Why God Became Man
The Nativity of the Lord

Douglas P. McManaman
Christmas Eve 2015
Reproduced with Permission

Most of us have heard of Socrates; he's the grandfather of philosophical wisdom and a teacher who inspired many. One of his students went on to become one of the greatest thinkers in intellectual history, namely Plato of Athens. Socrates was puzzled when he heard that the Oracle at Delphi said he was the wisest man in all of Athens, for he was only too aware that he had no wisdom of which to boast. But he knew that God does not lie, so he set out to test the Oracle by interviewing all those most reputed for their wisdom and learning. What he eventually discovered was that the Oracle was right, he is indeed the wisest man in all of Athens; for all those with great reputation for wisdom and learning really knew nothing, but they didn't know that they know nothing. Socrates understood that he too knows nothing, but he is wiser than the rest in that he knows that he knows nothing, and it is in this knowledge that he is wiser than everyone else.

And that's really what the greatest thinkers in human history eventually discover. The more they learn, the more they come to know how little they know; there is an ever growing frontier of ignorance that accompanies every advance in learning.

We've all heard the expression: "If I received a nickel for every time I made a mistake, I'd be a rich man". Let's modify this slightly: If we were given a nickel for every time we were wrong about something, we'd be rich, each one of us. However, if we were given a nickel for every time we became explicitly aware that we were mistaken and acknowledged it, very few of us would be rich. Human beings tend not to be aware of the limitations of human knowing; we tend not to be aware of how little we actually know, or that what we think we know is really not knowledge at all.

It's hard for us to become aware of our errors, but if we pay attention to our own day to day reasoning, we'll discover that we are wrong for most of the day. We predict the weather and election outcomes, we make inferences about people we know very little about, and those turn out to be wrong for the vast majority of cases; we make inferences about people's guilt or innocence, usually with little information, and what is worse is that we do so with great confidence. And when we are wrong, which is most often, we allow it to drift from memory; when we are right, we delight in the fact and file it in our memory and convince ourselves that it was more than luck.

We assume that what we read in the newspapers is accurate. And yet those on the inside usually tell us otherwise. For example, a friend of mine in medical research assures me that 99% of the medical studies we read about in newspapers, i.e., those that tell us that eating or drinking this and that is bad for you, etc., are faulty and should not be trusted. When those studies are finally disproved, no one hears about it, because the purpose of citing them in the first place was to stimulate interest and to get us to buy that paper--whether it was true or not is immaterial. And this too is something I have experienced when I found myself reading about a situation that I knew well from the inside. What struck me was how distorted the story was; I thought, anyone reading this article is walking away misinformed. And yet we often feel well informed after reading a newspaper.

If we study the history of science, what is remarkable is how many theories turned out to be wrong, and what is also remarkable is how much work it took to finally establish those theories that were true. This is true for the history of philosophy as well. Knowledge is very difficult to acquire. Young students think it is easy, because they learn quite a bit in the course of a semester, but what they do learn in a semester took centuries for the greatest thinkers to discover. Newton and Leibniz invented calculus, and it has been developing for over 300 years. Discovering it and working out the details is time consuming and hard work and it takes centuries, but once you understand it, teaching it to others is relatively easy, at least much easier than discovering it.

What all this points to is the sluggishness of human intelligence. Truths that are simple, clear, and beautiful have taken us centuries to discover, and that time includes within it a myriad of errors. The point is we are very slow. The glory of man is not intelligence; that's the glory of the angels. An angel is a pure intelligence, without a body. The intelligence of an angel is unencumbered by sense perception, time, and the fragility of memory. Although man is the highest creature on the hierarchy of beings in the physical universe, man is the lowest creature on the hierarchy of God's intellectual creatures. We are at the bottom rung of the ladder. The glory of man is not intelligence; it can't be--we are wrong in the vast majority of the judgments we make and for the vast majority of our lives--; rather, the glory of man is humility.

The very word 'human' comes from the Latin word ' humous ', from which the word humility is derived as well. Humous means soil or dirt. A human being comes from the soil (is composed of matter) and will return to the soil when he dies, and a humble man remembers that he is dust and ashes. The word 'humour' also comes from humous ; the person with a sense of humour takes himself lightly and is able to laugh at his own blunders and mistakes--he has his feet firmly planted on the ground. The proud man takes himself seriously and does not laugh at himself so easily. He is high off the ground, as we see in expressions such as 'he's on his high horse', or 'walking high and mighty'.

This is the great lesson human beings have to learn; that our glory is humility, not intelligence. Wisdom is the result of having a great deal of experience in being wrong, and only those with memory can benefit from such experience; everyone is wrong most of the time, but so few there are who remember it, who do not suppress the experience and who will instead reflect upon it.

In this gospel reading, the Word becomes flesh. The Logos , which in Greek means the Word, the source of all Understanding, who is God and who is unlimited knowledge, enters into the darkness of human ignorance. He joins a human nature to himself in order to show us what it means to be 'man'. God joins himself to every stage of human development; He becomes a baby. The Logos , through whom all things came into existence, becomes a vulnerable, dependent and ignorant baby. That is an astounding thing to think about.

What is God telling us? If God can become a child, so can we; he said: "…unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". Children are not "know-it-alls". They have a love of learning, they are open, and they are not proud. They are pure of heart and because of that purity, they can achieve tremendous heights of understanding. But as we get older, disordered passion blinds the mind; sin darkens the intellect.

God the Son became man to show us how to be man. He calls us to become poor in spirit, to depend on Him completely, to become pure of heart, to hunger and thirst for what is right, to pray often in silence, to allow ourselves to be taught by God. We hear so much about leadership today, especially in education. Students are told that they need to be leaders. But all great leaders were first followers--that's the difference between the true leader and the pseudo leaders with which the world is filled. A true leader is a follower first, and Christ calls us to be followers: to follow him. A leader that does not follow him walks in the dark; he or she is the blind leading the blind. To follow him is to allow him to lead, to give up control of our lives and to realize that God alone is in control. To follow him is to allow him to shape our moral identity (character).

Man is not meant to lead without following. He is the most inferior of God's intellectual creatures, like the youngest child in a family of older siblings. The Shepherds were told by the angels where the child can be found; they followed instructions, and that's why they found the child, and the three wise men followed a star that led them to the child. They were led, and they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod--they didn't figure that out for themselves. The glory of man is the humility to recognize that we are little more than humous , matter and spirit and the willingness to allow ourselves to be led, to be guided, to be led to Christ and to allow ourselves to become Christ more fully by feeding on his body and blood until his image has been completely formed within us. He alone is the truth of man, and it is in him that we discover who we really are and find the joy of human existence.