Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Mary with newborn Jesus

The Finite Is Capable of the Infinite

December 25, 2023


Christmas should leave us speechless. No, not the parties, or the food, or the presents, or the decorations, or any of the other trappings of Christmas (although those are all very good things, of course), but rather the actual event we celebrate at Christmas: the Incarnation of the Word of God; the Son of God taking on human flesh in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, we tend to take the Incarnation for granted, having celebrated so many Christmases over the years and having heard the Christmas story so many times. But if we take a little time to reflect deeply on the actual event of the Incarnation, we will hopefully find ourselves struck with genuine, speechless awe before the sheer profundity of this event, this event which brought about the unification of some of the deepest polarities of existence: the unification of the human with the divine; earth with heaven; time with eternity; the finite with the infinite—all in one person, the person of Jesus Christ.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said that the greatest unity the human mind can conceive is a unity of the finite and the infinite. In the Incarnation, that unity ceased being a mere concept and instead became an actual reality. In Jesus Christ, the finite and the infinite were united forever in a single human being. In Jesus Christ, finitum capax infiniti: the finite was made capable of the infinite.

Finitum capax infiniti: these three little Latin words can only begin to hint at the astounding nature of the Incarnation, an event that can never be captured adequately by mere words. In the Incarnation, God incomprehensibly made our human finitude capable of receiving the divine infinitude. Only God could have brought about this seemingly impossible unification of the finite and the infinite, as Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us:

If human limits became capable of receiving God’s fullness, this was through a gift of God and not through the creature’s own ability to contain it. Only God can expand the finite to infinity without shattering it. And greater still than the miracle that a heart can be extended to God’s proportions is the marvel that God was able to shrink to man’s proportions; that the Ruler’s mind was contained in the mind of the Servant; . . . that the Abyss of Being could so deplete itself into an abyss of nothingness.1

The greatest unity the human mind can conceive is a unity of the finite and the infinite.

Finitum capax infiniti: this pithy little Latin phrase provides not only a concise summary of the event of the Incarnation but also an encapsulation of the destiny that God intends for every one of us. The finite is capable of the infinite: in Jesus Christ, God has made us finite beings capable of the infinite, capable of participating in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). In Jesus Christ, God joined the infinite to the finite in order to make the finite capable of infinity. Jesus brings God to us so that we might then be taken into God—taken into a share in the divine life, which is the deepest desire of the human heart:  

The deepest longing of man is to ascend to God, to become like God, indeed to become equal to God. Whereas daily life chains and constricts him, confining him to the little world of his everyday life on this earth, a pressure ignites within him to tear away the chains of this slavery and to break through to the mysterious depths that lurk behind this world, to a place where he can be free, whole, wise and immortal—free of the limitations of his narrow ego, holding dominion over the total context of events, superior to fate and to death.2

Jesus Christ is the one who tears away the chains of our slavery. Jesus Christ is the one who makes it possible for us to “break through to the mysterious depths that lurk behind this world.” Jesus Christ is the one who blazes a trail for us into the very life of God. And it’s all offered to us as a gift. But instead of accepting this incredible gift with immense gratitude and love, what do we tend to do? Some of us seem inclined to reject the offer outright; others of us give, at best, only a partial acceptance, seeking to impose limits and conditions on our acceptance:

All creatures are finite, they have their measure and their limits. And when this finitude encounters infinite love and its demands, it cannot but turn of itself into a prison. There is in finite beings a fear of being burst asunder by God, and this is why they close themselves off when approached. . . . Far from accepting from God the measure of infinity, we actually impose on him the measure of our finitude. Step by step we defend our ground with armed violence. We lay down our peace offer: Thus far am I willing to go, this much am I prepared to concede you. Be satisfied with it and do not trespass my bounds. You would only crush me utterly. You would overwind the spring in the clock. You must complete from the storehouses of your infinity what I lack. This far will I go: lure me no further! . . . And I have set my will on the firm keeping of this principle: intentionally to pretend not to hear your unclear and amorphous call to the undefined which is above and beyond.3

When it comes to the most important decision we will ever make in this life, we human beings tend to be ambivalent: we simultaneously desire a share in God’s infinity while also fearing it. What would such a life be like? What will God ask of me? Will I be torn apart when God stretches my heart and my mind beyond anything I’ve ever known so that I might share as fully as possible in his infinity? Because of such fears, some of us choose to keep God at a distance. We choose to ignore his invitation to share in his divine life and love. We choose to avoid the demands and the risks of love and instead retreat into the seemingly safe, but ultimately cramped and unsatisfying, confines of our own ego.

Christmas reminds us that God came down to us in Jesus Christ so that we might be drawn up into the divine life forever. Christmas reminds us of God’s gift to us of a share in his own infinity. Christmas invites us to the inexpressibly joyful “above and beyond” of the divine life. All we have to do is say yes to the gift and step out, in trust, into the infinite spaces of the divine Love. With God’s help, finitum capax infiniti.

1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1979), 54.
2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves,” Communio: International Catholic Review 24, no. 2 (1997): 353.
3 Heart of the World, 139-140.