The alternative is the way of contemplation, of demanding of oneself the disciplined quiet to explore, and be explored by, the astonishment of God become one of us that we may become one with God. He embraced the whole of our experience, beginning as an embryo, as we began as an embryo. In his abject helplessness is our only help.
In response to the announcement by the angel, Mary, the mother of Our Lord, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, asked the same question: “How can this be?” Zechariah asked in disbelief. Mary asked in wonder. Zechariah doubted, while Mary exemplified the maxim of John Henry Newman that a thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt.
That the Creator of all should become a creature is a skandalon that is of a piece with the scandal of the cross, the skandalon that God could die. Maternal love is joined to maternal mourning as the mother pondered and anticipated the sword that would pierce her own heart. This is the decisive turning point in the history of man and, if you will, the history of God, for the two are one. Finitum capax infiniti – the finite is capable of the infinite.
There is in the Christian theological tradition the accent on God as the “Totally Other,” the ineffable that transcends our capacity to think or speak. J.B. Phillips’ popular classic Your God Is Too Small is always recommended reading. To appreciate the total otherness of God is to be immune to the angry ravings of the “new atheists” who so ferociously attack a “God” in whom Christians do not believe.
Their God is too small, and yet not small enough. Throughout the ages, people had looked up into the heavens in search of God. Bearing Jesus in her womb, holding Jesus in her arms, Mary looked down into the face of God. Immanence and transcendence require one another. The Totally Other is the predicate of Emmanuel, God with us. Finitum capax infiniti.
Call it a paradox, call it a tension, call it a dialectic. Better still, call it Incarnation. Incarnatus est is the end of playing off the infinite against the finite, the human against the divine, as though Reality were a zero-sum game. How can modern man believe in miracles, Rudolf Bultmann asked, when he knows how to switch on a light bulb? Or, as a parishioner opined the other day, why pray for the healing of a headache when Tylenol works so well? Incarnatus est is the forging of an unbreakable union between the miraculous and the quotidian, the transcendent and the immanent. All our thinking, our creativity, our science, our labors, along with our sorrows and disappointments, is participation in the life of God become man, in faith’s anticipation of our destiny fulfilled in the life of God.
Not for nothing is the day called Christ Mass. In the Eucharist, it happens again and again. Just as he says, this is his body, this is his blood. Sacramental realism is looking into the face of God as we look at the signs of bread and wine and confess with Thomas the Apostle, “My Lord, and my God!” Here, in this prescribed space and time, see God crucified, risen, and keeping his promise to be with us until his return in glory.
Catholics call it transubstantiation, reflecting the philosophical distinction between substance and accident. Rejecting the philosophy, Luther simply and adamantly insisted upon the sheer isness of the is in “This is my body.” Others have wandered into the mists of subjectivity, suggesting in a hundred different ways that it is if you believe or feel or think it is. But there is no Real Presence without bodily presence.
In communing with loved ones who are not with us, we have our feelings, our memories, our visual images. But that is just it: They are our feelings, our memories, our visual images. There is no breaking out of the circle of subjectivity unless we are encountered by the body of the other. The other is embodied, as in incarnate. And so it is with the Totally Other, the infinite within our finite space and time.
Theologians of an orthodox persuasion sometimes say that the Real Presence does not mean physical presence. This is to guard against the debased notion of a cannibalistic consumption of a portion of human flesh and blood. That is indeed a gross distortion of our being encountered by, and receiving body and soul, the living Christ in his humanity and divinity. Yet I have come across people who are deeply troubled when they hear it said that the Real Presence is not a physical presence. They misunderstand that to mean that his presence is less than physical, when the point is that his presence is more than physical. The physical is part of the finitude of space and time, which is both embraced and transcended in the wonder of God become man. Finitum capax infiniti.
Mary asked, and we ask, “How can this be?” The fourth-century St. Ambrose wrote of the Real Presence: “Could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before? It is no less a feat to give things their original nature than to change their nature.”
At the crèche and at the Christ Mass, we kneel to adore the human face of God. The Adore Te Devote is attributed to Thomas Aquinas:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
Christmas. The Christ Mass. Finitum capax infiniti.