Advent is upon us, that period of reflection and repentance that prepares us for the Nativity of Our Lord. Every year at Advent, I reread G.K. Chesterton’s great popular apologetic, The Everlasting Man. More than any other work, it conveys to me the excitement, joy, and wonder of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. The book is divided into two parts. In the first, “On the Creature Called Man,” Chesterton describes how, during classical antiquity, humanity reached the summit of what it could accomplish on its own. In the second, “On the Man Called Christ,” Chesterton explains how God takes us in hand and lifts us to heights beyond our imagination.
Those familiar with Chesterton will know his fondness for paradox. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton employs it primarily in the form of inversion. Especially in the second part of the book, he tells the reader how the Christ-event turned the world upside down, and then proceeds to show how the only way to make sense of this new kosmos is by standing on one’s head.
This is poetically expressed when Chesterton discusses the Trinity and the Holy Family. “The old Trinity,” he declares, “was of father and mother and child and is called the human family. The new is of child and mother and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed; just as the world which is transformed was not in the least different, except in being turned upside-down.”
While Chesterton’s narrative is imaginative, it is not innovative. The cosmological revolution he describes is firmly grounded in Scripture. The Lord, after a dispute among the disciples over who would be honored to sit at Christ’s side in the Kingdom, admonished his followers:
Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Or again, consider the moving scene in the Gospel of John where Christ, after humbling Himself by washing the disciples’ feet, explains the meaning of His act:
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
Whether we are religious or secular, those words are so thoroughly woven into our common cultural fabric that we often overlook their revolutionary meaning. As in the ancient world more generally, the social structure of first-century Roman Palestine depended on relationships of dominance and submission. It was a hierarchical place of masters and servants, often slaves, and one’s place in the hierarchy was rigidly fixed. What is often missed is that these relationships contained a crucial element of exchange. Although they were rarely voluntary, they nevertheless exhibited reciprocity. They were patron-client relationships: the patron protected and provided for the client; the client served and advanced the interests of the patron. In a world where wealth was more or less fixed, and hard to come by besides, these relationships, distasteful as we find them today, were an integral part of the social order.
Into this social order comes the God-Man with a sundering sword. Christ shreds our conceptions of master and servant, and thereby our understanding of the human person, by submitting to the role no man has a right to demand He play. Coming back to The Everlasting Man, Chesterton expresses this point forcefully:
It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.
How does Christ accomplish this? He inverts the patron-client relationship from within. Christ, as God, has everything to give. He has no need of anything of ours. We, on the other hand, need everything from Him, but have nothing to offer Him in return except for what He gives us.
Jesus becomes a servant, despite having everything. Although there is nothing of value we can offer in return, He sits at our feet and ministers unto us. Though sinless, He received the baptism of John. In so doing, He took on the world’s sins washed off in the waters of the Jordan, dragged them into the wilderness, and rendered them powerless. Though the rightful king, He submitted to the perverted justice of Rome. In so doing, He nourishes us with His immaculate Body and precious Blood, that by receiving them we may become partakers of His divine nature. By giving everything in exchange for nothing, He destroyed dominance and reciprocity and replaced them with love and gratuity. The economy of patronage has ended; the economy of grace abounds.
The Everlasting Man beautifully conveys Christ and His grace. It is full of treasures for those seeking to renew their spiritual life in preparation for their encounter with the Everlasting One. I hope you will join me in spending some time with Chesterton’s remarkable book this Advent season.
“O Christ our God, Who didst choose the most pure Virgin from among all generations and wast born of her in the flesh, we Thy servants offer hymns of thanksgiving unto Thee. As Thou art possessed of ineffable lovingkindness, O Master, from all manner of misfortunes free us who cry: O Jesus, Son of God, Who becamest incarnate for our sake, glory be to Thee!”
Alexander William Salter is an assistant professor of economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University. He is also the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute. His academic and popular writing is available at his website: www.awsalter.com.