gift of the Incarnation, the ultimate work of Creation was linked to the origin of that Creation: wherein the Sacred Humanity of Jesus was united to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in the Incarnate Logos of God (or, in another technical term of historic theology, “in the Hypostatic Union”). Such is the Humility of God. In and through the Incarnation, in his Sacred Humanity, God Himself can suffer! God, indeed, has a Human Heart.

Momentous implications follow from this conviction, from this foundational belief about the Loving Humility of God.

Mother Teresa’s unforgettable insight to me was also otherwise momentous for my own life. I could never be grateful enough for what she so serenely and profoundly taught me, at a ripe moment, when my own heart was so unaccountably open. (Her words to me also gave me part of the title in my own doctoral dissertation on The Virtue of Hope and The Humility of God — and, finally, as in the subtitle, “the Desolation of Ingratitude,” if we refuse such a Gift).

Mother Teresa’s unexpected words to me — when she saw my poor heart so attentive and open in hope — provided another illustration of a famous Portuguese Proverb: “God writes straight with crooked lines” (“Deus escreve direito por linhas tortas”). This truthful proverb about the attentive and protective Providence of God implies that He brings a greater good out of our own “crookedness” and “prevarication,” wherein He has permitted us to stray. Indeed, He even makes a better use of the “crooked” consequences of our sins — “etiam peccata” (even our sins) — in the words of St. Augustine.

Mother Teresa’s own grateful and trustful insight, at that very unexpected moment in our conversation with Father John Hardon, S.J., changed my life. God’s timing is perfect. (And have we not all felt this way at times — especially when we acknowledge ourselves to have been the recipients and truly undeserving beneficiaries of a great gift? We thereby open-heartedly receive it with gratitude, yes, even with radiant gratitude!)

G.K. Chesterton himself often said that “The test of all happiness is gratitude.” And one cannot be grateful without also being humble, at least in a small way. Chesterton also said, in his characteristic wittiness and profundity: “Without humility you can’t enjoy anything, even pride.”

Our gratitude for the gift of the Humility of God will aid us in our own growth in humility, which is indispensable for the more abundant life Christ came to offer us. “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (Latin “abundantius” — in overflowing waves, life filled to the brim and even overflowing). Do we believe it? And then what, practically? For, shall we not, finally, be judged by our lives of practical charity?

Will we at least have an increasingly attentive acknowledgment of our gifts — not only the gifts of nature and of culture, but the gifts of grace. For, as “the Little Flower,” St. Therese of Lisieux, often said: “Grace is everywhere.” And she especially taught us how the true Christian soldier (Miles Christi) must mature, must ripen, in grace. The Christian soldier must himself indispensably grow up into Spiritual Childhood — with all of its docility, simplicity, humility, and trust; with all of its fittingly radiant gratitude. Christ said, “Let the little ones come to me” (“Sinite parvulos ad me venire”), and He gravely warned those who would even dare to corrupt or to scandalize “the Little Ones” (the “Parvuli”). Most importantly — and most emphatically — Christ said: “Unless you become converted and become like unto the little ones, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (“Nisi conversi fueritis et efficiamini sicut parvuli, non intrabitis in regnum caelorum”). Do we really believe this, or will we intimately and finally refuse to believe this? Will we make what Dante called “the Great Refusal”? God forfend!

Moreover, the whole Sacramental Order of the Church — the historic seven sacraments — is also a manifestation of “the Incarnation Continued,” continued in time. It is a manifestation of the Humility of God still continued in time, especially in the Sacrament of Corpus Christi — the intimate Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have no life in you.” These words of Christ were scandalous words when He first uttered them, and many walked away from Him after “these hard sayings.” These words are still shocking and scandalous words, and not only because they seem to imply a “kind of atavism” or a “sort of cannibalism.” But those who hold the historic Christian Faith see this Sacrament of the Altar — this Sacrament of Sacrifice, this Sacrament of the Corpus et Sanguinis Christi — to be a continuing and intimate manifestation of the Humility of God. And part of His offered Gift to us of the more abundant supernatural life, as distinct from mere natural life.

Man’s own humble participation in the divinity made present in this intimately humble sacrament is graciously conveyed, and with unexpectedly moving words, by a once-sceptical French journalist, Andre Frossard: “That God’s love would invent this unique way of communicating itself through the sign of bread, the fare of the poor! Of all the gifts of Christianity [including the penitential sacrament of forgiveness] displayed in front of me, this was the most beautiful.” The beauty of such sustaining humility continued, and so sustained!

Beauty (the Pulchrum) itself is not only “the splendor of order,” it is also “the splendor of truth.” Pulchritudo est splendor ordinis et splendor veritatis. And this splendor of truth would certainly include the truth about love and humility.

May we be blessed to receive such beauty (with its truth) into our hearts in this season of the Nativity. And may it bring us deeper peace (Pax) — that “tranquility of order” (tranquillitas ordinis) which is also part of its beauty and a fruit of humility, as is our radiantly grateful response, our own Oblation of Gratitude to the Humility of God.