The Wisdom of Man and the Foolishness of God

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The Feast of the Nativity, known sometimes in Orthodoxy as “the Winter Pascha,” is one of the great examples in the story of our salvation where the “foolishness of God” defeats the wisdom of man. It is not the story of an underdog defeating the mighty, but a revelation of who God is, and who we are – and what our salvation is all about. Nothing in the story of our salvation is accidental or incidental. All of it proclaims the Gospel.

The story of the Nativity is utterly shrouded in the cloak of weakness. In our own time we understand just how vulnerable is the life of an unborn child – apart from extreme old age, it is the most vulnerable time of our existence. Christ is incarnate as an unborn child in a world where infant mortality would have been astronomical by our modern standards. He becomes the most vulnerable of all human forms. The God of the universe, to use modern scientific terminology, becomes a Zygote.

Nurtured and sustained through the pregnancy – itself fraught with anxiety and questioning – his birth becomes an event which must take second place to the needs of the state. A census was ordered, and his mother and foster father make a journey that is difficult in the best of times (the lay of the land between Nazareth and Bethlehem is a constant negotiation of desert hill country.

The greeting in Bethlehem is less than kind for a babe in the womb. In a crowded village, his mother is forced to take refuge in a barn – indeed, in a cave which is used to house animals. Nothing could be more removed from the modern cocoon of sterility that greets the newborn. Born into our world, his first bed is a manger – a place where animals take their food.

It is not for nothing that the icon of the Nativity is written in such a way that everything mirrors Christ’s later descent into Hades. The cave – everything – shares a common semi-non-existence with the shadow world of Hades. Indeed, He who would become the Bread of the World finds his first resting place in a manger (“manger” comes from the word for “to chew”). Bread of the world, He is born to be eaten.

Greeted by angels, shepherds and wise men, his birth goes largely unnoticed – except by the authorities who seek to kill Him.

I have stood near the cave of St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and seen the recently excavated graves of the Holy Innocents. There are a mass of infant burials, clearly made in haste, with evidence of violence, all dating to the first century. It is not a Biblical myth but a crime scene as gruesome as any that we could imagine. This is the Wisdom of Man.

The Wisdom of Man measures strength and power by the ability to administer brute force. Whether a sword or  nuclear weapon – power is defined by physics. Were the power that confronted us measured in the same manner, victory could be as simple as a mathematical equation. But the power of God, the Wisdom of God, that confronted King Herod and all the so-called “rulers” of this world, belonged to a realm that is wholly other.

The “beachhead”, if your will, of the coming of Christ and His kingdom, was the human heart – not territory nor judicial power. As noted by later Orthodox writers – the battleground between God and the devil is the human heart. It is into that human heart that Christ was born in Bethlehem: first into the heart of His mother – who “pondered” all these things. Then into the heart of His foster father, who provided a heart of welcome to a child not of his own fathering. Then into the heart of shepherds and wise men, who were simple and wise enough to hear the voice of angels and to obey the movements of the stars.

Joseph would take this weak Child into Egypt and await God’s direction before returning home. Mary would continue her motherly watch, uniting herself with her child in body and soul. She fed Him at her breast, as He fed her in her heart.

Years later, Pontius Pilate would face this Child/Man, and hear that His kingdom “was not of this world.” He did not believe and committed Him to crucifixion as if this world could destroy the Lord of heaven and earth. But in the most decisive manner the wisdom of man was shown to be foolishness – empty of strength and incapable of giving life.

Anybody can kill. The drive to non-being is a parasite – relying on Being itself to give it pseudo-credibility. The wisdom of man grows out of the barrel of a gun and always has (guns, arrows, swords, sticks and stones). Only God can give life and His gift always appears paradoxically weak in the eyes of the world. He is born in a manger and weeps in the night. He hides in Egypt and lies dead in a tomb. But as kingdoms crumble and the wise men of this world pass into dust, the Babe of Bethlehem reigns as God and continues to be born in the cave and emptiness  of human hearts – where the meek and the lowly find rest, and life everlasting.

17 Responses to “The Wisdom of Man and the Foolishness of God”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The star in the cave of Bethlehem, marks the traditional site on which Christ was born. The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest in the Holy Land. When the Persians invaded in 618, they destroyed all but three Churches. They spared the Church in Bethlehem (erected by St. Helena in the 4th century), because in its mosaics, they saw Persians (the wise men) and chose not to destroy it. Like the Nativity itself, God has hidden and preserved the Church.

  2. Barbara Says:

    Father Stephen, thank you so much for these words. Your site is always a blessing, but these words in particular made me weep. Thank you again and may God continue to bless your ministry.

  3. Deb Seeger Says:

    It is humbling to read this and realize that God’s wisdom is also more often than not foolishness to us mortal man , who sees in part, hears in part and understands in part. Independence rises up all too frequently—wanting to understand instead of just trust, wait and follow. I am thankful for your insight and compassion.

  4. Marcus Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m struck by the language used when you talk of Christ coming to be eaten. I suppose I never thought of it that way, and shocked me a bit. I’ve always thought of the communing event over the actual “eating act” I suppose I could call it. Could the two be considered separate, or are they both the same in the context of the Eucharist? By eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood, we commune with Christ, correct? Forgive my former Roman Catholic ways if I’m getting too scholastic on you!

  5. zoe Says:

    May God Bless us all. Thank you Fr. Stephen for this post which relates another paradox of the mysteries of God. As a former protestant, it was also uncomfortable for me to relate to the “eating” of Christs’s body and “drinking” of His blood. It sounded like a taboo phrase but yet this was exactly what the Lord Jesus said, (St. John 6:53-58.) “Then Jesus said unto them, verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.” This phrase was quite offensive even in our Lord Jesus time, when He said this to the multitude of His followers that many of them stopped. St John 6:66 says, “From that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him.” I never understood the significance of the manger except for the fact that it is where the baby Jesus rested, now I understand that it prefigures Christ’s Role in the world and in the lives of
    Christians.

  6. zoe Says:

    I meant to thank you Fr. Stephen for my new insight about the manger where the baby Lord Jesus Laid.
    God Bless.

  7. Damaris Says:

    Father Stephen —

    You mentioned a new archaeological dig that has found the bodies of the Holy Innocents. National Geographic’s recent edition has an article about Herod the Great and seems skeptical about the slaughter of the innocents. I’d like to know more about this discovery. Do you have a link or reference?

    Thank you!

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Marcus,

    It is shocking and yet very much the Biblical phrase. In the Church the Discos (Paten) on which the bread is placed for the Eucharist always has the Nativity icon engraved on it.

    In the French translation of Scripture, the word for “eat” in “take, eat, this is my body…” is mangez from the same word as manger. The writer of the Gospel not only tells us the story, but includes the elements that give us the meaning of the story. The Scripture is an icon, according to the Fathers. Christ is placed in a manger, precisely because He is the one who comes to be eaten. He is the bread of the world, of which, unless a man eats he has no life in him. Of course it contains the understanding of communion as well – but it does say, “Take, commune.” but “take, eat.” The scandal is in the Scripture.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Damaris,

    I was there and our guide gave us the information on these recent excavations. But I have no reference outside of being there. I’ll look for one.

  10. Steve Says:

    The shewbread in the language of the OT (Lechem HaPānīm in Hebrew) is literally, the Bread of the Presence offered to God (HaShem) by man.

    In the NT, Jesus Christ becomes the shewbread — He is God sacrificing Himself for man. By definition, this is both the first real (or full) sacrifice, and the last.

  11. Steve Says:

    Never thought of the manger as a Tabernacle, but that is what it was!

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    It is interesting – as an aside – that Orthodox piety with regard to our Lord’s Body and Blood differs somewhat from that which developed in the Western Church. Generally, although the sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle on the altar, Orthodox devotion is not directed towards the sacrament but towards the altar itself.

    There is no service as in West such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, particularly where the Lord’s Body is exposed for public view.

    The Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent, is perhaps the closest devotionally. The liturgy is celebrated with consecrated sacrament from the Sunday Liturgy (for there are no celebrations of the Divine Liturgy allowed on the weekdays of Great Lent in Eastern Tradition). In the procession, which is made in complete silence, everyone in the Church remains prostrate on the floor as the priest comes forth from the altar carrying the Lord’s Body. We are not supposed to look up and see anything. Besides, the Lord’s Body is veiled as it comes forth and cannot be seen.

    Once on the altar, at the point in which in a normal liturgy the Lord’s Body would be elevated (at the word’s “Holy Things are for the Holy”), in the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, the veil remains over the gifts, and the priest reaches his hand beneath the veil and lightly touches the Lord’s Body and says, “The Pre-sanctified Things are for the Holy.”

    Of course in both the Pre-sanctified Liturgy and in the Sunday Liturgy, the Holy gifts are brought out of the altar and fed to the people. As I was instructed, in Orthodox piety, the primary point of the Liturgy is not to look at Christ’s Body and Blood but to eat and drink them, according to His Divine command.

    Interesting.

  13. Steve Says:

    More than words can say!

  14. Moses Says:

    A post that truly inspires Divine contemplation of the Incarnation of Christ! Thank you Father!

  15. PJ Says:

    I never heard about this excavation, father. Do you have any more information?

  16. dinoship Says:

    The Greek word for manger “φάτνη”, just like the word food “φαγητό” also probably comes from the ancient word “πατέομαι” ( I am eating something along with others) or the word “ἔφαγον” (I have eaten)

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    PJ,
    I only know what I saw and was told by our guide(s). It is a place in which pilgrims place the names of holy innocents (children who died in abortions or miscarriages and infancy) on slips of paper and cast them there. It is quite moving.

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