Christmas Wrap-up: Some Less-Obvious Questions about the Incarnation
Jan. 7, 2019
Community in Mission
Welcome to Epiphany-tide. In this week we transition from Christmas to the public ministry of Christ, with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord scheduled for this coming Sunday. Before we leave Christmas altogether, we do well to ponder certain less-obvious questions about the Lord’s incarnation and birth. These questions are taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain red text.
Whether Christ was born at a fitting time? (Summa Theologica III, q. 35, art. 8)
There is this difference between Christ and other men, that, whereas they are born subject to the restrictions of time, Christ, as Lord and Maker of all time, chose a time in which to be born, just as He chose a mother and a birthplace. And since “what is of God is well ordered” and becomingly arranged, it follows that Christ was born at a most fitting time.
This argument is based on the authority and sovereignty of God. Simply put, God was free to choose a time; whatever He does is properly ordered and best, therefore the time He chose was most fitting.
Moreover, at that time, when the whole world lived under one ruler, peace abounded on the earth. Therefore, it was a fitting time for the birth of Christ, for “He is our peace, who hath made both one,” as it is written (Ephesians 2:14). Wherefore Jerome says on Isaiah 2:4: “If we search the page of ancient history, we shall find that throughout the whole world there was discord until the twenty-eighth year of Augustus Caesar: but when our Lord was born, all war ceased”; according to Isaiah 2:4: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”
St. Thomas’s claim that the world was at peace at that time is rather sweeping and bold. Does he mean that there was peace everywhere, even within households? We need not interpret it in such absolute terms. Instead, the claim can be understood more generally to mean that there were no known military campaigns underway nor were any necessary at that time. During the roughly 200-year Pax Romana (27 B.C. – 180 A.D.) it is not that there were no threats to peace and no civil disturbances anywhere in the Roman Empire.
Again, it was fitting that Christ should be born while the world was governed by one ruler, because “He came to gather His own [Vulgate: ‘the children of God’] together in one” (John 11:52), that there might be “one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
This is another surprising and sweeping claim, at least to modern ears. We tend to think of “one shepherd” as a reference to a religious leader, e.g., the Pope. Remember, though, that today’s sharp distinction between secular and sacred leaders was largely unknown in the Middle Ages and earlier; back then, faith and governance were quite intertwined. Further, in saying that “the world” was governed by one ruler, St. Thomas has in mind the Roman Empire. He does not use “world” in a literal and absolute sense, but rather refers to a large section of the known world.
Whether Christ should have been born in Bethlehem? (Summa Theologica III, q. 35, art. 7)
It is written (Micah 5:2): “And thou, Bethlehem, Ephrata … out of thee shall He come forth unto Me, that is to be the ruler in Israel.”
Christ willed to be born in Bethlehem for two reasons. First, because “He was made … of the seed of David according to the flesh,” as it is written (Romans 1:3); to whom also was a special promise made concerning Christ; according to 2 Samuel 23:1: “The man to whom it was appointed concerning the Christ of the God of Jacob … said.” Therefore, He willed to be born at Bethlehem, where David was born, in order that by the very birthplace the promise made to David might be shown to be fulfilled. The Evangelist points this out by saying: “Because He was of the house and of the family of David.” Secondly, because, as Gregory says (Hom. viii in Evang.): “Bethlehem is interpreted ‘the house of bread.’ It is Christ Himself who said, ‘I am the living Bread which came down from heaven.’”
Whether Christ’s birth should have been made known to all? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 1)
Our modern egalitarian notions demand that the answer here be yes, but St. Thomas says no. He does so for three reasons, each of which amounts to the argument that telling everyone about the birth of Christ and who exactly He was would have short-circuited or prematurely ended some important events and truths that save us.
It was unfitting that Christ’s birth should be made known to all men without distinction. First, because this would have been a hindrance to the redemption of man, which was accomplished by means of the Cross; for, as it is written (1 Corinthians 2:8): “If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.”
This is a daring claim: St. Thomas says that some ignorance was necessary for Christ’s crucifixion (by which we are saved) to occur.
Secondly, because this would have lessened the merit of faith, which He came to offer men as the way to righteousness. according to Romans 3:22: “The justice of God by faith of Jesus Christ.” For if, when Christ was born, His birth had been made known to all by evident signs, the very nature of faith would have been destroyed, since it is “the evidence of things that appear not,” as stated, Hebrews 11:1.
Saving faith would have been jettisoned because faith is not needed for things that are evident.
Thirdly, because thus the reality of His human nature would have come into doubt. Whence Augustine says (Ep. ad Volusianum cxxxvii): “If He had not passed through the different stages of age from babyhood to youth, had neither eaten nor slept, would He not have strengthened an erroneous opinion, and made it impossible for us to believe that He had become true man? And while He is doing all things wondrously, would He have taken away that which He accomplished in mercy?”
If the whole world had known from the start that Jesus was Messiah and Lord, He could never have lived an ordinary life in Nazareth, laboring and living among us. But these ordinary years were important indicators of His coming and living as true man.
Whether those to whom Christ’s birth was made known were suitably chosen? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 3)
Salvation, which was to be accomplished by Christ, concerns all sorts and conditions of men: because, as it is written (Colossians 3:11), in Christ “there is neither male nor female, [Note that the preceding portion of the citation is in reality from Galatians 3:28] neither Gentile nor Jew … bond nor free,” and so forth. And in order that this might be foreshadowed in Christ’s birth, He was made known to men of all conditions. Because, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (32 de Temp.), “the shepherds were Israelites, the Magi were Gentiles. The former were nigh to Him, the latter far from Him. Both hastened to Him together as to the cornerstone.” There was also another point of contrast: for the Magi were wise and powerful; the shepherds simple and lowly. He was also made known to the righteous as Simeon and Anna; and to sinners, as the Magi. He was made known both to men, and to women—namely, to Anna—so as to show no condition of men to be excluded from Christ’s redemption.
In effect, St. Thomas teaches here of the catholicity (universality) of the Church.
Whether Christ’s birth should have been manifested by means of the angels and the star? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 5)
Yes, this was appropriate, because when teaching we begin by moving from what is known to what is unknown. Different audiences (Jews and Gentiles) were called, so different approaches made sense, as each group was differently endowed with knowledge.
As knowledge is imparted through a syllogism from something which we know better, so knowledge given by signs must be conveyed through things which are familiar to those to whom the knowledge is imparted. Now, it is clear that the righteous have, through the spirit of prophecy, a certain familiarity with the interior instinct of the Holy Ghost, and are wont to be taught thereby, without the guidance of sensible signs. Whereas others, occupied with material things, are led through the domain of the senses to that of the intellect. The Jews, however, were accustomed to receive Divine answers through the angels …. And the Gentiles, especially the astrologers, were wont to observe the course of the stars. And therefore Christ’s birth was made known to the righteous, viz. Simeon and Anna, by the interior instinct of the Holy Ghost, according to Luke 2:26: “He had received an answer from the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” But to the shepherds and Magi, as being occupied with material things, Christ’s birth was made known by means of visible apparitions. And since this birth was not only earthly, but also, in a way, heavenly, to both (shepherds and Magi) it is revealed through heavenly signs: for, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (cciv): “The angels inhabit, and the stars adorn, the heavens: by both, therefore, do the ‘heavens show forth the glory of God.” Moreover, it was not without reason that Christ’s birth was made known, by means of angels, to the shepherds, who, being Jews, were accustomed to frequent apparitions of the angels: whereas it was revealed by means of a star to the Magi, who were wont to consider the heavenly bodies. Because, as Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.): “Our Lord deigned to call them through things to which they were accustomed.”