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The Highest Knowledge (Matt. 2:10-11)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 21-28, 1983, p.1176. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh [Matt. 2:10-11].

The wise men, having achieved the object of their trek, succumbed to their feelings of joy and awe. They had lost the composure and reserve of scholars and sages, giving way to an ecstasy of naked adoration. There was no possibility of rational detachment in the situation; they could only praise and pour out their gifts in their dumbfounded worship of the newborn infant.

Having humbled themselves in such an extravagant manner before a tiny child, did they thus forfeit their credentials as "wise" men? Did they who ventured forth wise return home foolish? Or was it the other way around -- that they were wiser after their stellar searchings and esoteric speculations had been grounded in the ecstasy of Bethlehem? Clearly, the latter is the case. However, this judgment does not rule out the possibility that they may have felt a bit sheepish on their return journey, as they reflected on their unabashed ardor in the presence of the babe.

What may have embarrassed the wise men were the implications they were driven as logicians to draw from their recognition of the divinity of the child.

Can these events mean what they seem to mean? Could it be that we are not alone in our finitude? Could it be that our fallenness and sin are a burden that God seems, already in this birth, determined to share? The gaping chasm between God and human beings -- which human reason has perceived and before which it has trembled -- has been bridged by this infantís merest yawn. In short, if the infinite, all-wise, all-powerful, ubiquitous God can become what we are, what is to prevent us from being made, by the selfsame infinite wisdom, power and ubiquity, what he himself is? (Athanasius).

The recognition that God was in Christ is both a statement about Godís doing and a summary statement of the whole of human destiny. To say that God was in Christ is to say that it is within the power and promise of God to make us "partakers of the divine nature" (II Pet. 1:4).

Not only does the infant king overcome the moral barrier that our sin erects between the creator and the creature, he overcomes the metaphysical barrier as well. Not only does God love us in our finitude, he loves us in his infinite being. The Magi must have reflected, as the rational men they were, that God intended to woo us, win us, have us and hold us into his eternity. God wills that we share his very nature -- for why else would he have become human? How else could we be saved?

It is in some ways ironic that incarnational theology should have become Christian "orthodoxy." The very term "orthodoxy" carries with it connotations of conservative, even reactionary consolidation. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy has often been guilty of suppression and persecution in its attempt to preserve the truth of Christianity. In fact, the incarnation shatters every orthodoxy and leaves us gasping at the boldness of Godís action.

God becoming what we are! Sin, death and the devil taken into hand! Our works, our struggles, even our failures seem to have eternal significance. Therefore all our present wisdom, theology and religion are relativized, in the light of their eventual significance. We do not need to pretend to final truth because we know that we have been to the birthplace of the one who is the final truth. Compared to what we will know, we know next to nothing. All we know for sure is that the prospect of the final consummation of all things is cause for giddy expectation. Perhaps this above all is what Christmas teaches us: the highest human knowledge is joy.

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