If the Infant Christ Was God, Why Couldn’t He Speak?

There’s a reason for the mummy in the manger: French artists in the 17th century were fascinated by the paradox that the Word of God was unable to speak and conveyed this tension by having the Christ not merely wrapped, but bound by his swaddling clothes, the Deity deining to be shackled, “the word within a word, unable to speak a word”. This is a speechlessness worth speaking about. After all, what do we really mean when we call Christ the Word of God? What Christian insanity is this, that a word is a person?

This guy knew what was up. Literally.

Well, in the vein of St. Augustine, chickity-check it out: God is infinite. If an infinite being were to conceive of Himself — that is to say, if God were to think the thought ‘God’ — what would be the logical outcome? When you or I think about ourselves, it is never a perfect thought. We can barely conceive of what we look like, much less who we actually are. But a perfect being would necessarily conceive of Himself…perfectly. Make sense?  God conceives of Himself perfectly. But — and here’s the crux — if that thought remained just a thought it would never be perfect. As a mere thought, it would always be missing one crucial characteristic — existence. Inseparable from God is the fact that He exists. He is real. Thus if God were to think of Himself, and that thought were not to actually exist in Reality, He could not be perfect. His thought would not fully contain Who He Is, because existence is central to Who He Is.

But God is perfect. So he conceives of his own being, he thinks the thought ‘God’, and it exists in reality. He speaks his own Name and his Name must exist. The thought remains one with Him — we’d be fools if we claimed that every time we spoke a thought it was lost to us — but it also exists as its own person. We call that person Jesus Christ. He is one with the Father, for he is the Word of the father, yet he exists as an individual person.

So what a marvelous humility for the spoken Word in his divine glory to be struck speechless in his human infancy! We often manufacture a false conception of the Infant, that he was God somehow ‘hiding’ in the body of a little baby. That, since he was God, he could have spoken whenever he wanted to, walked whenever he wanted to, but instead chose to act like the baby he was. As fall as I can tell, this is stupidity. God became man, fully man. He did not merely take on our strengths; he also took on our weaknesses. He took on our helplessness and our inabilities. And in doing so he made this divine declaration:

Our weaknesses aren’t weaknesses at all. Sin, now there’s weakness. But dependency, humility, and abandon — these are not things be disdained, but embraced. If Christ was humble enough to become man, surely we are to be man enough to become humble? If God depended entirely on Mary, surely we must depend entirely on God? If God shut up and simply was for the first part of his life, surely we must imitate this Divine Speechlessness and, like the littlest of children, take time in silence? The person of Christ turned the entire world on its head, but only because the world was always meant to live in a somersault. Greatness became small, and now Smallness is great. The Source of all Strength became weak, and now strength is made perfect in weakness.It all comes down to the prayer the priest mutters over the water and wine: Per huius aquae et vini mysterium eius efficiamur divinitatis consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps. We can share in the divinity of Christ, but only when we realize that Christ dictates the terms of this divinity — humility, abandon, dependence, weakness, death, aye, even death on a cross.

So in the last few weeks of Advent, embrace your weakness. Kneel before the manger and worship the Christ-child by imitation of the Christ-child. And never forget that if Christ’s humility is incomprehensible in his humanity, how much more must it be in his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. There, there is the ultimate helplessness. There the Christ deigns not only to be silent, but to be food. Sacrificed for our sake, his ultimate act of weakness is our ultimate source of strength.

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  • Laurynas Savickas


  • http://profiles.google.com/cherrybomb77 Katie H

    Awesome, awesome post.

  • Karie Mitchell

    love it, brought tears to my eyes, a feast for the heart…

  • Christina

    Great post! I never knew the reasoning behind the “mummy” wrappings, but that makes so much sense.

    Interestingly enough, in the Qur’an, Jesus does actually speak as soon as he exits the womb (Sura 19:30 and following) to defend Mary from accusations of adultery and to exhort everyone to worship Allah. It’s particularly interesting when one considers that the Qur’an insists that Jesus is NOT divine. It seems that Mohammed could not accept that God would allow even his prophet to suffer the weaknesses and limits of a truly human infancy.

    • ashleigh

      The Quran does not insist that Jesus is not “divine” the Quran reinforces monotheism. Allah gave the world Jesus to bring a great message, and filled him with the Holy Spirit which empowered him to do things that ordinary men and women could not, such as speak as an infant, heal the sick, etc.
      Allah begots not nor is he begotten and there is nothing which can be compared to him. It’s blasphemy to say that Jesus is Allah. Jesus was a sign for the world and brought a great message, but that does not make him God.
      The Quran was sent to Mohammed as a clear sign and a clear message to remind those that have gone astray.

      • Anonymous

        Having read the Quran — or to be technically correct, an English translation of the Quran — I always have had the impression that Jesus was viewed as one of the line of prophets we know from the Bible, and that all prophets were considered equal. But I also had the feeling that, in some sense, Jesus was viewed as the first among equals … I think partly because of passages like this. But I may also just be bringing my own Christian bias to it.

  • Tessa

    I was taught to swaddle my newborn babies to prevent hypothermia (newborns can lose body temperature rapidly.) I had heard sermons about the swaddling clothes being rags because the Holy Family was too poor for proper clothes, but it was when I was swaddling my own first newborn that Christ’s vulnerability became apparent to me. I still think about Christ’s total humanity whenever I see a swaddled newborn.

    • http://twitter.com/yonmei Yonmei

      Yes – the point being that God incarnated in human form as a real human. Therefore as a baby he would have cried and wet himself and needed breastmilk and cuddling, and wouldn’t have been able to speak until he was old enough… I love Dorothy Sayers writing about Jesus as a human in The Man Born To Be King.

  • Norm Betland

    I think the begetting of the Son is one of the most awesome of all of God’s mysteries, but it begs this question (in my mind at least). What if God thinks about “God” again? Would that thought be another person, separate from the Father and separate from the Son?

    • Lily

      God exists outside of time and technically has no past or future. For Him, it is always the present. So He is sort of “thinking” about himself now (or constantly…. grammar just doesnt work with describing God), and can’t do so “again” as that would imply a future action.

      Though we do know that the Holy Spirit exists separately from the Father and from the Son. I have heard Him best described as the love between the Father and the Son. So God’s triuneness can somewhat be thought of as God thinking about and loving God… I love the Trinity. It makes my brain melt in a good way :)

  • http://twitter.com/nomtweetshate NOM Tweets Hate

    I think you wrote quite a bit, but didn’t actually say anything at all.

    • Marc Barnes

      haters gonna hate

  • Anonymous

    Just wanted to take a break from beating Marc up on political and social issues to say this is a beautifully-written piece.

  • Jay E.

    One of your most beautiful articles. :D

  • Jordan

    I seen that painting of St. Augustine in the LA county art museum. Magnificent!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/yonmei Yonmei

    “There’s a reason for the mummy in the manger”

    Er, yes: in the 17th century this was how babies were kept warm. It looks odd to us three centuries later, but it would have looked perfectly normal to a 17th-century eye.

  • Davinpa

    The Byzantine iconography has been picturing the newborn Christ in a mummy-like cloth for more than a millenium, FYI.