The Paradoxes of Christmas

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Nativity Scene

The Meaning of Paradox

There are several paradoxes of Christmas, which is the celebration of the incarnation of God the Word, God becoming man, fully human, in the person of Jesus Christ. A theological paradox, which is a truth revealed from God, seems to be contradictory, when, in fact, it is not. It is intellectually perplexing, mysteriously mind-boggling. It a profound truth, exceeding the grasp of human reason. The paradox is a human way of explaining the relationship between the Creator and his creatures, God and human beings. Thus, the incarnation is a paradox for Christians in that they confess it to be true, while not fully understanding how it can be so.

The Creator-Creature, God-Man, Paradox

Jesus, while remaining fully God, became fully man, fully human. As St. John says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a, NIV). That is to say, the Son of God became the Son of Man, while neither ceasing to be fully God nor fully human.1 That is why St. Paul says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:16a, ESV).

Sacred Scripture, referring to the Logos or Word, God the Son, says, “All things came into being through Him” (John 1:3a, NASB). St. Augustine comments, “He [God the Son] who had brought all things into existence, was brought into existence in the midst of all things.”2 He, the maker of human beings, is made a human being.3 He, “the Maker of the sun,” is “made under the sun.” He, the “Maker of heaven and earth,” is made under heaven, on earth. He, being infinite, without limitations as God, becomes finite, limited by hunger, thirst and sleep.4

The Eternity-Time Paradox

He, being eternal, outside of time, not bound by it, comes into the world in “the fulness of time” (Galatians 4:4, ESV). He, “the great, Eternal Day,” day without end, enters into the “temporal day,” which comes to an end.5 He, whom the whole universe cannot contain, is contained for nine months in the womb of his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.6 He, “begotten of the Father without a mother,” is “begotten of a mother without a father.”7 In other words, in eternity, the Word of God is begotten, specifically, God the Father’s Only Begotten Son, having no beginning, being unborn, uncreated. Yet in time, he is begotten, that is, created and born of his mother, the Virgin Mary.

The Father-Mother Paradox

He, while remaining with the Father, comes forth from his mother. He, who gives life to all things, is given life by his mother.8 He is “the Creator of His mother,” yet she becomes the mother of her Creator.9 Augustine, referring to Jesus, says, “He was brought into existence out of her whom He had brought into existence.”10 He, while being independent of all things, becomes dependent on his father and mother for life, nourishment and shelter. He, the Son of God the Father, is made the Son of Mary, “without a father.”11

The Greatness-Smallness, Strength-Weakness, Paradox

Jesus is both great and small. As God, he is great, beyond compare in the excellence of his being; as a baby, a human being, he is small. That weak human beings might be made spiritually strong, being spiritually reborn, God, the all-powerful, is born, becoming a weak, defenseless a baby.12 God, having designed and created human nature, being greater than all human beings, assumes a human nature through the womb of the Virgin Mary, being made man. Yet “His greatness,” says Augustine, “is not diminished by His smallness, nor His smallness overwhelmed by His greatness.”13 In other words, he is “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13, NIV).

The King-Servant, Exalted-Humbled, Paradox

The “high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity,” sitting on his throne in heaven as king of heaven and earth, comes to earth as an utterly helpless and defenseless baby, being born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. That is God’s humility! He, served and worshiped by the angels in heaven, humbles himself, coming to earth to serve his human creatures and die on the cross for them.14 The Immortal, then, becomes mortal, dying a human death.

The Trans-Rational Truth of the Paradox of the Incarnation

Augustine, although an eminent Christian rationalist, rightly asks, “Who will grasp this prodigy of prodigies, so unique and unprecedented in the world, this incredible thing made credible …, transcending belief…?”15 The incarnation is too wonderful, too much for the human mind, exceeding the grasp of finite human reason. Elsewhere, Augustine writes,

“Who can give this [the incarnation] the thought it deserves? Whose mind could presume to investigate this? Whose tongue could be emboldened to proclaim this? Whose reasoning could comprehend this?”16

Therefore, the incarnation is a mystery of faith. In the words of Augustine, “What human reason cannot solve, faith comprehends; and where human reason fails, faith advances.”17

Summary

In Soren Kierkegaard’s words, the paradox of the incarnation is that

“the eternal has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth, has come into being precisely like any other individual being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals.”18

Thus, the Liturgy of St. James, referring to the incarnation, says that Jesus Christ is the “King of kings, yet born of Mary.” He is “Lord of lords in human vesture.”19 He, “the Light of Light, descendeth, from realms of endless day.”20 The incarnation, then, is an event that evokes wonder, and, ultimately, issues in doxology, the praise of God. Therefore, Christians sing,

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly-minded, … Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.”21

Endnotes

  1. St. Augustine, Sermon 187, 3, in St. Augustine: Ancient Christian Writers, the Works of the Fathers in Translation, Vol. 15 – Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe; trans. and anno. Thomas Comerford Lawler (New York, N.Y.: Newman Press, 1952), p. 87.
  2. Ibid. Sermon 189, 3, p. 98.
  3. Ibid. Sermon 188, 2, p. 93.
  4. Ibid. Sermon 187, 1, 4, pp. 85, 90.
  5. Ibid. Sermon 185, 2, p. 77.
  6. Ibid. Sermon 187, 1, p. 85. Cf. II Chronicles 6:18.
  7. Ibid. Sermon 189, 4, p. 99.
  8. Ibid. Sermon 187, 1, p. 85.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. Sermon 189, 2, p. 97.
  11. Ibid. Sermon 187, 1, p. 85.
  12. Ibid. Sermon 190, 4, p. 106.
  13. Ibid. Sermon 187, 1, p. 85.
  14. Ibid. Cf. Philippians 2:5-11.
  15. Ibid. Sermon 190, 2, pp. 102-103.
  16. Ibid. Sermon 196, 1, p. 130.
  17. Ibid., Sermon 190, 2, p. 103.
  18. Soren Kierkegaard, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments,” trans. David F. Swenson et al., in A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946; paperback ed. 1973), p. 220.
  19. The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (New York, N.Y.: The Church Hymnal Corporation/ The Church Pension Fund, 1940, 1943), # 197, 2nd Stanza.
  20. Ibid. 3rd Stanza. I have taken the editorial liberty to insert a comma, following the phrase “the Light of Light.”
  21. Ibid. 1st Stanza.

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