“The point of the story is that the Child in the Manger was God.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ was both God and Man. As you all know, the formula in which Catholic theology enshrines that notion, the polish which Catholic theology gives to that rough jewel of truth, is the formula of Hypostatic Union. We all learned to repeat those words before we had the foggiest notion what they meant; they tripped so easily off our tongues that the first word got shortened down into haispatic, and perhaps became vaguely connected in our minds with the meaningless sort of shout we used to hear on the parade ground. However, we know a little more about it now; at least I hope we do. The doctrine of the hypostatic union is that in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth we have to distinguish two natures, a human and a divine Nature; but that those two natures belong to a single Person, and that Person is wholly divine . . .

And so it is with this doctrine of our Lord’s Incarnation. That he was believed from the very earliest times to be both God and Man is the only possible explanation of the language which the Church, from the very earliest times, has used about him. But it wasn’t till more than three centuries after his death that it became necessary to speculate in what sense he could be both God and Man at the same time. And that was because people began to produce explanations of the mystery which, consciously or unconsciously, were dishonest explanations. They got rid of the mystery by exaggerating the doctrine in one direction or the other; either by treating our Lord as God in a way which meant he was not really Man, or by treating him as Man in a way which meant that he was not really God . . .

And it’s the same with this mystery of the hypostatic union. It’s all nonsense, you complain, to talk about “person” and “nature” as if they were two quite separate things; as if you could stick a nature on to a person just as you stick a postage stamp on to an envelope. That is crude, Mediaeval psychology; we know more about that sort of thing nowadays. Yes, but if you come right down to it, what do we know about that sort of thing nowadays? When you turn your thought inwards, and think about yourself, who is thinking about whom, or what is thinking about what? You are not simply thinking about your thought about yourself; because that would mean that you were thinking about your thought about your thought about your thought about yourself and so on ad infinitum. No, the term of your thought is you, the person who is thinking. And in doing so, you have already divided yourself, in a sense, into two; the intellectual nature which is thinking, and the person, somehow mysteriously connected with that intellectual nature, who is being thought about. No, we don’t really know anything about the relations between a person and a nature; we’ve come up against yet another of those gaps in our thought, where the soil of natural mystery gives room for the flower of supernatural mystery to blossom. When our Lord thought about himself, the intellectual nature which thought was human; the Person who was being thought about was not human, but divine. That is mystery, if you like; but it is mystery in clear-cut terms . . .

You see, these people who produce ingenious explanations by way of making the Christian mysteries easier for our thought, only do it at the expense of spoiling the story. The Christian faith derives its interest, after all, from two decisive moments in our Lord’s life—Bethlehem and Calvary. Consider how poor a story you make of Bethlehem if you believe, with Nestorius, that there were two Persons in the Incarnation, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity and the person of a man Jesus Christ. In that case, the child in the manger is simply an ordinary human child who is destined, one day, to be mysteriously overshadowed by the Presence of God. But that’s not the story; the point of the story is that the Child in the Manger was God. Or consider how poor a story you make of Calvary if, with the Monophysite, you believe that there was only one nature in the Incarnate, and that nature divine. Oh, no doubt as long as our Lord had a human Body the physical sufferings of Calvary were real. But the mental sufferings, the disappointment, the disillusionment, the fear, the grief over Judas’ treachery and Peter’s denial, the offering, in Gethsemane, of the human will to the divine—all that goes, all that becomes unreal, unless you believe that our Lord had a true human Nature which could be the seat of all those emotions. Once again, that’s not the story; the story is that while he who suffered was God, he suffered with all the anguish, mental as well as physical, which belongs to the nature of Man.

So don’t let’s think that when the Church teaches us the doctrine of the hypostatic union she is merely using long words for the sake of using long words, merely trying to confuse us. It’s not that at all; she is trying to safeguard, as accurately as human language can safeguard, the essential truth of the Incarnation; she only wants to make us realize that when she says God became Man she is not guilty of a metaphor or a piece of pulpit rhetoric. God really did become Man; was Man, and lay in the manger, was Man, and hung on the Cross, is Man, and has united with himself forever that human nature he took, humiliated on earth, scarred with the scars of earth; reigns in it, eternally, in heaven.

Fr. Ronald Knox, “Verbum caro factum est,” from University Sermons


2 Responses to ““The point of the story is that the Child in the Manger was God.””

  1. Katherine Says:

    Thanks, IRNS. Where I am now, Cairo, most of the Christians are monophysite (Copts). I have been trying, without my reference books, to remember the materials about Chalcedon and what errors the dissenters are prone to, and here it is.

  2. Allen Lewis Says:

    Wow! Good stuff, IRNS. I am in the midst of preparing for my worship service at the local nursing home. This will inspire me as I preach on the 1st Sunday in Advent texts from Malachi, Luke, Matthew and Romans.

    What is it about Modern Man that cannot abide Mysteries? We seem to have a compulsion to analyze those out of life. The result, I believe, is a much poorer life.

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