One of the stories I like to tell about how my formal study of theology has paid off is when, several years ago, a reporter covering the annual diocesan retreat wrote that the priest giving the presentation said we Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is fully human. This is true. What the priest apparently didn’t say, and perhaps didn’t think was necessary in the context of a talk about Christ coming at Christmas, was that we believe that Jesus Christ also is fully divine.
Because at the time I was immersed in a class devoted to Christology, it immediately occurred to me that the reporter’s story needed to be edited to say that Catholics believe Christ is both fully God and fully man.
The early Church took some time to establish the tenet of the hypostatic union, which is the technical term that describes the joining of Jesus’ two natures. Docetism and Apollinarism and other heresies objected to the idea that Jesus could be both human and divine. Instead, they posited various arguments, such as that Jesus was fully divine and merely appeared to be human; or that he, although divine and born of flesh, didn’t have a human soul and so wasn’t fully human.
These heresies give some insight into how some of my own preferences can lead me down the wrong theological path. For example, I prefer to think of Jesus as, well, Christ – a title that literally means anointed one and, by extension, messiah. In Jewish religious thought, the Christ is the king who is to come to save them from their oppressors and rule the world. And we Catholics do believe that Jesus is in fact the Christ who will save us, not necessarily from worldly persecution but from sin and death, and that at the Second Coming he will reign as king for ever and ever.
What is harder for me to think about is Jesus as a human baby. Oh, we have wonderful Nativity scenes that depict him laid in a manager, smiling up at Mary and Joseph and shepherds and wise men and oxen and asses and sheep, but despite the humble setting I see very little that’s earthly – like Christ’s diaper. The Bible does tell us that the babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, but there’s no mention of the needs a real infant would have: to be nursed, to be comforted, to have his diaper changed.
All this came to mind as I was perusing Dining with the Saints by Father Leo Patalinghug and Michael P. Foley. For Advent, the book gives a recipe for a pastry called Christ’s Diapers, and the accompanying reflection reads: “We broach heresy when we forget that God truly became man, like us in all things but sin. A diaper may not sound appetizing, but it is a vivid reminder of Jesus’s complete humanity. …”
Reflecting on Christ’s divinity allows me to focus on his power and glory, his miracles and might. I can pray to him for grace and healing and peace for myself and for the world. I am much comforted by the fact that while I need him, he doesn’t need me.
Jesus the man is a different proposition altogether. He is the one I am called to feed when he is hungry, to shelter when he is homeless, to visit when he is sick or in prison, to give alms when he is in need.
In the Gospel reading just last Sunday we heard Jesus say, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” All that we do for our brethren addresses human needs that Jesus once had – he was a poor, itinerant preacher who required food, water, clothing and shelter, just as his brethren do today. Reflecting on Christ’s humanity reminds me to seek him in these brethren, and this Advent I pray that my eyes be opened so that I will find him there.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.