"The Central Event of History" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | January 12, 2009
"We know that it (Birth of Christ) celebrates the central event of history; the Incarnation of the divine Word for the redemption of humanity." -- Benedict XVI, Audience, December 17, 2008 (L'Osservatore Romano, English, December 24, 2008.)
"There are three questions to be asked in respect to any created being: 'Who made it?' "How?" and "Why?" I put forth the answers: 'God,' 'Through his word,' 'Because it is good.'" -- Augustine, City of God, XI, 23.
"What still puzzles the world, and its wise philosophers, and fanciful pagan poets, about the priests and the people of the Catholic Church is that they still behave as if they were messengers." -- G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. 1925.
When I was casually reading some of the Holy Father's remarks made just before Christmas of this past year, I was struck by the phrase he used of the Nativity. He called it the "central event of history." I underlined the passage, one that is obviously not unfamiliar to Christian thinking. John said in his Prologue, that the "Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us," as if to say that this "central event" joined the reality of God and the reality of man in one being. Benedict added in his Epiphany homily: Christ is likewise "the ultimate destination of history."
I had previously remarked, after reading the Pope's book, Jesus of Nazareth, how diligently the Pope sifted through the critical evidence that purported to deny, in one way or another, that Jesus was not who or what He said that He was, namely the Son of God, born—actually born, born once in this world—at a given time and at a given place. This book, after dealing with whatever evidence is offered that Christ was not God, concluded with a rather straight-forward and obvious fact: That if the Word did become man, if Christ was born at Bethlehem, under Caesar Augustus, as was in fact the case, the world is simply different because of it, however much we are or are not ready to acknowledge the fact. It is one thing to say John Smith existed in the world. It is something of momentous importance to know that Christ, the Son of God, existed in this world.
Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, already said that ordinary Christians can look with a certain healthy skepticism at what sundry scholars tell us when they think to show us that Christ never existed, or that He never died on the Cross, or that we do not know anything of what He actually said. Modern and not so modern scholarship is filled with volumes assuring us either that what Christians hold cannot be traced back to an origin in Christ, or that Christ Himself was not what He said He was. He or His followers were either ignorant or deluded or both. Chesterton has an amusing list of the usually contradictory "reasons" given to explain why Christ could not be who He said He was.
Augustine's great City of God is often credited with the invention of "history," in the sense of proposing a meaning to be what obviously appears to be an unintelligible jumble of human and natural events throughout time. Augustine, of course, was more aware of the jumble than most people. He was, as they say, a "realist." The origin of his idea of history is already present in the Old and New Testaments. There the heavens and the earth are seen against a background of their beginning, middle, and end. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Time is real but set within eternity, not independent of it. The "middle" is occupied principally by the doings of the rational beings, angels and men. Their personal dramas are seen as a going forth and a return, or sometimes as a failure to return.
It is not that the great Greek thinkers, especially Thucydides, were ignorant of history. At the beginning of his famous Peloponnesian War, Thucydides tells us that we should study his account of this great war, so that we will grasp the intelligibility of all wars when, in the future, they occur. History, with different names and details, repeats itself pretty much in the same way over and over again. Thus, when we understand one essence of things, say war, we understand them all. No one who reads Thucydides and compares his detailed account to later wars can doubt that he had a point. The abidingness of human nature over time, itself also a Greek notion, is found also in Scripture, even with the newness also found there.
History as an irreversible sequence of events caused by human acts and the reaction of human beings to natural events, none repeatable, has a different slant than that of the Greek historian. This difference is usually described as the "cyclical" and "linear" ideas of history. In the one, nothing much new happens under the sun. In the other, nothing is ever the same. Some philosophers, like Aquinas, find both understandings necessary for a complete view of reality. But certainly, the Biblical view looks back to a definite beginning, usually known as "creation". It looks forward to an end, the judgment and the Parousia.
However, as Chesterton said, Christians present themselves not as original thinkers but as "messengers." That is, they do not claim to know more than the Greeks about such things in terms of a natural understanding of things. What they claim is a source of knowledge directed to their minds that better accounts for the things that are. While the Greek tradition seems to be based on a non-ending return, the Scriptural view has a beginning. Indeed, it has a beginning before the beginning, which we claim to be a beginning in time.
Of the cosmos itself, in the beginning there was precisely "nothing." And from nothing, nothing can come forth. Everything that we know, including ourselves, testifies to the fact that it did not cause itself. The nothing that was in the beginning did not one day up and decide to become something, as so many theories of origins seem to imply. Rather in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. Translated into our context here, the cosmos and its history had an origin. It was part of a plan, a plan we often call not just history, but salvation history. But when we add "salvation" we imply that there is something now that needs to be saved and, furthermore, there exists a "plan" whereby it might be saved.
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God is complete in Himself. This means that his inner life, the Trinitarian life, needs nothing other than itself. If there is in fact something other than God, as we know there is, we know that its existence does not supply God with something He lacked. It also means that what is not God is not the sufficient explanation of itself. Explanations already imply that reason and the kind of reason we know, our reason, does not "create" the world. It may, however, know things with its mind, mathematics, for example, that also seem to imply that mathematics works in the world. In any case, if the world does not seem to cause itself, and if God does not seem to need it, we might wonder why it exists at all. In other words, is there a reason for its existence that is not necessary and is not self-caused by the world?
Here is where salvation history comes in. God did not create in the beginning a "cosmos" that was pretty much empty of intelligent beings to then look around in His mind to figure out whether He could do something with this empty world. As Aristotle said, what is first in intention is last in execution. What is last in execution is the free association of rational beings who are not God within the inner life of God. Thus, what is first in God's intention is not the "cosmos" minus man, but first man and his purpose which indeed is God. What needs to be added to this account is that God invited man to an end that is in fact higher than human nature by itself could anticipate.
Thus, when Benedict says that the Nativity is the "central event of history," he refers to an event that, in its peculiar form of the Word becoming flesh of Mary, made it possible for this original end to be again achieved. In an event known as the Fall, this initial purpose has been rejected by the First Parents. If it is to be repaired, it has to be repaired taking into account both human freedom and the higher life to which man was called in his actual and initial creation. The immediate preparation of this event constitutes the history as it is recorded in the Old Testament.
The "end of history" remains to be achieved, but through this Incarnation, Birth, and sending of the Apostles to the nations, the means of this completion have been put in motion in the world. The presence of the Church in the world is the locus both of the proper worship of God, as it has been given to us in the Last Supper, and the drama of each person, created for eternal life within his time and place, among those with whom he lives, to decide whether or not he will accept the message that is now in the world, the massage that says, basically, that the Son of God is born and in fact lived among us, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again on the Third Day.
In his Epiphany Homily, Benedict speaks of the light that is Christ in His birth. It is first on the Holy Family, then the local shepherds. Together they are the "remnant of Israel." Next are the Magi. The "rulers of Jerusalem" find out about the birth from these strangers. The news causes them fear, not joy. "The divine plan was mysterious." Why? In large part because it involved and included human freedom. The Pope cites from John in confirmation of this point: "The light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because t heir deeds were wicked" (3:19). The light is in the world. This is what the Pope meant in his book about the world being different because of this Birth. As Aristotle already said, we will not see the truth, the light, if our lives are disordered. We will reject the messenger. This acceptance or rejection constitutes the essential history of our world since this Birth of Christ, indeed, since the creation of man himself..
This light is truth and it is love. "God's love is revealed in the Person of the Incarnate Word." This center brings the completion "the movement already written in the Old Covenant." What is causing these events, these actions, to come about? "The source of this dynamism is God, One in Three Persons, who draws all things and peoples to Himself." Already in His Trinitarian life, the Second Person stands for "universal reconciliation and recapitulation." The manner this aspect of the Godhead was accomplished in the world is through the Cross.
In this sense, Christ is the "ultimate destination of history." It is through Him that the history as it was intended achieves its purpose. This purpose is that those who believe in Him actually achieve eternal life, a central theme in the Pope's encyclical, Spe Salvi. Thus, the Incarnation, Nativity, and Epiphany point to Easter. The entire liturgical year is a recall, a reliving of "the history of salvation whose centre is the Triduum of the crucified Lord, buried, and risen."
Thus, what constitutes salvation, our personal salvation, is "made known" by the Lord through the Church. But it is only made known to each of us if we are prepared and willing to listen to it, then carry it out in our lives and explain it to others as it stands. We do not make it up ourselves. Benedict speaks here of "the Christian paradox." He means that God became man not as some transcendent power or in some political movement, but as a child in a given time and place, a child to whom things happened by the acts of men. "His entry into history is the crowning point of God's revelation of Himself to Israel and to all peoples." What "cannot" be true, namely, that God entered the world as a child, is true. In thinking of how this paradox is so, our minds become more mind.
The "concealment" of God in the Child is the great "manifestation" of God in history. "The Face of the Son faithfully reveals that of the Father." It is interesting how often the notion of the "Face" of God is present in Scripture—how we seek it, to look upon it. Why is this? It is, I think, because, in our very created being, we are constituted to realize that all that we see in the world, in those we know and love, also must eventually reveal a Face, not just an abstraction.
This God is faithful, first to Israel, and through them in the Incarnation "to other peoples." The words are now "grace and fidelity,' "mercy and truth." These are the standards needed by all peoples. But these things are known according to the "method," which passes through the life of Christ as a witness. The Church in gazing at the Epiphany sees that it is a bearer of a message. This is why the word "mission" appears so often at the end of the Scripture. "Go forth, teach all nations," as if all nations cannot be themselves if they do not hear, if they do not seek the Face.
Yet, "By listening to Jesus' words, we members of the Church cannot but become aware of the total inadequacy of our human condition, marked by sin." Nietzsche's scandal that "the last Christian died on the Cross," as he put it, forgets that Christ came to save sinners who yet sin. "The Church is holy, but made up of men and women with their limitations and errors." Christ alone was the sinless One who bore our sins. Unlike Nietzsche, He was not shocked that we sin again. But He did require nothing less than repentance, that is, His forgiveness.
Benedict finally says that Christ is the "ultimate end of history." This latter phrase, "the end of history," became recently an earnest philosophical effort designed to explain how nothing noble was now left for men to do in this world. It not only missed the point of this world, but also what the real end of history is.
The "ultimate end of history" passes through the beginning and the center before reaching its end. What we see also is the mystery that "will" not see, the mystery of iniquity that still obscures our end because we wish to constitute our own content to history. We want it to be less than is given to us for it to be. We do not want to receive a messenger but ourselves to formulate after our own tastes what is the message.
Augustine says that there are three questions that we must ask of created being. We are the created beings who alone can and should ask ourselves such questions. Thus, it seems that the world exists that these questions be asked by those of us who can ask them. The questions are: "Who made it?" "How?" and "Why?" We all know that something is made that we did not ourselves make, ourselves being at the top of our list of beings who can know this by reflecting on our very selves. Augustine answers his own questions. "God." "Through the word." "Because it is good." It would be difficult to be more succinct. The goodness in the world points to that which is itself Good.
And the good that God intends, from the beginning in the whole of creation, is that we each attain eternal life. This eternal life means nothing less than to be in the inner life of the Triune God. This is what the messenger is sent to tell us. This is what depends on our yea or nay that is manifest by how we live, whether in a darkness we choose for ourselves or in the light and love that arose from the Beginning, passed to the Center in Bethlehem, and leads to the End of History.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Columns, Essays, and Book Excerpts:
Christmas, 2008 | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Christmas: Sign of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Theosis: The Reason for the Season | Carl E. Olson
The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson
God Made Visible: On the Foreword to Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"God Is The Issue": The Temptation in the Desert and the Kingdoms of This World | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"The Self-Revelation of God's Reality in History": On the Final Chapter of Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Are We At The End or The Beginning? | Glenn W. Olsen
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.
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