26 December 2017
A Great Deal
Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
My dad gave me one dollar bill
‘Cause I’m his smartest son,
And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
‘Cause two is more than one!
And then I took the quarters
And traded them to Lou
For three dimes — I guess he don’t know
That three is more than two!
Just then, along came old blind Bates
And just ‘cause he can’t see
He gave me four nickels for my three dimes,
And four is more than three!
And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs
Down at the seed-feed store,
And the fool gave me five pennies for them,
And five is more than four!
And then I went and showed my dad,
And he got red in the cheeks
And closed his eyes and shook his head—
Too proud of me to speak!
Obviously the kid in this poem thinks he’s making a good deal, because he trades one for two, two for three, three for four, and four for five, when in fact he’s making a bad deal, because everything he trades for has less value than what he had before.
What we celebrate today in Christmas is a great deal for humanity, and maybe makes God seem like the boy in Shel Silverstein’s poem, but is really God showing His love for us. It is what St. Augustine, the saint depicted in the icon to the far right, described as admirabile commercium, or the admirable or great exchange. And the exchange is that God take flesh in Jesus so that we can become one with God in Jesus. St. Athanasius, the saint depicted in the icon to the left of the tabernacle, said it this way in his work on the Incarnation: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
This theme is taken up in the Prayer over the Offerings at the Christmas Mass at Night: “May the oblation of this day’s feast be pleasing to you, O Lord, we pray, that through this most holy exchange we may be found in the likeness of Christ, in whom our nature is united to you. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.” And that same theme is re-echoed in our preface, the prayer that begins our Eucharistic Prayer: “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor: when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal.” And, as the Collect, or Opening Prayer of the Christmas Mass during the Day says, “we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
This is kind of a bum deal for God. He’s definitely trading down. God who is not limited in any way, in the Person of Jesus can be located in one place at one time, and is limited in His human nature by external forces, like gravity and the material world. God, who cannot suffer, can, in the Person of Jesus, get a splinter and stub His toe, and be nailed to a cross, bleed, and die. God, who knows all things and sees all things, must learn how to talk and has eyes that cannot see everything at once. This is not to say that Jesus is not God, or that Jesus loses His divinity, but that Jesus, who is infinite, assumes our humanity, which is finite. He humbles Himself, and, as St. Paul says, takes the form of a slave.
We, on the other hand, are joined to God in Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are united to divinity and are placed on a trajectory towards eternal happiness even though we start in this world as in a vale of tears. We gain the opportunity of becoming, in heaven, impassable, that is to say, we cannot suffer, and not being limited by time and space, and being enveloped by perfect love, joy, and light. That’s a great deal for us.
But God does not begrudgingly enter into this admirable exchange. He is not forced into in by any way by any person. God sees us in our weakness and fallen state, and rushes down to strengthen and save us, raising us up to realms of light and glory in heaven.
The deal is not automatic. We don’t automatically get the deal just by being born. We don’t even automatically get the deal just by being baptized. We have to say yes to the deal, to give God our lives, and to accept His life as our own. Each day, each hour, each minute we have to make that conscious choice of whether or not we are going to participate in the best deal ever offered.
Every time I celebrate Mass, I mix a drop of water into the wine, and say the prayer, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Our challenge, this Christmas season and always, is to live out what happens under those signs of water and wine, to unite ourselves to Christ by what we do and what we say. That is how we show God how grateful we are for the great exchange. Today we recall that the Son of God became man for us. May we respond to the great deal of salvation, so that we might become God.