Against the backdrop of angels and gods, Jew and Greek, comes the humble birth in Bethlehem. This most momentous intervention is God’s incarnation. God is the newborn mortal child wholly dependent on others to shelter and nourish him. He is also, at the same time, the ageless and immortal God on Whom all creation depends.
In an article recently on RealClear Politics, the classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson reminds his readers of the Greek goddess Nemesis and her place in the contemporary world. Although Nemesis is not one of the Homeric gods, nor does she appear in the tragedies we studied, Hanson’s reference underscores a point that I tried to make to my freshman Humanities class last semester: these figures from mythology retain a perennial relevance and fascination.
No one today believes in Athena in the sense that he might gild the horns of a prize heifer and offer her to the goddess, as Nestor does in the Odyssey, following closely the protocols of blood sacrifice. But the bracing interventions of the goddess with Achilleus or Diomedes in the Iliad, her fatherly appearances as Mentor to Telemachos, and her conversations with Odysseus, whom she treats as her equal in intelligence, cannot be easily discounted. Such experiences are life-altering phenomena, rents in the texture of ordinary time through which divine intention flashes, and the epics treat them seriously. In this regard, the epics and the Bible share a common understanding. Hermes in the Odyssey reminds me of Raphael in the Book of Tobit: just as Hermes gives Odysseus the root moly to counter the charms of Circe, so Raphael gives young Tobias the parts of a fish as an antidote to the demonic affliction of Sarah.
Greek gods have bodies. In fact, the French scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant writes of the “divine super-body,” that sublimates “all the qualities and bodily values that are present in humans in a form that is always diminished, derivative, faltering, and precarious.” I think of what St. Paul says about the resurrected body: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Leaving this “super-body” behind, Greek gods often appear in human form, sometimes to help, sometimes to expose human folly. Dionysus, born of a mortal woman, appears to his cousin Pentheus as a young man in order to elicit his impiety and prepare him for his horrific punishment. Watching the maltreatment of a beggar (actually Odysseus himself), one of the suitors of Penelope warns the others that gods sometimes disguise themselves. Hebrews 13:2 makes exactly the same point: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I can think of occasions—one in particular—when someone I had never seen before and have never seen since appeared with extraordinarily timely aid in a situation that would almost certainly have ended badly otherwise. Such moments never feel casual. In fact, they leave a permanent mark on the memory, and against years of ordinary daily experience, we return to those occasions, balancing rational causality against the clear sense of intervention and the afterglow of wonder.
Yes, the Greek gods bicker with each other and manipulate mortals, sometimes shamefully, as when Aphrodite snatches Paris from a duel with Menelaos and puts him in bed with Helen, Menelaos’s rightful wife, after menacing Helen to make her comply. No one believes in Aphrodite today, of course, but whole industries built around her seem to be thriving. In the Iliad, the other gods rebuke this erotic transgression. Athena helps the hero Diomedes wound Aphrodite in the hand. The goddess flees, weeping, up to Olympus, where Zeus laughs at her. The gods can be quarrelsome, selfish, adulterous, vengeful, and subject to violent anger, very much like mortals. I use the word mortals, “those who die,” advisedly, because this distinction is crucial for the ancient Greeks and most instructive to our secular age. The gods are not necessarily better or more just, though the Odyssey presents them in a better light than the Iliad. They are, rather, “those who do not die.” They are the powerful, the elite, who demand homage because they govern the structures of reality. They eat ambrosia and drink nectar. They are ageless and beautiful (most of them), moving across great distances with ease, careless of suffering and death (again, most of them), because they know they have all the time in the world.
It is hard not to think that the Greeks knew our own time better than we do. What do the super-wealthy princes of the internet, the celebrities, and the idolized figures of our age enjoy if not power and fame, the fiction of unimaginable pleasures, the necessary homage and envy of those who need what they provide? Yet the Greeks knew that mortals sense the oncoming of death, the approach of Nemesis. The Greeks knew that the primordial temptation is always the one whispered to Eve: “you shall be as gods.”
Against this backdrop of angels and gods, Jew and Greek, comes the humble birth in Bethlehem. As St. Paul writes in Romans 10:12, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.” This most momentous intervention is not God’s appearance as a man, in some momentary role as an emissary, but God’s incarnation. God Himself actually becomes man (which the Arians denied). He lives a human life, suffers rejection and humiliation, and Himself becomes the sacrifice. He is the newborn mortal child wholly dependent on others to shelter and nourish him. He is also, at the same time (but not in time), the ageless and immortal God on Whom all creation depends. As the poet John Crowe Ransom puts it, “Why, the ribs of the earth subsist frail as a breath / If but God wearieth.”
We must not get used to this reality. We must not trivialize what W.B. Yeats called the Nativity—“The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” We stand in need of the mercy that lies at the heart of this uncontrollable mystery. All of us at Wyoming Catholic College wish you the mercy and blessings of this season of Advent and Christmastide.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “The Holy Family” (between 1665 and 1670) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.