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Faith: Might in divine weakness

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent   |   Dec. 23, 2002 at 6:21 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Self-reduction is what Christmas is all about. Properly understood, it should be the opposite of hubris, which theologian Paul Tillich ranked alongside unbelief and concupiscence (desire) as a key expression of human sin.

Actually, there are two kinds of self-reduction, the human and the divine. They are in fact opposed to each other. In this year's pre-Christmas season, human beings, fearful of the wobbly economy, made themselves small by stinting charities, especially the Salvation Army, which is now short of its Advent expectations.

By turning a dollar three times before dropping one into the Salvationists' kettle, man sacrifices much of his own relevance. Human self-reduction thus translates into an unattractive kind of frailty -- unattractive because it lacks humility.

Contrast this with the divine act of self-reduction we celebrate this Christmas, a concept unmatched by any other religion or philosophy and yet often poorly understood by Christians themselves.

In the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican's pre-eminent theologian, the hitherto-invisible God in all his omnipotence makes himself visible by becoming a helpless baby. "Yet enlightened as we are," Ratzinger wrote in a Christmas sermon, "we don't grant him the omnipotence to know each and every one of us, to concern himself with our fates, and therefore to make himself minute."

This idea, continued Ratzinger, strikes us as far too bold; hence, we push it aside.

But it has been for 2,000 years the basic statement of the Gospel, and the more carefully we study it, the more breathtaking it becomes. For who is it who made himself small "pro me" -- for me -- as Martin Luther phrased it? Who is this Christ?

He is the one through whom all things are made, as we read on Christmas Eve in the prologue to the Gospel of John. To preclude any misunderstanding, the apostle reiterates: "Without him nothing was made." (John 1:3).

This is not just John's theological idiosyncrasy. Paul makes the same point about the pre-existent Christ: "In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth." (Colossians 1:16). And the unknown writer of the Letter to the Hebrews stated: "Through him he (God) created the world."

This thought is so mind-boggling that it makes one wonder how Christmas could ever have been allowed to degenerate into the kitsch we see on television and in the malls: The most unimaginable force, the Logos, the world-ordering aspect of God, lies there in diapers in a crib, and some 30 years later will be nailed to the cross.

This is true divine strength, which shows up Christian stinginess or the nuclear posturing of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il as ludicrous displays of false power that are in reality expressions of weakness.

The notion that God's own creative power takes on human flesh and accepts the punishment for humanity's estrangement from him -- a condition we call sin -- may well be too overwhelming for post-Enlightenment minds, which have lost their sense of awe.

But God's grandeur, as opposed to human frailty, shows in the very fact that despite this snub God continues to use man as his partner in the ongoing process of creation. "My Father is working still, and I am working," Jesus said (John 5:17). By inference, so do all humans because this is what they have been created for -- as partners.

Should anyone question a man's or woman's authorship of his or her work, that person would react with understandable fury. That's human. By nature we don't appreciate being made small.

But the God of Christianity reacts in the reverse way. As we in North America and Europe have become too grand to accept him, he continues to make himself small again and again to become visible to and embraceable by those whose lives are seemingly small -- in China, Africa and Latin America.

In discussing this continuous divine act of self-reduction, a friend remarked, "Isn't this the perfect metaphor for love?" It surely is in human relations when the peacock phase is over and the lovers continue to delight in serving each other.

This is not the self-reduction of a latter-day Scrooge but emulates divine self-reduction. That's called discipleship, which is what the Christmas story teaches us, namely love.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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