By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
An elderly priest recounted to me a conversation he once had with a devout Muslim. The primary topic of their friendly dialogue was the identity of Jesus. When the priest had finished explaining the mystery of the Incarnation (that is, of God becoming fully human in Christ) as best he could, the Muslim snapped in response, “Why would God do that?” In Islamic theology, such a stooping on the part of God to our pitiful, sinful, mortal level is a blasphemous thought, one scandalously and entirely unworthy of the almighty and majestic God.
The Muslim’s question is a valuable one for us to ponder, especially during our Advent journey: “Why would God do that?” Phrased a bit differently, “Why would God bother with us weak-willed egocentric creatures to the extreme extent of sharing our fleshly burden?” The proper answer, I think, is summed up in the word philanthropy. When you read that word just now, you probably imagined a fat oil tycoon doling out his pocket change millions at a self-glorifying press conference, establishing some grand fund for the promotion of tolerance or wind energy or ugly paintings. That is indeed the way the word is used today; a philanthropist is considered a benefactor of the human race, a true connoisseur of life. But the word’s current meaning is not the sense it had amongst Greek speakers long ago. Philanthropy, quite literally, means “love of humanity.” Perhaps with this knowledge, you can already see why the Incarnation is essentially, and beautifully, a matter of divine philanthropy.
Saint Paul uses the word to explain the mystery of the Incarnation in his letter to Titus:
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, hateful ourselves and hating one another. But when the goodness and philanthropy of God our Savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).
Most translations of this passage read “love” or “generosity” instead of “philanthropy,” but the love that the author highlights includes precisely the reason why God bothered with the Incarnation in the first place: it was his love of mankind and his mercy that saved us from our misery. God is the ultimate humanitarian, the great philanthropist.
The depth of God’s philanthropy is revealed most perfectly in the size of the gift. The infinite riches poured out by God on the earth are carried in the tiniest of purses: an infant child, a Word that will not be spoken publicly for thirty years. We might have expected something cataclysmic, a stunning theophany (or at the very least, some wicked cool pyrotechnics) announcing that God has finally decided to make His presence felt on the earth. What we found instead was, as St. Ignatius of Antioch put it around the year 110, “three mysteries of a cry wrought in the silence of God”: Mary’s virginity, the miraculous birth of Jesus, and his death, all of which escaped the notice of the prince of this world.
God indeed is a lover of humanity in the abstract, but the gift of the Incarnation is personalized for each of us. The mystery of Christmas lies in this graced tension between “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16) and the divine desire to seek you out. Nothing you can say or do makes you worthy to receive such a singular gift; but now that the infant Word images God in the same way that you do, you are invited to rejoice in accepting the gift of God’s philanthropy for us all, and for you personally.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.