Cor ad Cor: This Week at Newman

Francis Fast Ph.D.
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Christmas, Mystery, and the Wrath of St. Nicholas

At the beginning of Advent, our family celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas. The children (and parents as well) set shoes under the Christmas tree the night before. We awoke to shrieks the next morning when the children discovered that the shoes were full of glittering chocolate coins. As we sat around, eating chocolate before breakfast, telling stories about the life of “the Wonder-worker,” one episode in particular made the children laugh with surprise and caused their parents to reflect in a new way on the mystery of Christmas, the scandal of the incarnation, and the importance of reading the great texts of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

 

In traditional iconography, there is a rift through the place
where the Christ child is born.

The story is this. According to legend, St. Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, where the Church debated the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ in order to preserve the integrity of his humanity. At the council, so the story goes, St. Nicholas got angry at Arius and punched him in the nose. The children, of course, are amused that a saint could get angry enough at someone to hit him, and the anecdote humanizes St. Nicholas by showing that he suffered wrath as we do. However, for their parents, the story was a reminder that the event we celebrate at Christmas, the Incarnation, is not a cozy idea, but is something that might need to arouse the same conflicting passions in us that they did in the fabled saint.

The need for some “wrath” might be illustrated by St. Anselm’s famous theological treatise, the Proslogion--a text that we read with our undergraduates just as Advent preparations are getting into full swing. St. Anselm wrote in the late 12th century, and his text is famous for its “ontological proof” of God’s existence, but it is his following elaboration of what God is that makes the Incarnation utterly baffling. First, his proof.

The very idea of God, argues St. Anselm, is a “supreme” idea: we cannot conceive of anything greater than God. As a result, argues Anselm, any concept we have of God must think of Him as existing, because not existing is—well, not great. In other words, it is impossible for us to deny that God exists, because the moment we do, the thing we are talking about is no longer God. Therefore, God must exist. Now for the record, this argument may not be fool-proof. St. Thomas Aquinas thought the argument failed on purely rational grounds—although we shouldn’t take him on authority. But St. Anselm wasn’t wrong about what God must be if he does exist, and the problem is, everything about God seems to conflict sharply with human nature.

These are a few of the “inhuman” consequences that St. Anselm deduces about God:

  1. God cannot “not exist.” In other words, nothing about him can suffer.
  2. God cannot be in any way unhappy.
  3. God’s actions don’t get pulled in different directions. In other words, he only does one thing, not many things.
  4. God is completely powerful.
  5. God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful at the same time.
  6. God cannot be confined to one time, or experience things sequentially.
  7. God cannot be confined to one place, or limited as a “particular thing.”
  8. God is present in everything but visible in nothing.
  9. God is greater than any idea we have of him. We cannot imagine him.
  10. Everything in our experience that is beautiful or loveable exists more completely in God than in anything we experience.

None of this seems human in general, nor much like the “man of sorrows” whose birth in a stable we are about to celebrate. If St. Anselm is correct, it should be easier to detonate a bomb in a teapot without breaking anything than to insert the infinite God into humanity. Something has to break. Probably not God.

When we encounter this part of the Christian philosophic tradition, it should provoke, on the one hand, a certain sympathy for Arius. The Incarnation is a mystery that unites the infinite with the finite, not just as a “nice idea” but as an historical reality. In a way, Arianism is a very reasonable reaction against people who find Christmas comfortable because they think God is basically like us, only bigger—making the Incarnation something like Zeus meddling in the Trojan War. A truly infinite God couldn’t actually become a human being, says Arius, so let’s preserve Christ’s relatable humanity and hold infinite Divinity at arm’s length.

The wrath of St. Nicholas pushes us toward a different discomfort.

Arianism doesn’t just “make a mistake” about Jesus. It tries to rationalize the Incarnation into another “normal” event of history. In the name of preserving the reasonability of God, it actually makes God’s historical presence small, predictable, and uninteresting. The scuffle at Nicaea reminds us that one saint, at least, thought it was worth fighting for mystery.

The Christ child isn’t just a nostalgic image: he is the union of the infinite and finite that ought to destroy the fabric of reality, but somehow doesn’t. The Church doesn’t tell us to accept the Christmas story because it “makes sense,” but because it happened—and upended everything.

May the angry wonder-worker St. Nicholas help us put mystery back into Christmas.

Francis Fast teaches in NTC's Bachelor of Arts in Catholic Studies.  Apply today

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