We often hear around Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 7) that Jesus wasn’t (take your pick) God, human or real.

There are “news” accounts and “journalistic” pieces about how this or that scholar, novelist or crackpot has discovered that Jesus was really an Egyptian high priest, an African witch doctor or a neo-Marxist political activist.

This came to mind as I was recently teaching a weekly Bible study at my parish. This past summer, we decided to study part one of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — a sort of Catholic Theology 101. It has been a revealing experience.

A few weeks ago, while discussing the Incarnation, I asked this question: “Did Jesus Christ exist from all of eternity?” The nearly unanimous response was, “Yes! Of course he did.” Wrong! Yes, the Son — the second person of the Holy Trinity — has existed from all of eternity. But Jesus, a man from Nazareth, came into being when Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. “[T]he one name that contains everything is the one that the Son of God received in his incarnation: Jesus” (Catechism, No. 2666).

I’m not concerned that anyone in my class is a heretic for not answering the question correctly. Rather, I wanted to emphasize that seemingly esoteric theological points can have serious ramifications. This is something I know from my own experience, having questioned my own assumptions at different times — and then having to make important decisions based on the answers I found.

Good examples of this, as former evangelical Protestants often note, can be found in questions about the Church’s teachings about Mary. For instance, why does the Catholic Church (as well as the Eastern Orthodox churches) give Mary the title of Theotokos, the Mother of God? The common reaction to this, especially among Christian fundamentalists, is that such a title ascribes a blasphemous position to Mary, paramount to saying that she somehow is somehow equal or even above the Triune God.

But, of course, this ancient teaching is not some crafty bit of Mary worship. It’s a logical and biblical conclusion that properly exalts Mary’s Son and protects this essential fact: Jesus is both God and man, both human and divine in nature, while one in his personhood.

My pastor likes to point out that we are often inclined to think of Jesus as “parts.” When Jesus walked on water, he was using his “God part.” When he experienced suffering, he was experiencing his “man part.” Umm, no. “The unique and altogether singular event of the Incarnation of the Son of God does not mean that Jesus Christ is part God and part man” (No. 464).

Lose sight of this reality and we drift into danger. We can think that it makes sense that Jesus married Mary Magdalene because “real people” wouldn’t refrain from marriage. We can begin to think that Jesus cannot really understand our struggles, pains and frustrations because he was God, and God isn’t bothered by such things. Gaudium et Spes explains, “Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”

As I hope my class now understands — well, the members I didn’t inadvertently lull to sleep, anyway — the Son truly became one of us when he entered the world 2,000 years ago as the God-man, Jesus Christ.

O star of wonder, star of night,

star with royal beauty bright:

Westward leading,

still proceeding,

guide us to thy perfect light.

Carl E. Olson is editor of