Not all that long ago, during my time in college, I was taking a course on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” one of the most important works of all of Western civilization.
Our professor, a very brilliant man, was speaking about the permanent character of Aristotle’s philosophy — that what Aristotle observed about how we ought to live and govern our conduct as human beings comes from our human nature and the nature of the world in which we live. Those laws that instruct us on how we live and act do not change with the passing of time.
The question arose, “Could anything change these laws, or change human beings in relation to them?”
I am sure that the student was at least thinking of an event that took place some 300 years after the death of Aristotle, namely, the birth of the Son of God, the man Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem.
After pausing a moment, my professor remarked, dryly, “only the Incarnation.” “That’s why,” he continued, “when someone asks me, ‘what’s new?’ I always respond, ‘oh, just the Incarnation.’ ”
As Scripture says, “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
What this means is that without the birth of Jesus into our world, everything remains essentially the same. The same things make us happy, the same things sadden us. We laugh, we cry, we make war, we make peace, we suffer the same diseases, we rejoice at the same events, we create the same kinds of institutions — for better or worse — according to the same human nature we’ve always had and according to the same laws of nature we’ve always followed.
But now, as the Prophet Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1).
This new light, which St. Paul calls “the grace of God” (Titus 2:11), now enables us to see better how to live — how to do more good and how to avoid more evil.
Call to witness new history
There is something truly new when the Christ Child is born — he is totally there, vulnerable, and plain to behold, and so he continues even now through his church and her sacraments. This is truly something new, a new course for human history.
Grace, a participation in the very life of God made possible by Christ’s entry into the human condition, is something that has power to change how we live. Before, and all too often now, a powerful ruler or great philosopher might have been considered the perfect man. But now, a small child completely bound by “swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7) is shown by God to be the perfect man, and in turn shows us how to become perfect.
With Christmas, grace arrives, we can no longer follow only the old rules. We as Christians must live differently than those who still remain in darkness, and we must be vigilant to avoid sinking back into that same darkness. Aristotle and the philosophers are no longer our only guides.
So, when someone asks, “Hey, what’s new?” and we answer cleverly, “Oh, just the Incarnation,” we must be able to back up our cleverness with the witness of our lives.
Do we live in the light, the grace, brought by the Christ Child?
Do we frequent the church’s sacraments, which avail us of that grace?
Do we live beyond the bare minimum of ethics, (“do good and avoid evil”)?
Do we live the truth of Christmas, that the greatest man is the one who humbles himself?
Christmas must change us. Everything is new under the Son.
Deacon Ben Little is in formation for the priesthood at The St. Paul Seminary for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. His home parish is St. John in Little Canada and his teaching parish is St. Anthony of Padua in Minneapolis.
Sunday, Dec. 25, Christmas Day
• Isaiah 52:7-10
• Hebrews 1:1-6
• John 1:1-18
How are you living in the light and grace of the Christ Child?