Catholic Answers’ Director of Apologetics and Evangelization reflects with us on the identity of Jesus as incarnate God. What does this mean and why does it fill us with joy?
Tim: What does Christmas celebrate? Next with Tim Staples.
Cy: Merry Christmas from Catholic Answers and welcome to Catholic Answers focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. And a little bit of Christmas cheer there for you as we start. We’re going to talk about Christmas on this Christmas day with probably the most Christmasy person I know, Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers. Hello, Tim.
Tim: I even like that word, Christmas-y. I like that word.
Cy: You are Christmasy too.
Tim: Yes, and it’s great to be with you, my friend, on this glorious feast day.
Cy: So let’s start there, what is all this about? Say we have someone listening who is new to Christmas, what is all this about?
Tim: Yeah, what is it about? I will get this question every so often, what is the focus of Christmas? Is it the nativity? Because we call it the feast of the nativity of our Lord-
Cy: Which means birth, basically.
Tim: Liturgically. Right, which is the birth, the manger scene and such. But it’s also one of two days liturgically that we celebrate the incarnation, along with the feast of the annunciation on March 25th, but those two events are nine months apart. What’s up? Which is it? The answer is it’s both. If you look at the readings, for example, for this day, there’s four readings, you have the vigil, and then you have the midnight mass, and then you have the mass at dawn, and then you have the mass for Christmas day, and you get an amalgam there. The mass probably most people go to is Christmas day, and that focuses on the incarnation. It’s in the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was God. John one down to around verse 14 and the word was made flesh, so it’s focusing on the incarnation. But then you have, of course, the Linus versus.
Cy: Yes, right, the Linus verses.
Tim: From Luke chapter two beginning at verse eight that we read as well and so-
Cy: In the annual American liturgy of Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Linus reads that… Or he doesn’t even read them, I don’t think. I think he’s got the memorized.
Tim: He’s got them memorized. And there were abiding in the field shepherds… Beautiful Charlie Brown Christmas. So really the focus is on both on Christmas, both the incarnation and the nativity of our Lord. So that’s the focus, it really is all about Jesus. And in fact, we could say all liturgy has as its focus Jesus Christ in the sense that he is the one mediator between God and men. The God man who was incarnate to save us from sins, die on the cross for us and such. But on Christmas, we really focus in in a special way on the birth of our Lord, the nativity of our Lord, and the incarnation.
Cy: Okay, so in a certain sense, I imagine a person who is not a Christian would understand Christmas as the birth of the founder, and that there’s lots of founders of different things and perfectly reasonable to just celebrate the birth of your founder, but that’s not what Christmas is. It’s not just like, “Oh this is the birth of our founder of our thing.”
Tim: Yeah, there is a little more to it than that when we consider. And that’s what I like to focus on, is the great mystery of the incarnation, which is, as I said, one of the two and really inseparable focuses of this glorious day. And the incarnation, which is a great mystery, and Cy I know we could spend weeks on this and never plumb the depths of course, because it is such a great mystery, but it can be summed up in John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God so loved the world that he did something that is incomprehensible to us in the eternal God becoming man. Something to ponder on Christmas day is the thought that Jesus was in the womb of Mary. As a baby who is laying there, he is absolutely helpless and in need, as the man Jesus Christ, in need of his mother just as you and I were in the womb. And in the world standard, he’s doing nothing. He’s just laying out. Now, of course, by faith, we know he’s saving the world even in his very act of being because he possessed [inaudible 00:05:08], and we’ll talk about that later, the [inaudible 00:05:09] to envision from the moment of his conception, he was actually saving the world from the instant of his incarnation. But from the worldly perspective, he’s laying there doing nothing. Isn’t that a message for us? I mean, there’s so many messages of Christmas how that we are human beings, not human doings. And our dignity doesn’t come from what we can do, but it’s from who we are, and Christ is the ultimate example of that. In the womb, we have the God-man.
Cy: I guess the most obvious thing, if you come to faith in Christ and you believe that, what you just said, that God is there in the womb of Mary, why? Why is he there?
Tim: Yes, that is another… Every question we’re going to talk about here, Cy, could be a week long answer.
Cy: Sure. Right.
Tim: But we’ve talked about this before Cy, but why? When you consider the incarnation, first Corinthians chapter one, Saint Paul talks about how the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, and why is that? It’s absolutely foolishness to the Greeks because the incarnation as a concept is nuts to them because God is pure actuality, infinite being, absolute being. He can become anything because he’s God. He’s pure actuality. You’ve heard me say this before, I like when I teach young people this truth about God, God can’t, he can’t do a lot of things. He can’t lie, he can’t steal, he can’t have any defect whatsoever, but he can’t walk from here to there. He can’t walk from here to the end of that table. Why? Because he’s already there. He can’t learn something because he already knows it. And of course that’s true, the divine nature can’t learn anything. There’s no lack. And yet we say he, meaning a divine person, became. And so the Greeks are like, get out of here. That’s like with Saint Paul on Mars Hill when he’s talking to the Stoics, he’s got them and he’s using Arutus and Epimenides there, starting in verse 21, talking about who God is. But once he gets to the incarnation and Jesus Christ, they’re like, we’ll hear about this another day.
Cy: Yeah, yeah, come back another day.
Tim: Because that’s nuts, how can God become? Well, first and foremost, we know he became because it’s an historical fact. And that’s where we always have to start before… I tend to be one who believes in fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. You begin with the proclamation of the gospel and bringing God’s grace into the equation, that helps in evangelization. I think Paul learned that on Mars Hill in acts 17 when he was waxing wise with his philosophy. And of course, he was wise and it was brilliant what he did on Mars Hill. But when he left Athens and he goes immediately to Corinth, we know from Acts 17 and Acts chapter 18, I love the way he writes in first Corinthians chapter two. He says, “When I was among you,” after he had left Mars Hill, he went to Corinth, he said, “When I was among you, my speech and my preaching were not of eloquence of human wisdom.”
Cy: Right, he gave up on that.
Tim: That’s right. He said, “For I determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified, that your faith may rest not on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” And so I think he did learn a lesson there. Not that we don’t philosophize, of course we do, and we bring some people to the faith that way, but you can never divorce that from the proclamation of the gospel. And so that’s why I say, look, we begin with the historical fact as the catechism lays it out beautifully in paragraph 6:43 that the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot be understood as anything other than an historical fact. It is an historical fact that Jesus was born in that manger. We have so many eye witness accounts and written documented eye witness accounts, as well as over 500 people who saw him resurrected. We have believers and unbelievers who witnessed the miracles of Jesus. And of course, unbelievers and enemies called it the work of the devil, which is absurd, and those who love him called it the work of God, but nobody disputed the miracles. They couldn’t, it happened right in front of them. And so we have a historical reality here. Yes, God became man and he performed miracles to prove that he was God. And so what we do as Christians is we say, okay, that’s a historical fact, but let’s dive in here, how can that possibly be? And the way the church has understood this over the centuries, and we’ve grown in our understanding is to… And by the way, I deal with this in my book, Behold your Mother, where I use Saint Thomas Aquinas, as well as some documents of the church, to point out that in the incarnation there is no change either to the divine person or the divine nature, the second person [inaudible 00:10:53], because that’s impossible. We know that by faith Malachi 3:6, “I am the Lord. I change not.” James chapter one verse 17, “In God, there is neither variation nor the slightest change or shadow of change.” So there is absolutely no change whatsoever in the divided person or the human nature. So if you’re talking about change in the incarnation, that change happens to humanity, not to divinity.
Cy: The world changes.
Tim: [crosstalk 00:11:28] the entire universe changed when that God was incarnate in that little baby. So there’s no change whatsoever in God in that sense. As Thomas says, in that sense the incarnation happened outside of the Godhead. However, we also, lest we fall into heresy, have to acknowledge there’s a sense in which it happens in the Godhead. In this sense, there’s no change, but the human nature, which is radically changed, lifted up into divinity, receives a divine subject because there is no human person with Christ. He’s a divine person. The person or subject of the nature, like the subject of your nature, my nature as human beings is a human person, Cy Kellett, and the human person, Tim Staples. The subject of the human nature in Christ is a divine person. And so the human nature acquires an infinite dignity in as much as he now possesses a divine subject. And this is why whatever you attribute to either nature, the divine nature, human nature, must be attributed to the one divine subject, the one divine person of Jesus Christ. But in that sense then, there’s no change whatsoever to the divine person or to the divine nature in the acquiring of that human nature. The only change, again, is that the human nature has acquired that divine person as its subject, but the divine person does not change what so ever. And there are so many heresies that have arisen, my friend, over these little questions. But can I say one other thing that’s so important here? Because I’m really talking more of the how now, but we never really answered the question of the why.
Cy: Yeah. Okay. So I guess I could put it this way, God, omniscient and omnipotent, can save us how he wants-
Tim: Yes, he can.
Cy: So why? Why does he become… He does save us by becoming a man, but why does he save us that way?
Tim: That’s right. And that… Again, oh my gosh, are we asking some profound questions today, Cy. And what else can we do on Christmas morning or afternoon, I should say, but because we are pondering the mystery of mysteries, aren’t we? But yeah, this is an incredibly important question, why would God… You’ve heard me say this before, Cy, but to me this is one of the most profound questions, why would God, who is infinitely perfect in the blessed Trinity from all eternity, the father pouring himself out into the son, the son back into the father, father and son into the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit back into the father, or the Holy Spirit back into the father and the son in the perfect and infinitely perfect love that is so absolutely infinitely perfect. We will never comprehend it a billion, trillion years in heaven. He’s absolutely complete. So why would he create this stuff, this matter, the universe? And here’s the question of questions, folks, it’s not just why would he create some stuff? But God knew when he created that stuff that one day that stuff would kill him. That to me is the most incredible aspect. He knew because he’s God, he can’t not know. He knew that one day that stuff would kill him. And I have to confess if I’m God, I’m not doing it. Just between you and me, don’t tell anybody else, okay? But there’s no one-
Cy: I don’t think an angel would do it.
Tim: No, no.
Cy: It’s so beyond creatures to do this.
Tim: That’s right, when you don’t have to… There’s no have to whatsoever, and you made that point earlier. Christ could have saved us, God could have saved us in any number of ways because he’s infinite. He could do it in, technically, in infinite different numbers of ways. There’s no end to the ways that he could do it because he’s God. Some might argue with me on that that because we’re talking about a finite nature, that perhaps there is, I argue there is, but that’s for another time. The point is he didn’t have to and yet he does. And what is the answer? Why would God do this? And really ultimately, we say in our Catholic theology that he did this ultimately for the glory of God. Everything in fact that exists, exists for the glory of God and everything he does. Now, that doesn’t mean, folks… In the modern age, when folks hear that, they say, “Oh, God’s an egomaniac.” No, he’s not an egomaniac. It is simply absolutely… Look, think of it this way, when you look at a masterpiece by Michelangelo, you praise Michelangelo. You say, wow, and you praise God, of course, who gave him the gift. But you say, “Man, Michaelangelo, that’s…” That’s not an ego maniac. That’s not egomania. That’s acknowledging greatness, and we should acknowledge greatness. Well, God is infinitely great and so all glory, all praise is owed to God. Now, God doesn’t need to be glory. It’s not as though God says, please glorify me or else I’m going to be hurt. No, it’s simply a fact. Everything is for God’s glory because God is the source of all being, all greatness, all goodness, everything. And so that’s why, we say theologically, whether it’s salvation, the creation itself, everything is ultimately for God’s glory. But I don’t think that really exhausts the why. That gives us insight, no doubt, into the fact that everything is for God’s glory, but the only answer to me for the why is love. And that’s why John 3:16 is so, so profound, something to meditate this Christmas, “For God so loved the world.” He wasn’t bound. It’s not that God was so necessitated by justice, he just had to do this. No, it’s for God so loved the world. And love by definition, my friends, Thomas Aquinas, along with Saint Paul nailed it in the definition of love to will the good of the other. Saint Paul in first Corinthians 13 five says, “Love does not consider its own interests. Love pours itself out for the other,” and that is the ultimate… The incarnation, God pours himself out in what is an infinite act of humiliation for God to become man. Infinite humiliation. Cy’s heard this before, but I do this when I teach high schoolers and stuff about this infinite act of humiliation. Think about if you had the opportunity, any of you watching or listening right now, if you had the opportunity to become an ant, if I am going to be Evan almighty now, or Morgan Freeman, God who’s going to give you the power to become an ant right now, would you do it? And I tell you right before… By the way, the ants on the ant hill there are going to eat you once you become… Okay, so let’s get started. Nobody would do that. Nobody. If you say you would, you’re lying. You wouldn’t do it. And yet that would not be an infinite act of humiliation on our part because we’re not infinitely above an ant, but God is infinitely above us. So imagine, we’re talking an infinite act of humiliation. God pours himself out, taking upon himself the form of a slave. And that’s what Philippians chapter two verses five through 10 talks about when it says, “For Christ, though he was in the form of God, thought his equality with God, not something to be clung to or grasped, but he empties himself in the kenosis in Greek, the self-emptying… Emptied himself, taking upon himself the form of a doula, so a slave, and being found in fashion as a man. He humbled himself even unto death, death on the cross. So Christ humbles himself infinitely in the incarnation, continues to humble himself, even unto death. And now beyond, he humbles himself and takes upon himself the form of bread and wine for us to consume him. This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. It’s the fact that God became man in that infinite act of humiliation in order that you and I could become God as Saint Athanasius says, that is not God equal with God, but become God or partakers of the divine nature, as second Peter chapter two verses three and four says, through this great gift. So my friends Christmas is all about love. It’s about loving Jesus for what he did for us, meditating on that, how he gives and gives and gives and continues to give. And then you and I, I think we need to take a hint from the great movie, The Bishop’s Wife. If you haven’t seen it, you need to.
Cy: Dreammaker, the original with the Cary Grant.
Tim: Don’t watch the remake.
Cy: It’s blasphemy.
Tim: No, it’s sacrilege. No, the original with Cary grant. And that final homily by Bishop Brougham, played by David Niven, when he says, “We put stockings up for everyone except Jesus on Christmas,” that’s a wonderful little part there, but he says, “We almost do our share to reach out to one another in giving outstretched arm of love and caring, compassion, tolerance.” All of that beautifully dated in that final scene of The Bishop’s Wife. That’s really what Christmas is all about. I love the giving gifts, it’s a wonderful thing if it’s understood in the proper context of for God so loved the world that he gave and he invites us into that infinite giving, so that when we give those gifts to one another… And take advantage of the giving tree at your parish, take advantage of the opportunities at Christmas time to go and feed the poor and such because you will mystically enter into the real meaning of Christmas.
Cy: Merry Christmas, Tim Staples.
Tim: Merry Christmas.
Cy: And Merry Christmas to all our listeners. We’ll see you again next time on Catholic Answers Focus.