CHAPTER VIII — THE HELPLESSNESS OF GOD
AT TIMES the Providence of God seems unnecessarily unkind. At such times, when that thought is lurking in our minds ready to spring into bitter expression, we are actually in possession of strong evidence of our own blindness; the prayer to be said is not one for relief, but one for belief, for humility, for sight for our blindness. For instance, you have just come upon a tragic climax to a life-long story of devotion. A woman, left with two very small children, succeeds in rearing them by a life of teaching. With the children grown, happily married, with families of their own, she is pensioned and is ready for rest, with pleasant reading, perhaps a little travel. Then she suffers a stroke that leaves her helpless, dependent upon the kindness of her daughter; to add a touch of bitterness, let it be Christmas Eve. We could be in entire sympathy with the thoughts of that woman if they ran something like this: “A merry Christmas! After all these years, when I could have had a few months of rest and enjoyment of the reward of life’s labor; what a fine Christmas I’ve been given.”
We could sympathize with her because we, too, have our share of blindness. There is no difficulty in seeing the tragedy. Her bitterness is a human, understandable thing. It is hard for us, as it is for her, to sec how she could have a merry Christmas. And the reason of the difficulty is that we are blind to half the Christmas story.
The feast of the child: The two sides of Christmas: Mary’s and the Infant’s
After all, there are two sides to Christmas, Mary’s side, the one we can easily understand and emphasize in our own lives, is one of thoughtfulness, love, care of the Infant; of the joy of giving what little there is to give. Surely, there is another side; the side of God. It is odd that we should so persistently overlook it, for there would be very little to Christmas without the Child. The Child’s part of the story is summed up in the word “helplessness.” The idea must have been of tremendous importance for the Almighty Himself to give it such emphasis. Translated into terms of action, it perfectly complements Mary’s side of Christmas; indeed, it makes possible her side. The Child’s part in Christmas was not a bestowal of gifts but a reception of them; not the outpouring of love, care, thoughtfulness, but the grateful acceptance of all these things. Yet, if we reflect a moment on what Mary brought to the Child and what the Child brought to Mary, it begins to dawn on us that it was the Child Who brought the superior gifts.
To understand this, we must see that there are different kinds of gifts. There are, of course, the obvious ones: candy, stockings, grand pianos, love, or life. But there are also more profound gifts that play a much greater part in the living of life: the offering, for example, of opportunities to others for the expression of their love, a chance for them to sacrifice, the privilege of the consecration of themselves to man and to God. Something of the profundity of these gifts appears from the Christmas story’s delineation of the helplessness of God; it is strange indeed that we so frequently miss the perfectly obvious truth that without that helplessness none of the other joys of Christmas would be possible.
There is a human contempt for some types of helplessness that is a healthy contempt: our contempt, for example, for the wife who insists on being entertained, cared for, coddled; for the man who will not work because the community owes him a living; for the timid, indecisive souls who meet a crisis by wringing their hands; or for the parents whose families must be raised by others to save these weaklings from utter failure. But there is real danger in the extension of this contempt to all helplessness. This was the error of the nineteenth century, an error based on the single norm of material success which made the poor objects of contempt. We can hardly say that such success is no longer an object of worship; yet the Christmas story itself ss an insistence that not all helplessness is an object of contempt.
Two types of helplessness
To escape this danger of generalizing contempt, we must learn well to distinguish the humble haplessness which is based on a knowledge of personal defects and limitations from the proud helplessness which has its basis in an exaggerated idea of personal perfection. The humble kind is rather young and happy looking, whatever its age; for it is constantly surprised by the kindness and fairness of others. The proud variety, worried and old before its time, is surly and bitter at the imperfect recognition given its own excellence. The first looks on what perfections it has as commands to give and to serve; in its eyes, imperfections, even its own, are titles to receive and to be helped. The second admits of no imperfections; but does insist that its perfections are titles to receive, while the limitations in others are commands for them to give, to serve their superiors.
The gift of Christ
Modern examples of the proud helplessness are found in those who insist on being loved to the exclusion of their loving, on being served and obeyed though they refuse to serve or obey anyone or anything. An age-old example of humble helplessness is given by the Infant in the crib at Bethlehem and emphasized throughout all of His life. The contrast between the two is sharp, as severe as that between the humility of Christ and the pride of Rome. Throughout His infancy, His adolescence, His hidden life in Nazareth, the Son of Mary received gifts; He gave others only the opportunities for love’s expression. This was His time of human helplessness , a time invaluable to the fullness of other human hearts. In His public life, His passion, His death, His activity was primarily one of giving, not of receiving; He made the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf here, the dead rise, sins disappear from the souls of men. He did all things well; giving, giving, to the utmost limits of divine generosity, even to the limits of that Last Supper and of Calvary.
The perpetual undertone to the roar of His life and its climax was the constant reception of gifts. He was served by the faithful women and even by Judas, the procurator of the apostolic band; by Magdalen and her sister, Martha; by Veronica on the road to Calvary. Even as He died He was given vinegar and gall; in death, His body was cared for by Joseph of Aramithea. Indeed, even in that mockery of a trial, Pilate tried in his weak way to give Him some protection.
This particular truth of the life of Christ is worth remembering. As the model of human living, as the Truth and the Way of life, He manifested the two types of joy that are always open to every human heart, the two types of gifts which every man is capable of giving. For every human being has his limitations, his imperfections, i.e., he can receive from others, indeed, he must receive from others. In other words, the poorest of us has in his power the gifts of the Infant, the gift of helplessness. At the same time, every human being has some measure of perfection, something to give, some point of superiority; i.e., every human being has the power to give the gifts of Mary and the adult Christ. Indeed, that very superiority is a demand that we bestow these gifts. If our appreciation of the gifts of Christ stops at His power and activity, then we have overlooked half the treasure He brought us: clearly, the priceless tears of the women of Jerusalem would never have been called forth by a world conqueror; the confession of Longinus was torn from him by a dead Christ helplessly fixed to a cross.
The Infant and the Christmas story:
The birth of Christ: Birth in general
St. Thomas was never one to establish his affections on the airy foundation of feeling or imagination; he was not a romancer, but a lover who never saw deeply enough to satisfy his love. He insisted that the head go first and the heart follow after; but follow all the long, hard way of truth. In treating of the birth of Our Savior, quite naturally he begins by a profound examination worthy of his great mind. He asks what is the goal of birth in general. Who or what is born? What difference does it make?
Truth always makes a difference which ignorance or blindness seldom sees. It is important to know that the intention of nature is a birth is the specific nature, for the real purpose of a birth is a specific purpose. Perhaps the importance of this will be more clear if we consider birth, rightly, as a motion; obviously the goal to which any motion is going is important, so important, in fact, that it distinguishes one motion from another, a pat on the back from a spanking. The goal to which the motion which is birth goes is a nature.
Birth of Christ in particular: The fact itself
Yet it is the person, not the nature, that is born; just as it is I, not my humanity, that falls downstairs, that learns, that is loved. It is the person, not the nature, which is the subject of all action, of all attribution. In the cave at Bethlehem, the Son of God, the eternal Word of the Father, was born; the Person, a divine Person. Thus the Son of God had two births, for He had two natures: one in time, from Mary; the other in eternity, from the Father. In each case it was the same Person Who was born.
Consequences of the fact: For Christ
Just as truly as Christ was the Son of God by His eternal birth, He was the Son of Mary by His temporal birth. Her divine maternity was a real perfection in Mary, an addition to her long list of perfections of which all the world would forever after be proud. But, clearly, His temporal birth added nothing of perfection to the infinite perfection of the Son of God. Our difficulty in understanding this is precisely the same as our difficulty in seeing how actual creation added nothing to God, though He could not be called Creator before the world began. The philosophical complexities of this difficulty, hinging on the distinction between a relation of reason and a real relation, have been gone into repeatedly in the course of these volumes, particularly in the treatment of the Trinity in Volume I. There is hardly any need to interrupt the story of the birth of Our Lord to go into it again.
Let us, rather, approach the thing from the obvious, common-sense angle; a woman is the mother of one whom she conceives and bears. Mary conceived and bore Christ, bore Him joyfully, without pain, without help, for she bore him virginally; He passed from her womb as through a closed gate. She gave Him what every mother gives her son. To deny Mary’s motherhood would be to wipe all motherhood from the face of the earth; a decidedly difficult task. Because this Person, her Son, born in Bethlehem was a divine Person, Mary was the mother of God. Mary, of course, did not produce the Person of her Son; no mother does. In this case, a wholly unique case, the personality of the Child did not result from the union of body and soul within the mother’s womb; is existed from all eternity. The Son of God existed from eternity, and it is the Person, not the nature, that is born. The Son to whom Mary gave birth was a divine Son; His mother was the mother of God.
We shall come back to this later on in this chapter. From what has already been seen of the Incarnation, its importance is evident. Just passingly, let it be noted that there is a special pertinence, peculiar to our day, to this analysis of birth by St. Thomas. Because it is the person who is conceived and born, we cannot dismiss the beginnings of life as something vaguely human, distinct from a person. From the first instant of life, all the sovereign majesty and inviolable rights of man belong to the newly conceived infant.
Time and place of the birth of Christ
This sovereign Infant of Bethlehem had all the dignity of God as well as the dignity of man. Unlike other men, this Man could and did choose the place of His birth, and with all the infinite wisdom of divinity. Every detail, then, of that birth in Bethlehem is packed tight with meaning for us. He came when all the world was at peace, for He was the Prince of Peace. He, Who was to have one flock and on shepherd, came when all the world was under one ruler. He was the divine physician paying His call precisely when His chosen people would be most disposed to accept His help — when a stranger sat upon the throne of Juda. He came in the night, just when day was preparing, for He came to bring light to those who sit in darkness. He came in mid-winter that from His first instant He might begin His suffering for us.
We shall see much more of the divine insistence on lowliness and helplessness if we keep the deliberate character of that divine choice well in mind. Consider the possibilities He might have been an emperor’s son, born in Rome to command immediate, world-wide attention. He might have come in a blaze of terrifying divine majesty, as He will at the judgment. His aim, however, was not to impress or to terrify men; it was to redeem them and to win their love. The means He used were not the human means of power, wealth or force; but the divine means of meekness and humbleness of heart by which men are made to sec the frailty and vanity of human things rather than the alluring heights of groundless pride. So He came in the obscure town in fulfillment of a promise to David. Like that great king, He made His start in Bethlehem; like him, He found the fulfillment of His kingdom in the royal city of Jerusalem, a fulfillment of shame and disgrace in contrast to the glory and power of David. He came to Bethlehem, a word which means the city of bread, for He was the bread from heaven come down for the food of men’s souls.
It is taken for granted that whoever can get home at Christmas, goes home; for this is the feast of home. It is the rallying point of all hearts, as home always is; obviously, it is a time for gathering around the family hearth. Indeed, it is a miniature picture of home: the Virgin , Joseph, and her Child. Yet, all that emphasis on home takes its inspiration from Bethlehem where “Christ Himself is homeless, and all men are at home.” And He was really homeless. It was not mercy the poverty and destitution of His birthplace, for these do not rule out the possibility of a home. It was not that His mother had crept under the last bit of cover available; nor that His crib was shared with beasts. Rather, He was born here as one passing through, as a vagrant; what she said later about Himself, that He had not whereon to lay His head, began to be true from the very first instant.
In fact, there was a great deal of the vagabond about both Christ and His mother; the great moments of her life, as of His — His birth and His death — would come literally on the road far from home. Perhaps this was divinely arranged to enable us to realize how much home means to us, seeing Him without it. Perhaps it was to emphasize, from the very beginning, the extent of His love for us in His willingness to surrender so priceless a thing as home. At least, the same price has been demanded by Him from everyone who has since tried to carry on His work of love. Yet, in a larger sense, where Christ and Mary are, men are always at home. An even more profound message of this homelessness of Christ is that no man is at home; all men are on their way, pilgrims, until finally they come to rest with Mary and the Child.
Christ’s coming to Bethlehem was a quiet affair. It has been so ever since; for His coming to us is not a matter of over whelming our minds with evidence, but rather of winning our hearts by grace. If we are to receive Him at any time, it must be through faith. At the first Christmas, He gave our faith a little help, for His coming left no doubt of His humanity; but we shall never know His divinity except by the humble road of faith. In this life, men do not see the Godhead, they believe in it. On the cross, Christ could truly say: “they know not what they do”; Paul, later, could insist on the same truth, arguing “if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” All this was as true of the beginning as it was of the end of the human life of the Son of God; the Lord of glory must be humbly believed in, not proudly demonstrated.
The manifestation of Christ: Persons to whom it was made
As it is now, so it was then; the coming of Christ was manifested to only a few. In the twentieth century, it is a comparative few who gather around His altar on Christmas Day to welcome Him. So it was then. But then, as now, these few encompassed all classes of men. Then, as now, the secrets of divine wisdom are not given equally to all but, rather, immediately to some — less for their own sake than that they might carry the good news to the many others.
That the coming of Christ should have been made known to some is self-evident; otherwise, there was no point in His coming. That the knowledge of Mary and Joseph was insufficient to serve the divine purposes is equally self-evident; after all, that was a family knowledge which might well be suspect by a people already too willing to suspect. As a matter of fact, in such a case suspicion would be reasonable, as reasonable as our own tolerant acceptance of a mother’s estimate of her own son.
There is food for solemn thought in the ushering in of Christ by terror in Herod and his royal city, and by the rivers of blood that flowed from the murder of the Innocents in Herod’s attempt to cut short the reign of the new King in its infancy. This was a prophecy of the welcome of the Church of Christ in all ages; and a declaration of the futility of the hatred which inspires it, for the tyrant can never kill more than the body and even in this, his highest achievement and most serious threat, he gives his victim a martyr’s crown and immediate entry into heaven. The tyrants; of course, continue to lash out, for the dignity of the heavenly kingdom makes earthly kings tremble; darkness cannot welcome the Prince of Light with any joy; and, too, every coming of Christ is a reminder of His ultimate coming as Judge.
Divine wisdom gathered a motley crowd to the coming of the Word of God: the carpenter and his wife; the shepherds, poor, ignorant, crude, with the smell of the herds fresh on them; the Magi, cultured, learned, powerful, rich; Simeon and Anna, the just pair of the Temple, wise with the weight of the years — Jew and gentile, young and old, sinner and saint, poor and rich, learned and ignorant. Such a crowd could be gathered only in the name of something that touched our common human nature deeply; such a thing as birth, or death, or life’s ultimates. Here, there was all of that and more; here was something that touched even on the common spark of divinity which glowed so faintly in all that crowd. For here was life, the death of sin, the birth of the Infant, the long-awaited coming of God.
In this light, the light of the appeal to our common human nature, it is interesting to glance at the list of the uninvited. No invitation was issued to the Greek philosophers who had turned to sophism away from truth; to the Scribes and Pharisees who had turned to formalism away from the law; nor to the Roman tyrants who had turned to force and greed away from justice. It is as though the divine secretary, drawing up the select list, had looked to those who still held fast to human things; for only those who still esteem the human are capable of divine things.
The shepherds first saw the light, on the very day of the birth of the Son of God. Some thirteen days later, the Magi arrived; some forty days later, the mystery was made known to Simeon and Anna in the temple. In the order of this manifestation there is contained an account of the manifestation of Christ to all the ages. He manifested Himself first to the people of Israel; then He was made manifest to the gentiles from all the ends of the earth; finally, before the last page of the world’s history is written, He will be manifested to all the Jews prefigured by that just couple in the temple.
Humanly speaking, the beauty and charm of the Christmas story lies, to a great extent, in the fact that it is a child’s story of a Child’s feast nicely proportioned to the fresh loveliness of a child. In a sense, only a child can understand it. It can appeal only to a child; so, because none of us ever entirely grows up, Christmas has a universal appeal. It is a divine fantasy; in the sharpness of its contrast and the richness of the fields it opens to the eyes of man, it is comparable to, even surpasses, the most gorgeous fairy tale of childhood. Christmas brings the Child’s gifts which break the wicked enchantment of blindness and transform the world. Things are not at all what they seem: shaky, dirty tenement steps are a golden stair to heavenly mansions; the dull, gray, meaningless existence now becomes a high romance, an adventure with every moment a desperate gamble for heaven or hell; there is no human life without meaning, no moment of human life which does not demand courage and high resolve; what was a bit of bread is the body and blood of the Son of Mary; a dash of water bursts open the gates of heaven; a murmured word in dark spot does away with the stain of sin; life is a race run with ferocious speed to a goal that is incredible except to one who has the eyes of a child opened by the divine Child of Bethlehem.
Its agencies: angels and the star
After the Child and its Mother, who are always the center of it in a child’s mind, the details of the feast that delight a child are especially the multitude of the heavenly hosts singing in a sky split open to let down the light of heaven, and the kings from the East with their gifts and their guiding star. To the eye of the cynic, all this seems like extravagance greater by far than a modern debutante’s coming-out party, God parading His superiority in rather questionable taste. In actual fact, it is not extravagant but homely, proceeding from solid and familiar grounds, grounds as simple as a syllogism or as the methods of our first teacher. We learn step by step going on from what we already know to a knowledge of that which is as yet unknown. In precisely this human way, God gently led men to the knowledge of the coming of His Son; with the usual divine thoughtfulness, He stooped to the limitations of men, dealing with them in terms with which they were familiar.
To the just, who were familiar with the movement of the Holy Ghost, the message was delivered with no external agency; Simeon and Anna heard it in their hearts. To the shepherds, as Jews familiar with angelic messengers, the news came through angels; to the Magi of the East, long used to scrutinizing the stars, the message was brought through a star. Even where the medium of this good news to humanity was sensible signs, the signs were always heavenly: angels and stars, for a heavenly kingdom and a heavenly King were being announced.
All through this tract, St. Thomas has crowded his Summa with rich quotations from the Fathers; the Fathers, too, were in love with the feast of children. There is a great temptation here to linger; but it is a temptation that must be set aside. Not altogether set aside, of course; we shall go ahead, but slowly enough to glance over our shoulders now and then at the star and the kings it guided.
This affair of the star is not at all an approval or vindication of astrology. Clearly, here it was not a matter of a star dictating the time and details of man’s life; man did not measure up to a star, but rather a star bent down to a Man. It was just such a delicate gesture of celestial bodies as was made in sorrow on Calvary when the sun was darkened; a gesture made to the Lord of all things alike when He was helpless in a manger and dead on the cross. Down through the ages, men have made efforts to explain the star of the Magi, and by explaining, of course, they have really meant to explain it away. The most modern example is the special Christmas show put on by the planetaria of large American cities; the sky is shown as it was on that first Christmas while it is carefully pointed out that at that time three planets converged to give the extraordinary brilliance which has come to be known as the star of Bethlehem. Really, it is not any one detail of the Christmas story that makes it necessary to explain the whole thing away — not the star, nor the shepherds, nor the angels, nor the kings; it is only because the story of Christmas demands too much of the hearts of men (not their minds) that men resort to a smoke screen of science to dodge it.
Obviously, this star is not susceptible to human explanation. It did things that are not done by well behaved stars, even by the imps among the stars. It had its own private path, followed by no other star, a path that led to Bethlehem. It did not wait until night to step out shyly with the other stars; it appeared brazenly day and night. It was temperamental; sometimes suddenly disappearing, as when the Magi approached Jerusalem, then reappearing after putting the Magi to exhaustive inquiry and upsetting both Herod and all Jerusalem. It was a light-footed star, its movements visible even to the naked eye; it not only moved, it stopped and started again, as though waiting for the Magi to catch up with it. Finally, it came to its last stop, and did what a good star never does; it came down, not crashing to earth, but in slow majesty from the heights to rest gently above the manger-bed of the Infant until even the Magi could have no doubts as to its meaning. A converging of planets indeed! Here was the end of their journey; indeed, the end of all journeys. Here was the goal of the feet of men; this was the place to stop.
Then there was an astonished cave and a proud star. It is not every night that a star descends so low as to point out one cave in a huddled town like Bethlehem, its hillside cluttered with caves. It is not every night, in fact, it is only on one night, that a star is called on to conduct kings to the King of kings. The great brilliance of the star need not have been merely from its closer approach to earth; it might well have been from the proud satisfaction of the star in an extraordinary job perfectly done.
It was odd that kings should have come seeking a King. It is more odd that they should have come without arms and armies, generals and advisers; that they should rather have come alone with gifts for a prophet, priest, and king — with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even they must have understood why the star disappeared at Jerusalem, seeing the astonishment that met their inquiries. Of course they were rushed into the presence of Herod; of course the Sanhedrin was quickly called to investigate the question. Surely, by then the Magi realized that they, in their turn, were messengers of a King they had not yet seen.
It was odd, too, that they should have been so completely satisfied to find, at the end of their long trip, a carpenter, his virgin wife, and an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. It was even more odd that they should have fallen down in adoration with the same simplicity as the shepherds and have opened their treasure chests to offer royal gifts to an Infant. It s odd — but only to those whose eyes are not opened to faith, to those who cannot see. To the others, well, obviously, God would not send a star to light their path and leave their hearts and minds in darkness They knew.
They knew from the beginning that it was not an earthly but a heavenly King they sought. They knew He would have none of the trappings of an earthly kingship. They knew He would choose the weak things of the world to confound the strong. For they knew the saving truth: God was made man; the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. Warned by an angel of the perfidy of Herod, they went back to their own lands by another route, not with a star over their heads, but with the Sun in their hearts. So they pass out of history; but they never travel far enough to pass out of the hearts of children, even of the children who take childhood with them into mature responsibility.
The law and the Infant: Circumcision of Christ and the Holy Name
Eight days after the birth of Our Lord, between the visit of the shepherds and the Magi, the Child was christened in the quiet privacy of the family. In the practice of the Jews, that meant that He was circumcised and given a name. The name He was given was not one handed down by a long line of ancestors, but one appointed by God, a name that stated the stupendous mission which explained the coming of the Child. He was to be the Savior of all men; so, quite simply, He was called Jesus Christ, the Savior, the Anointed One of God. It would be Joseph who attended to the circumcision; so it would be this most gentle of men who would bring about the first shedding of the blood of God for men and give to the most sceptical tangible evidence of the truth of the humanity of the Son of God.
Circumcision was the baptism of the Old Testament. Christ, Who was without sin, needed no baptism; still He should have been baptized, if for no other reason, to give divine approbation to the instrument by which so many of the patriarchs had found friendship with God. God’s dealing with men is always so quietly thoughtful, even when He takes something from them to give them something better So here, there was a divine approval for that which was to lose its efficacy, an accolade for the race of Abraham, and an insistence that His divine Son be unmistakably one of that race. There was, too, an example of obedience to law and the first of those assumptions of the full burden from which Christ had come to free others. With all that, there was the divinely gracious removal of this least of possible physical stumbling blocks to the acceptance of Christ by the Jews.
The offering in the temple; the purification of Mary
Forty days after the birth of the Child, we have another example of the divine respect for the institutions by which men live and of respect for men’s attachment to these institutions. The days of the purification of Mary, who, as a Virgin, needed no purification, being finished, the Child, in obedience to the law to which He was superior and of which He was the author, was presented in the temple. According to the law, sacrifice was offered in expiation of sins for Him Who had no sins, and in consecration to God of Him Who was already God’s Son. As He had come for us, not for Himself, so all these demands of the law were satisfied, both by Him and by His mother, that from the very beginning we might have a constant example of obedience.
With the legalities over, Joseph, Mary, and her Son, after the hurried flight into Egypt and the return to Nazareth, drop completely out of sight except for the one brief glimpse of the anxious search of Jerusalem for the lost Christ Child. There is just this one gesture of the supreme Teacher made on His entry into manhood. All those hidden days are summed up in the same words which sum up all of His life which has been described in this chapter. He was subject; the helplessness of God. In the manifestation of His birth, in the fulfillment of the law, Christ Himself took no active part; His was rather a passive role. There was one more manifestation to come, one more act in which Christ was wholly passive, a manifestation that marked both the transition from the hidden life at Nazareth to the public life of labor about His Father’s business and the transition from the Old to the New Testament. This was the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the river Jordan.
The close of the hidden life:
Baptism of John the Baptist: Its fittingness and origin
John the Baptist was a fitting figure to bridge the gap between the Testaments. He brought to his labors all the sanctity, the gaunt strength, irresistible singleness of purpose, and burning zeal of his predecessors, the prophets of the Old Law of whom he was the last. He came, not with the weapons on which they had depended, but with a new one taught directly by the Holy Ghost, the instrument of baptism.
It is not hard to visualize the emotions of John on that day, standing in the shallow waters of the Jordan, when Christ came down to be baptized. John had met Christ once before, at the time of the Visitation; then, even in the womb of his mother, John had leaped for joy. Now, again, his joy would be no more capable of restraint: it must break out in a protest of his unworthiness; it must give fearless testimony to the Lamb of God Who was to take away the sins of the world. Never did man look more joyously on the closing days of his labors; never did man see another progress, while he himself diminished, with more whole-hearted rejoicing. For John was the friend of the bridegroom.
This last of the prophets wielded a new weapon, a public thing that drew crowds to whom he could be the precursor of the Lord. This was the weapon, baptism, to be consecrated by Christ Himself and, later, when given divine institution and divine powers, to be the gateway to heaven. For the present it could make no such pretensions. What it could, and did, do was to prepare men for Christ and for a worthy reception of His baptism by leading them to penance and accustoming them to the ceremony which, under Christ, was to be the absolutely necessary means of salvation.
Its subjects and duration
There is a sharp distinction between the baptism of John and that of Christ, for the former did not give grace. Rather, like all the life of John, it was a preparation for grace as it was a preparation for Christ. As a preparation, it was not ordered merely to the baptism of Christ Himself by John. The multitudes that flocked to the Jordan did not come in vain; they needed preparation for the coming of such a King, needed it badly, and here they got it. Why did John not stop baptizing once Christ had come? Well, men still needed the preparation of penance. Men still lived in the shadow of the Old Testament and the full light of the New had not yet fully dawned. John had come to prepare, not to present an obstacle to the approach of Christ. Yet, had he stopped at once, he might easily have been suspected of envy or anger, surely he would have aroused envy in his disciples; his very continuation, indeed, gave him just that much more opportunity to send men to Christ.
John’s baptism of Christ: The baptism itself
Christ stepped into the Jordan River, through which the Israelites had come into the Promised Land, that He might begin that march into the kingdom of God. He was what St. Thomas considered the perfect age just thirty. This was, after all, the beginning of his public career as a teacher, priest, and victim; it was not work for a child, or a boy, but for a man. He had spent enough of His life observing the law so that none could ever say He overthrew the law because He could not keep it; in thirty years a man can commit a fairly representative crowd of sins if he puts his mind to it. There is no sin a man could not commit in that time; and there was no sin that Christ did commit. In a deeper sense, the perfect age of Christ at His baptism is a statement of the truth that it is baptism that makes the perfect man.
He came to John and was baptized, cleansing the waters for all time, and taking on Himself, as He always did, that which He commanded to others. That baptism, which opened up His own life among men, began His Testament, and swung slowly shut the gates of the Old Testament, was one last gesture of reverence and submission to the giants of the Old Law, the greatest of whom was His instrument in introducing the New.
Divine testimony at the baptism
The divinity of Christ was well hidden in the garments of His infancy at Bethlehem. The testimony it received was by the implements of God and for the very few. At His baptism, that divinity was no less hidden, but its manifestation was by the direct approbation of God Himself; for this was the beginning of the career of the Way and the Life, and here was the divine statement of His full authority to form the hearts of men and redeem their souls. As John poured the water, Christ, in a vision peculiar to Himself, saw the heavens open. And well He might. For this was the beginning of the battering down of the doors locked since the sin of Adam. He, the Son, stood in the Jordan; the Father’s voice declared that this was His beloved Son; and the Holy Ghost hovered over Him in the form of a dove. He Himself later instructed His apostles to baptize all men in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; here, in His own baptism, was the solemn approbation of the Trinity.
There ended the purely helpless stage of the life of the Son of Mary. From then on, He was not only to receive but also to give. To understand the rest of His life in the later chapters of this book, as well as for a fuller understanding of what has been said in this chapter, let us go back to the notion with which this chapter was started; the notion of helplessness.
Conclusion: The helplessness of God and of men:
The example of Christ: Christian helplessness
Christian helplessness demands a nice blend of humility, magnanimity, and courage. It demands a recognition both of our limitations and our abilities. It demands the acknowledgment of the obligation to give, imposed by perfection and ability; of the need to receive imposed by imperfection and limitation. The followers of Christ are children of God: as children, they are always in need of help; but they are also men, capable of such extreme offerings as martyrdom itself. They are imperfect, but sovereign; they are helpless, but of unlimited capacity. They are not God; they are not slaves; they are not automatons; but they are Christian men.
Mockery of Christ: Helplessness of sensuality; helplessness of brutality
Pagan helplessness bases its claim to help, not on limitations but on exaggerated perfection. Its one basis is pride, with free rein given to one or another of the sense appetites In a soft, effeminate form of sensuality, or in a base, ruthless form of avarice, it is an inhuman and disgusting thing that merits the revulsion even of the pagan. The extreme of this revulsion, no less revolting in itself, is seen today in the idolatry and brutality of power, even of physical power.
Actually, all three of these are basically the same. All three demand service from inferiors while admitting no obligation to serve. All three are based solidly on pride in one’s own perfection; all three unleash a sense appetite. As inevitable corollaries of all three, there is the ruthless attempt to implant in others a sense of limitation without a sense of perfection, a knowledge of weakness with no courage or pride; for it is only in this way that they can guarantee themselves the service they demand. These men call themselves gods and deny they are men; in their world there is room only for unholy gods, for slaves, and for automatons. In all three, the inevitable conclusion is finally reached: a denial of the personality of man, of his humanity, a substitution of the mass for the individual. For in this pagan world, man is not human either in his power or in his helplessness.
Foundation of the mockery — the decline of personality:
Evidenced by the attitude toward infants and toward adults
These mockeries of Christian helplessness miss the truth of the sovereign, undying spirit of man, his inalienable rights, his ordination to God; above all, they miss the truth of the supreme Vindicator of these truths. Our present theory and practice in regard to the unborn child, toward despised classes, races, or parties is indication enough of the lengths to which this paganism has already gone in our times. We have lost the meaning of man’s helplessness as well as of his power, from the unborn child up and down the whole line. Indeed, the truth of man himself is lost even in those who ride the crest of success; they have forgotten that they, too, are men.
The sad lesson of Christmas: become like little children
The Christmas story is a devastating test of the humanity of any age. It is a story only to be understood by understanding children; perhaps that was part of the meaning of Christ demand that we become like little children. For it is only when we can fully appreciate the child that we can know the man. Often enough, it is a hard thing for the pride of a man to become like a little child, particularly in a world which worships at the altar of material success; for childhood means helplessness and, in such a world, helplessness is a badge of servitude instead of rightly a claim to the most precious gifts others have to give, while success is a title to service rather than an obligation to serve. In such a world, a man cannot become a child because he has forgotten what it is to be a man.