Reflection by Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv.

Christmas 2021

And the Word became flesh and lived among us

And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and of truth (Jn. 1:14). Joy at the birth of the Infant who developed in the womb of Mary, born as us but without pain surrounds every birth. Luke 1 narrates the mystery of the conception and birth of Jesus, the union of the Holy Spirit with Mary’s free will. “How can this be since I am a virgin? The angel replies: the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born shall be …called the Son of God.” “May it be done to me according to your word.” “The shepherds found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger at Bethlehem … and made known what had been told them about the child.” “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Truth invites contemplation. Memory is a gift. As children, Christmas warmed our hearts. In innocence, we grew with Scripture, imagination, and belief. With elders, we reflect on Joseph’s reservation to take Mary as his wife and the message of the angel to him in a dream: “All this took place what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel, …God is with us” (Mt 1). As young adults we join believers that our basis for knowing the same God of our childhood has a fuller foundation for professing to know God as radically different from ourselves, who are made in God’s image and likeness. A long life of study, prayer and preaching amplified the Christmas mystery. Think in virtue of the analogy of being, of perfect Love.

Dare to think philosophically with Bl. Duns Scotus about experiences of Christmas as real but not reality itself. Midnight Mass, our parish choirs, Slovak Christmas carols, festive dinners, parents and grandparents, gifts under the tree, the family together were real activity but not Activity itself. Love for family was intense but not the pure perfection of love. To align Christmas with 76 years of finite existence is not being itself.  Study aligns with sacrifice; suffering with the light intensifying. Human dimensions join us to humanity and unfold long-lasting insights. They are not pure perfections as Duns Scotus calls knowledge and love. Suffering often reveals love, and gives glimpses of divine love but it is not the Love which is God, which is being (what is and not what is coming to be). All beings, both divine and created, share being and essence, unity, truth, and goodness. Remembering what the 15-year-old John Henry Newman said, I thought of two and two only self-evident beings, myself and my Creator, and mercy with it (Apoc 1) The reality and difference between my Creator and me, infinite and finite, gives “one” opportunity to make something of the gifts given. Through God’s mercy this assent for John Henry Newman was never effaced.

I discovered assent to CHRISTIAN TRUTH is with the thematic lift of sound philosophy. Being itself is changeless. Philosophy refers to human suffering, an integral part of living, change or coming to be, or becoming. Suffering is an acute example of changes in our lives. Suffering has duration, short or long. But suffering ends, for it does not last for eternity. Our personal experiences and the character of our personality, or the cards we have been dealt, have their place in our life as finite creatures. Finite experiences are strictly subordinate to the prior metaphysical reality of person (incommunicable existence of a rational nature) and being, what is, not what is coming to be or becoming.

The metaphysics of Bl. John Duns Scotus, his univocal concept of being, assists us to fully clarify the mystery and supreme grace of the Incarnation. To his analogy of being with which we began this reflection he adds the univocity of being. Univocal being is a concept in us, a concept that permits the formation of other concepts and categories, comparable to it, yet is in no way measurable by them or comparable to them. Univocal being is not a category. It does not exclude analogy or comparison and contrast of diverse beings such as infinite and finite. Univocal being is not an immediate vision of the divine essence or infinite being. It is in conceptual form something trans-conceptual. It is the radiation of the divine being or light which enlightens us in such wise that we can know the objects of our experience and eventually recognize how the source of light is not only different from them and essentially prior to them. The firstness or primacy of divine being or light is not accidental.

Duns Scotus and the Franciscan masters join those who teach that metaphysics is prior to experience. The Franciscan tradition is cautious not to deny that our metaphysics, like our souls, are found in experience and the incomparable importance of our experiences. Firstness or essential primacy is not a mathematical center. The concept of being as univocal in Duns Scotus is not a category, but incomparable with every other concept, even if every other human notion is that to the extent that it is illuminated by that univocal concept of being. All other concepts reflect this first concept, but univocity itself does not reflect them. Its form is logical, but its content transcends the logical. Said another way, univocity provides the point of unity for all other concepts, but it does this is such a way that analogy cannot explain the differences of beings. Think of the hypostatic union without confusion of the divine and human natures in the unity of one pre-existing divine Person, the Word who became flesh. Love was willing to suffer, to endure the experience of suffering, and, therefore freely chose to become incarnate.

The relation of divine and human is non-mutual to Duns Scotus, i.e., the union between divine and human in the one Person of the Word Incarnate is asymmetrical. Disjunction differs from continuity between first and second in an ordered series or succession. In his humanity, the Infant Jesus is subject to change, including suffering. This relation is most unique in the sacred humanity of Jesus. The relation in one form or another is the basis of personal experience in us. The non-mutual relation between Creator and creature is a real in-built dependence of the creature on the Creator. No modification, possible or actual, in the Creator corresponds to this in-built dependence we have on our Creator.

This puts to rest the claim that we cannot know God as he is in himself (agnosticism), or that there is no essential difference between God and creatures, only a psycho-ethical one, i.e., no radical difference between being finite and infinite (Hegel). God’s gifts and mercy includes learning to think, to avoid fixed ideas or ready-made answers to incomparable suffering.[1] Christian metaphysics and Duns Scotus’s use of the disjunctive transcendentals of being is the answer. A disjunctive transcendental is a characteristic of being. Finite and infinite are disjunctive transcendentals. Finite fits all creatures, infinite fits only the Creator. Think of eternal and temporal, rational and irrational, cause and uncaused.

Metaphysics confirms irrevocably why deep thinking can never be subordinated to experience, or be substituted by ethics, politics or literature.[2] Since the Enlightenment (c. 1650) the tendency is to substitute ethics for metaphysics, e.g., the categorical imperative of Kant, a cold duty ethic, not tender, infinite Love of the Incarnation. At Christmas, love of neighbor and God is a memory of how capable love is and of gratitude for the possibility of being elevated to the order of grace. Deep joy accompanies freely cooperating with grace. We may find ourselves elevated to be quasi-infinite or divine-like, not in our essence but in our mode of knowing and loving, as Francis of Assisi at Greccio in 1223.

Franciscans preach the union of divine and human in Jesus, born, like us in all things but sin, who suffered in his humanity, not in his divinity. The Father sent the Son. God cannot sin, suffer, or act in any way involving succession or “becoming,” for it would contradict God’s infinity by limiting God. The Incarnation is effected by the heavenly Father and Virgin Mother who as Immaculate is the Woman, all grace and no sin, who declares it erroneous to say that the Trinity suffers. The Virgin Mother is the supreme sign of the absolute goodness of the divine being and of perfect love for that being!

[Christmas 2021 Golden Jubilee of Priesthood Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, O.F.M.Conv.]


[1] The searing suffering of innocence is in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: “Rebellion and Grand Inquisitor.”
[2] Romantics as P.B. Shelley, Coleridge substitute poetry for Christianity i.e. religiousness as experience.

Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
December 25, 2021

You may like the following ...