“The Word took on our humanity and in exchange human nature was raised to the divine dignity. The second act of the exchange consists in our real and intimate participation in the divine nature of the Word.” — Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 4, 2012
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.” — Saint Paul, Romans 1:24-25 (RSV-CE)
If we had to sum up the meaning of Christmas in just a few words, we would be hard pressed to improve upon “O admirabile commercium: O marvelous exchange!” The First Antiphon of Evening Prayer for the just-celebrated Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, begins with that phrase, then continues: “Man’s Creator has become man, born of a virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity” (see CCC §526). As Fr. David Meconi, S.J., wrote in this 2010 Homiletic & Pastoral Review editorial, “On Christmas morning we see how in becoming a man, the Son of God ‘exchanges’ his heavenly privilege for humanity.”
He further noted:
This metaphor of the Son’s enfleshment exchanging God’s humanity for man’s divinity was arguably the most common image used in teachings on Christmas in the ancient Church.
Is that the case anymore? Quite obviously not so in the larger culture, but I’m hardly climbing out on a limb in suggesting it’s an idea—a reality!—rarely heard by or discussed among most Catholics, even during this most wonderful time of the year (something I reflected on at length in this recent essay for SimplyCatholic.com.)
Yet the admirabile commercium, or “the formula of exchange” as it is often called, is foundational to understanding the incredible heights and depths of Catholic Christology and soteriology. This, in turn, goes hand-in-hand with an orthodox anthropology, which insists that we, as creatures, are offered a real and lasting participation in the Trinitarian life, so we can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). It is through the kenosis (self-emptying) of the unique and uncreated Son that we can experience theosis (deification), and thus become sons of God by grace. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” explained St. Paul to the Corinthians, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
(It’s worth noting here as a quick aside that, contrary to the passing and shallow sentiments of our age, we are not all “children of God”; rather, there are those who are “children of God” and those who are “children of the devil,” as the theologically-triggering St. John the Evangelist emphatically insists [1 Jn 3:1ff].)
But the Apostle Paul wrote about another exchange, which is also an essential part of salvation history. In the opening chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, he has a lengthy section on the sinfulness of man and natural theology. One of his many points is that the pagans, even without divine revelation, have the capacity and responsibility to know certain truths about God:
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (Rom 1:20-23)
Paul’s first focus is the failure to recognize, acknowledge, and worship God; the second, writes Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., in his commentary on Romans (1993), is the “moral degradation to which [the pagans’] idolatry has brought them: to the craving of their hearts for impurity. Their idolatry has to moral perversion: sexual excess (1:24, 26a) and homosexual activity (1:26b-27).” At the heart of this Pauline passage is the following summation:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. (Rom 1:24-25)
The word for “exchanged” (ἤλλαξαν) is more literally translated “they changed”; there is, in other words, a real sense of creatures willfully seeking to becoming creators—first, by refusing to worship the true God and, secondly, by using and manipulating their own bodies for disordered ends, “dishonorable passions,” and “unnatural” relations. Fitzmyer bluntly states that “Paul sees homosexual conduct as a symbol of the perversions stemming from idolatry. … The human being who fails to acknowledge God and turns him, who is the source of life and immortality, seeks rather a vicarious expression of it through the misuse of the natural procreative faculty.”
Fast forward to January 2000, when a well-known and powerful politician remarked: “Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” As it turns out “always” is not forever. Within a few short years, Hillary Clinton was backing away from the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law in 1996 by her husband; in June 2014, asked if her views had evolved, she said, “I think we have all evolved, and it’s been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations.” She was referring specifically to “gay marriage,” but what was really “evolving”—or changing, in the Pauline sense—was a fundamental understanding of the human person, sexuality, and “gender”. Despite some bumps along the way, Clinton is fully on board the trans-train, stating a few weeks ago that “Trans rights are human rights”.
Barack Obama was also closely monitoring the winds of the prevailing Zeitgeist, and “evolved” so quickly on same-sex “marriage” that you might be forgiven thinking that evolution was a process of hours, not millions of years. Meanwhile, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court exchanged “Baker v. Nelson” for “Obergefell v. Hodges”, with Justice Kennedy, a Catholic of the non-Catholic persuasion, stating:
It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage. The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.
Is. Now. Manifest. We are told repeatedly, by the high priests of the culture of insanity, that things are new. Enlightened moderns have, at last, opened their eyes! But things are actually quite old, as old as the slithering declaration in the Garden: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” But, as Joseph Ratzinger noted in the book In the Beginning (1986, 1990):
… at the very heart of sin lies human beings’ denial of their creatureliness, inasmuch as they refuse to accept the standard and limitations that are implicit in it. They do not want to be creatures, do not want to be subject to a standard, do not want to be dependent. … Thus human beings themselves want to be God. When they try this, everything is thrown topsy-turvy.
And, in a remark that should give pause, the brilliant Ratzinger notes: “Human beings who consider dependence on the highest love as slavery and who try to deny the truth about themselves, which is their creatureliness, do not free themselves; they destroy truth and love.”
Yet, on cue, the celebrities of the moment are “Britain’s most modern family”: A woman pretending to be a man giving birth to a baby with a “non-binary” partner, using the sperm of a “trans woman” and assisted by a “transgender” doctor. And, of course, as famed author J.K. Rowling—as modern and hip as liberals from, say, pre-2106 could ever be—is being taken to the cyber-rack for uttering the most basic of truths: men are men and woman are women. Love? Truth? So very pre-2020. We are now, to borrow from Ratzinger, “surrounded by a world of untruths, of unlife…”
In April 2014, right in the middle of the past decade, I wrote an editorial titled, “Welcome to the Reign of ‘Gay'”, and stated:
In a certain sense, the Sexual Revolution is over; at the very least, the walls have been breached and the consequences are serious and long-lasting. The Reign of “Gay” is proud, loud, and quite unwilling to tolerate dissent or discussion. And until we face that fact and come to grips with the situation as it really is, we will not be able to respond, regroup, and rebuild in any meaningful way.
We have now moved quickly into the Tyranny of Trans. What follows, exactly, is hard to say, but I suspect it will be worse for a time to come. The final spasms of revolutions are usually both banal and destructive. Unmoored from reality, humans become inhuman monsters; those who are willing to mutilate themselves will not hesitate to destroy those who refuse to bow low before the faux creators. And so this next decade promises to hold many dark days. But the truth about the Triune God cannot be destroyed, and the realities of human nature cannot be obscured from those with minds yearning for truth and heart open to supernatural love. In the words of Benedict XVI, uttered almost exactly eight years ago:
The Gospel is not a light to hide but to set upon a stand. The Church is not light but receives the light of Christ, receives it to be illuminated by it and to radiate it in its full splendour. And this must also happen in our personal life. Once again, I cite St Leo the Great who said on Holy Night: “Recognize, O Christian, your dignity and, enabled to share in the divine nature, do not wish to relapse into your former base condition with unworthy conduct. Remember who is your Head and to which Body you belong. Remember that you were snatched from the power of darkness and transferred into the light and into the Kingdom of God”.
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