The Southeast Alaska Catholic
“O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” – Collect for Christmas, Mass during the Day
Last year I was approached after Sunday Mass by two six year old sisters, Ani and Jessica Rice who are young members of the Cathedral parish. As full, conscious and active participants in the liturgy they have been paying such careful attention to the liturgy that they noticed, during the Preparation of the Gifts that, as the deacon, it had been my part to pour the wine and then a few drops of water into the chalice. I replied that yes, that is a beautiful moment in the Mass and I asked them if they knew that there is a special prayer that the deacon says in a quiet voice while he adds the water to the wine. They gave me that somewhat annoyed look that children sometimes give you when you are stating the obvious, then said in unison and word for word: By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Pretty impressive for a pair of First Graders! I learned later that they had memorized this profound and beautiful prayer through their participation in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at the Cathedral. Based on the educational method of Maria Montessori and founded by Sofia Cavalleti and Gianna Gobbi in Rome in 1954, catechists, parents and other adults help the children to encounter the mystery of Jesus in sacred scripture and the liturgy through a pedagogy that is developmentally appropriate for them.
As our celebration of Christmas comes nearer, I am reminded that this prayer which the deacon or priest says at each celebration of the Mass, is based on the Collect for Christmas (Mass of the Day). In just a few vivid lines, this collect outlines reasons for the Incarnation and its ultimate purpose for our lives. It begins by explicitly recalling our original dignity as human beings made in the divine image and likeness in these words: ‘O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature.’ Implicitly, the second part of prayer, which reads ‘and [who] still more wonderfully restored it,’ recalls the catastrophe of the Fall, how our fallen nature was disfigured and darkened by sin, our need for redemption and our restoration in Christ to our full dignity as sons and daughters of the Father.
The prayer then goes on to ask God to grant, ‘that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ In the second part of the sentence we are on familiar ground: at Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation, when the Word became flesh and united in the person of Jesus a human and a divine nature. This part of the prayer echoes St. Paul, who, in his famous hymn in the Letter to the Philippians praises Jesus, who though Son and divine, refused to claim the privileges of divinity but instead emptied himself and became human, and a slave. A great mystery to be sure, but familiar enough.
But the request in the first clause, to share in the divinity of Christ, is perplexing. How can we ask God to allow us to share in the divinity of his Son? Wasn’t the sin of our first parents precisely the desire on their part to seize hold of divinity?
Recall from the creation account in Genesis how Adam and Eve grasped after divinity itself when the Evil One, out of envy and malice, lied to them by promising that if they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would become like gods. Instead, by their disobedience, which alienated them from God, the author of life and everything that is good, they became subject to the power of sin, corruption, sickness and death.
Yet the original intention of the Creator was that the men and women he created would participate in the divine life. Not by becoming gods or by being absorbed in Divinity, but by choosing, freely, to enter into the communion of divine love that is the Blessed Trinity. The First Adam abandoned this communion of love (and the deepest imperatives of his human nature) by attempting to seize divine power.
Jesus, the Second Adam, out of love, freely gave up divine power and assumed the burden of our fallen nature and became subject to suffering, death and all of the many consequences of sin, although without sin himself. Why? So that we might be redeemed and share in his divinity.
That we might share in Christ’s divinity. Not divinity in an abstract or general way, but specifically in the divine nature revealed to us in Jesus as self-giving, self-sacrificing love. This, I think, is why this ancient prayer from the Mass of Christmas is the prayer said at every Mass by the deacon, ordained to be the icon and symbol of Christ the Servant, (or in his absence, the celebrant, who was first ordained as a deacon before his priestly ordination) mingles a few drops of water with the wine.
The mixing of the water and wine symbolizes the union of Christ with his faithful. St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the third century explaining the practice of mixing water with the wine during the celebration of the Eucharist wrote:
“we see [how] the water stands for the people whereas the wine stands for the blood of Christ. When water is united with the wine in the cup, the people are made one with Christ; the believing people are joined and united with him in whom they believe.”
But it also symbolizes our desire to be like Jesus, to live a life poured out for others in service and self-giving. His body broken and lifeblood poured out, both symbolized and actualized in the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation, reveal to us the true nature of divinity. We ask to share in the divinity of Jesus, not to be exalted but to be humbled, not to be served but to serve, not to receive but to give.
As St. Athanasius, the fourth century defender of the divinity of Jesus at the Council of Nicea preached so often: God became man so that man might become godlike. This then, is the joy, the wonder, the paradox, the mystery, and the enduring call to conversion revealed to us as we celebrate the birth of the Lord.