Advent Points to the Profoundest of Paradoxes

“The Catholic Church is one of the greatest forces of evil in the world.”

So says the ever-voluble Richard Dawkins, the world’s most widely read atheist. This particular volley against the “Church of Rome” recently ran in the religion section of The Washington Post.

The London Catholic Herald reported, on the same day, the results of a debate on whether the “Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens argued for the negative, while Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative Party parliamentarian and Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja in Nigeria argued for the positive. Audience members voted overwhelmingly for the negative: 1,876 to 268.

A debate, of course, is merely a debate. The victorious side does not succeed because it has proven anything. Debaters often win because of their style, not their substance. Socrates understood this all too well. He was a minority voice at a time when Sophists were dazzling the masses with their empty rhetoric. In the end, a jury of 500 Athenians, by a vote of 280-220, and without deliberation, found the Father of Moral Philosophy guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens. They sentenced him to death.

The Catholic faith, like truth, involves a startling paradox. It is startling, indeed, because it seems, at first blush, to be a contradiction. The great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was being most insightful when he pointed out: “It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.”

And the common heresy, we might add, is to take the error that is easily seen for truth. Had the author of Dr. Faustus been present at the London debate, he would have cast his solitary vote for the affirmative, but would have remained in the minority.

Christ was born in a cave, a place where people would not likely be searching if they were looking for a savior. This is the fundamental paradox of Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI expands upon this point in a Christmas message to the world: “At Christmas we contemplate God made man, divine glory hidden beneath the poverty of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger; the Creator of the universe reduced to the helplessness of an infant. Once we accept this paradox, we discover the Truth that sets us free and the Love that transforms our lives.”

Our deepest truths are contained in a paradox. A paradox unifies two realities that seem to have little or nothing in common. That God loves man is a paradox too startling even for Aristotle.

The Catholic Church is, indeed, a force for good in the world because she is based on truth — the truth of both God and man. But if the truth is undercut, because it is viewed superficially as inconvenient, unpleasant and too demanding, the good that could spring from it is also undercut. Only a Church that believes in truth can also believe in doing good.

Truth is anathema to a world that espouses relativism and embraces, to quote the late Father John Richard Neuhaus, the “unencumbered self.” Herod did not approve of Christmas. Nor was Pontius Pilate interested in truth.

The story of the Magi is central to the message of Christmas. The “Wise Men” from the East were indeed wise because they were seekers (and ultimately discoverers) of truth. They were not merely casting votes or expressing private opinions. Their experience was that of an epiphany.

Christmas is the profoundest of all paradoxes: God becomes man, the eternal becomes the temporal, the divine becomes human, and the omnipotent Creator becomes the helpless Babe. Christmas is God’s humbling himself so that we, in turn, can be transfigured. It is a paradox that only a loving heart can validate. It is not a matter for debate.

Voting is a political activity and, like all human activities, a moral one. But it is surely not a theological one. Christmas is not for the clever, but for people of good will.

Just so, Advent is for wise souls who seek after truth. This season of preparation is especially dear to those who, come Christmas Day, will take hold of Christmas truth — and then, throughout their lives, never let it go.

Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.