‘Tis not the season for arguments, but rather for warmth, generosity, family, fellowship, even a little indulgence of what at times can be dangerous – sentimentality. And Christmas is not only December 25 – in the traditional Christian dispensation – but an Octave (8 days, ending January 1). Prior to Vatican II, observances could last as long as 20 or 40 days (and still do for the Traditional Latin Mass, until the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple).
As was – and is – only fitting, since it’s not every day that the God who made Heaven and earth, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the long-awaited Messiah, becomes man and dwells among us.
But other days come, eventually. And in our current culture, the question in the title above arises, inevitably, for a growing number, even during Christmas. That question is, of course, related to another – later in the story: Who do men say that I am?
Not for us simply, as for Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:68–69) For many people today, even many who “identify” as Christian, the default answer now is, at bottom, “I don’t really know.”
Failure to provide a solid Christian education in almost all the churches, and now widespread and mistaken assumptions about Scripture and science, have taken their toll. There’s so much in the air that gets in the way of belief, even before we get to contested moral questions, that many of us don’t even know where to start.
But there are very many good guides. And in the spirit of the season, here are just a few outright gifts for any Christian trying to see more clearly, or for all seekers, inside or outside the Catholic Church.
One of the persistent falsehoods that Scripture scholars have spread – and is now commonly heard among people not much concerned to investigate – is that “Jesus never claimed to be God.” And anyway, the four Gospels that have come down to us under the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not written by them, but are the result of a kind of children’s game of “telephone,” where a message passed from one person to the next acquires distortions and additions that grossly misrepresent the original meaning.
In this view, they aren’t, therefore, reliable accounts. (The Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, blithely observed a few years ago that since there were no tape recorders in Jesus’ day, we don’t really know what he said – even on important matters like marriage. And he’s far from the only one for whom that’s a sort of default position.)
Sed contra, there’s Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, a lucid and approachable review of real facts. For instance, though many scholars assume the Gospels are later fabrications from disparate sources, there are no early documents, even fragments, that attribute the Gospels to anyone other than the four figures we know. And those four were demonstrably close to the events and people who witnessed them.
It’s actually the theories of mostly 19th-century scholars that are false, concocted from mistaken assumptions about what “must” have been the case. A growing number of academics have realized that the theories – which lean heavily on materialist and naturalistic principles – ignored or distorted the evidence that we have.
Further, Pitre addresses the main question: Did Jesus Himself claim to be God? The answer is: Yes, but He did so not by saying so “baldly,” in a way that would have convinced no one, but in keeping with the Jewish mentality of his day. It’s worth reading this book for the evidence Pitre marshals on this point alone – though there’s much more in this brief book that every serious Christian today needs to understand to resist and reform our skeptical culture – alas, even within the Church.
Okay, so Jesus claimed to be God, and, over the centuries, many have taken Him at his word. But what about that Trinity stuff? Why and how did God become man?
Dominican Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God, just published this year, provides serious answers to the questions that can be answered, and brilliantly explores the divine “mysteries” – mysteries, by definition, being realities that we encounter but cannot be “explained” by mere human reason (To “know” God fully, for example, you would have to be God, a limit on our understanding that reason itself can see is reasonable). There’s no better recent guide to these knotty matters for anyone ready to take the deep dive into the revelation of the Triune God.
Finally, a lot of readers, in these troubled days in both Rome and the larger world, ask how are we to understand the Catholic Church as the one true vessel willed by God for our salvation? Interactions in our globalized age among many cultures and religions have led us to believe that there is much good in other forms of Christianity, even in the “other mansions” where God may be partially at work. So, to put it bluntly, why the Catholic Church and all those rules and dogmas?
Here, the answer depends on what you’re looking for. If it’s just the general case, Scott Hahn’s 2007 Reasons to Believe is still a good general treatment. Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J.’s trilogy Called Out of Darkness – a polymath’s eccentric but brilliant coverage of a multitude of modern questions – is an ambitious but rewarding read. And Charles Camosy’s just published One Church: How to Rekindle Trust, Negotiate Difference, and Reclaim Catholic Unity goes a long way towards resolving things that deeply divide and disturb us in the Church today.
All of this is the barest beginning, of course, to understanding what Child this is whose birth we’re about to celebrate. And whose Incarnation will never cease to fascinate as long as human beings roam the earth.
*Image: Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, 1481 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]. Da Vinci was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato in Scopeto (just outside the city walls of Florence), but, as he often did, Leonardo left for a richer commission at the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan. He never returned to Florence to complete the Adoration.
You may also enjoy:
Ven. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s From Eternity, Not From Time
Bob Royal’s He Brings True Peace – and a Sword