“At a Moment of His Own Choosing”

The Breviary for December 23, two days before Christmas, contains a passage from the early third-century Roman priest, Saint Hippolytus. It concerns the heresy of one Noetus. Hippolytus was from Smyrna in Asia Minor. He managed to get around the Mediterranean world. Why, we might wonder, is such a passage found so near Christmas? It has to do with who and exactly what Jesus is.

Noetus followed the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the poet Hesiod. In their light, all things are in a constant flux. Noetus understood John’s Gospel to read that the Father became His Son and suffered for our sins. The human mind seems perennially tempted, in order to praise God, to deny the world and the distinctions in things. Logically, this approach also denies any distinction within the Godhead itself.

Hippolytus tells us that only one God exists. Scripture is clear on this point. Here is how Hippolytus initially explains the Trinity: “The Father wills, thinking of the Son in the way the Father wills, and accepting the teaching He wills to give us with regard to the Holy Spirit.” At first this might sound like the Father decides to “create” the Son.

“Sacred Scripture is God’s gift to us and should be understood in the way that He intends: we should not do violence to it by interpreting it according to our own preconceived ideas.” Good advice, this. We run into trouble if we impose our ideas on God so that, in the end, He looks like us. But we are in His image.

“God was all alone and nothing existed but Himself when He determined to create the world.” This passage is only true if we keep in mind that the philosophical “aloneness” of God, which Aristotle postulated, did not know of the inner personal life within the Trinity. But it is true: “He thought of it (the cosmos), willed it, spoke the word and so made it. It came into being instantaneously, exactly as He had willed it.” This view sounds very scientific somehow.

“It is enough for us to be aware of a single fact: nothing is co-eternal with God.” We might add, “except what is within the Godhead.” This background brings Hippolytus to the Son: “All things were in Him and He Himself was all. At a moment of His own choosing and in a manner determined by Himself, God manifested His Word, and through Him He made the universe.” This affirmation is why we say that the world, the cosmos, itself contains an order that is within it, but one that originates in God. This order is what we find when we investigate to learn about it and why things work as they do – and not just as we will.

Madonna and Child by Filippino Lippi (1484) [Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Madonna and Child by Filippino Lippi (1484) [Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Within the Godhead, this Word was “hidden” to the world. By sending His own Son, the Father “sent His own mind into the world as the Lord.” That is a striking statement. He sent the Logos, through whom the world was created, into the world. God made Him visible so that the world might see Him: “This mind that entered our world was made known as the Son of God. All things came into being through Him; but He alone is begotten by the Father.”

The Law and the Prophets come to us from the Son. Those who followed the Son are filled with the Holy Spirit. “Inspired by the Father’s power, they (the disciples), were to proclaim the Father’s purpose and His will.”

“So the Word was made manifest, as Saint John declares when, summing up all the sayings of the prophets, He announces that this is the Word through whom the whole universe was made.”

God always manifests Himself at a moment of “His own choosing,” in a manner “determined by Himself.” We know now one “moment of His choosing” – in the time of Caesar Augustus, when the whole world was “at peace.” We know the place – the Child is born in Bethlehem of Judea. He eventually suffered, died, and rose again. Noetus solved the problem of suffering by making the Father suffer, by Himself being all things in flux including His own Son.

So why do we concern ourselves with Hippolytus, Noetus, and Heraclitus at Christmas? If we do not think correctly, we will not believe correctly. If we do not believe correctly, we usually will not think correctly.

By sending the Son into the world, the Father “sent His own mind into the world as Lord.” Simeon said later, in the Temple, that he had now “seen” the Salvation “with his own eyes” prepared “in the sight of every people.” What we are to “see” with our eyes and minds is the “mind” sent into the world, the Logos, the Lord, the Word made flesh.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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