Christmas: Sign of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 20, 2005

Christmas: Sign of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 20, 2005

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"‘Twas the night before the Holiday, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...."

"I saw three ships come sailing in, on a Holiday-Day in the morning...."

"I’m dreaming of a White Holiday, with every Holiday Card I write...."

I.

Advent seems now to be a season in which we have an unending series of pre-Christmas celebrations, usually–even mandatorily–called "pre-Holiday parties." The "Night Before Christmas," that is, "the Night Before the Holiday Season" is something of an anti-climax to the pre-Christmas festivities. We had a solemn High Mass for Christmas here on Gaudete Sunday, a sort of Christmas in the middle of Advent.

Christmas seems something like a moveable feast, to be celebrated whenever. It fluctuates to the convenience of the market. It seeks the schedule of the world, but the world does not wait in hushness for it. If we cannot make it on December 25th, any other day after Thanksgiving will do, depending on our other obligations. We can gear up the Christmas spirit almost any day of the year: Year -round Christmas stores. Christmas in July. We do not have to be dependent on mere time.

Of course, a multitude of different traditions about how and when to celebrate Christmas abound. We have St. Nicholas Day, we have Christmas itself, and we have the Feast of the Magi, now moved often by the Church itself to some convenient Sunday. In the Philippines, an ex-student told me, they have the Missa de Gallo on the days before Christmas. But, among us, if some religion or group does not have a Christmas, they arrange to have something like it about the same time.

The twelve days after Christmas, which were the traditional time to celebrate it, still have some play, the successive days when "my true love" says something to me about a partridge in a pear tree. A feast was basically something one celebrated when its day arrived, and not sooner. Still, nothing is wrong with anticipation or expectation. Indeed, this mood of "what is about to come among us?" and "What will I receive?" is essential to a proper understanding of Christmas. In fact, I think the theology of Christmas is what lies behind all real expectation in this world. "A Child is given to us, a Son is born unto us." Without that, the world is a pretty dull place.

During Advent, I went to the Holiday Concert of the McLean Symphony across the river. Included in the concert was a medley of Christmas music and a singing of "carols." The director, a lively black American, in his little introduction, wished us all "A Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays." The "carols" that were sung included the traditional Christmas hymns and songs, from "Rudolf" to "Silent Night" to "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." Just why it is all right to wish an audience a "Happy Hanukkah" but not, in the same breath, a "Blessed Christmas" is beyond me. If I were Jewish, I think I would be embarrassed at such an introduction.

No American before the last part of the twentieth century would ever have imagined that the phrase "Merry Christmas" was either offensive to anyone or prohibited from public speech because it was. By that principle of possibly offending someone, we could get rid of practically every word in the English language. Christmas may be the only feast day whose very name is forbidden to mention. Cal Thomas thinks maybe we need not make a big deal of it. If someone has not a clue what Christmas is, let him alone and don’t say anything to him. Yet, currently, from almost every quarter, we make an effort to wish anyone we encounter his equivalent of a "happy holiday" in whatever tradition he is in. We usually use his names.

The Vatican itself seems to note every major holiday of every other religion as well as sending condolences to every tragedy and blessings to every happiness that happens any place in the world. I presume, in return, they are feted with reciprocal greetings in Rome on Christmas and Easter, if not on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter or the Feast of the Holy Rosary.

But here, though curious about them, I am not particularly interested in these wide-spread efforts to alter or suppress Christmas. The "war on Christmas" has received increasing attention from Christians themselves, who are always destined, it seems, to be slow to wake up to attacks on their fundamental beliefs. It is one thing to be overly sensitive so that the slightest hint of disdain is attacked with full force. American Jews sometimes seem to react in this way. The increasing Muslim presence in our media aggressively protests criticism of its record and reminds us that no such criticism is allowed in lands Islam controls. On the other hand, it is not a virtue to be run over roughshod. Meekness does not exactly mean never standing up for or to anything. The effort to make sure that what one holds or does is accurately understood and portrayed is a worthy one.

II.

But if there is any prevailing theme at Christmas, 2005, it is the Christian realization that its very presence in our culture is more and more restricted. It is allowed, no matter what its own numbers, little and sometimes no public space as if this is what "democracy" means. Today, we can find a highly articulated version of "democracy" that does maintain this view, one that excludes religion as the condition of its own well-being, of its own definition of itself.

At his Angelus message on December 4, 2005, Benedict XVI remarked: "Religious liberty is indeed very far from being effectively guaranteed everywhere: in certain cases it is denied for religious or ideological reasons; at other times, although it may be recognizable on paper, it is hindered in effect by political power or, more cunningly, by the cultural predominance of agnosticism and relativism" (L’Osservatore Romano, English, December 7, 2005). It seems clear he was not just talking about Saudi Arabia or China, though in neither of those countries is there anything even closely resembling religious freedom.

A "democratic" theory that presupposes the truth of relativism and agnosticism–usually today called "diversity"–means that claims, especially religious claims to truth, that are not based on these theories are dangerous and need to be restricted. Their adherents need to be changed, denied a place in education or politics that would allow them to claim positive membership in the polity on the basis rather on a theory of human dignity. Thus, the promotion of "democracy" based on relativism means the removal of religion. Religion is only a private, preferably invisible, relation to God, whatever that might be. The late medieval writer Marsilius of Padua had a theory something like this.

But what interests me is why, suddenly, is Christmas a rock of contradiction? It is, after all, the loveliest and warmest of feasts. The annual giving of gifts, the remembering of family and friends, the general festivity are in fact, though not only this, civic goods. They are things that soften the harshness we often find in the public order.

However, it seems to me that the current opposition to Christmas is a deliberate rejection of this very sentiment. What Christmas implies causes many finally to realize that it is not just a spontaneous or harmless gushing of something within the human spirit. This Christmas spirit, and its mysterious and delightful effect on its adherents, has a specific origin and a specific content that is not "replaceable" by any other non-theological understanding of what it is. When we wish someone "merry Christmas," we cannot avoid reminding ourselves and those we greet, that the very possibility of such a wish is itself a grace. We imply things that are given to us which we must freely accept or reject, but in so doing we live by a different spirit.

A student of mine recently wrote an e-mail to me in which he told me that he was going to celebrate Christmas but not its "materialism." I humorously, but seriously, told him that Christmas is, in fact, the very feast of "materialism," that is what it is about. It is about the goodness of material things, perhaps especially the goodness of human babies. The Incarnation and the Nativity are precisely those dogmas that once and for all refute the ever-recurring Manichean tendency to look upon matter as evil.

The "materialism" that we often associate with Christmas–the stores, the tinsel, the glitter, the hassle–is after all the other side of what it means to be in a body and in time. We Christians do not in the least object to giving gifts, to decorations, to understanding what it is all about. We invented such ideas. Like anything else, there can be an excess, but in the very core of the idea of festivity, as Josef Pieper pointed, there is this sense of abundance and excess, of overflowing, and more than we can imagine. The paradigm of this understanding is seen in its fullest glory at the Nativity, at Christmas. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Thus, if I filter it all out, I think that the current efforts to suppress Christmas have definite theological origins or ones deeply rumbling through the human spirit. They sense that what Christmas implies is not some neutral feeling of fellowship or well-being but a reminder that somehow what is best among us is not simply open to us on our own terms. The wish for a "merry Christmas" includes an understanding of our human condition, of our fallen-ness and redemption.

Nativity scenes will often have about them the premonitions of the Cross. But I do not think it is this side of Christianity that is being rejected in the current movement against Christmas. Rather it is the very notion that there is a presence in the world–a spirit–that somehow transforms lives and makes possible things that are in their own way "superhuman." The "natural" life of man, as Aquinas said, is, in fact, "superhuman," that is the life that we given in this world because of the Nativity.

The opposition to Christmas, I think, is rooted in the human will constantly being confronted by grace. And this grace implies that what we really want, what really makes us human, is not something that we can give to ourselves. Rather it is something that we must freely receive on its own terms. It is not, at bottom, something we can either take or leave, that will leave us as we were before. Rather it is something we must accept or reject.

And the rejection, if we choose it, requires our constructing an alternative view of the world, of our redemption, in which whatever Christmas means does not exist and, even more radically, is not allowed to exist. The joys of Christmas, in other words, do not come on our own terms. Christmas is not interchangeable with other beliefs or philosophies. It is what it is, and this is why it sometimes incites that strange voluntary opposition that we often find to what is, in fact, good as seen to be manifested in the Feast of Christmas.

III.

So, then, what is Christmas? In a letter of Pope Leo the Great (d. 461), we read, "To speak of our Lord, the Son of the blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that He is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel.... No doubt the Son of God in His omnipotence could have taught and sanctified men by appearing to them in a semblance of human form as He did to the patriarchs and prophets.... No mere figure, then, fulfilled the mystery of our reconciliation with God, ordained from all eternity." From a fifth century pope we are reminded of the stark realism, indeed materialism, of Christianity. Christ is not an abstraction, not a "semblance of a human form," no "mere figure." It is not even enough to hold that Christ is the Son of Mary. We need to know who Mary was, from whence is her own birth, one firmly rooted in her Jewish ancestors, even unto the origins of what it is to be a human being.

Christ is "true and perfect man," yet, he is involved in the mystery of our reconciliation with God," something "ordained from all eternity." This is the Word, the Word that was made flesh. The "celebration" of Christmas, or any feast for that matter, cannot begin or be fully appreciated until we recognize, or at least glimpse, the cause for the celebration. What is there to celebrate? Celebrations without a what to celebrate are at best artificial and empty. Human beings cannot really manufacture a celebration that does not have transcendent overtones, to which it is a response out of the abundance of our surprise. The joy in what we are, in that we are, has origins not in ourselves.

Christianity is composed of the understanding of two basic truths, the first is an understanding of the inner life of the Godhead; the second is that One of the Persons within this Godhead became man, not any One but this One–the Son. What we call the Trinity refers to the fact that within the Godhead we find (because it is revealed to us) not a kind of inertness, but a vibrant life of unity in otherness that can best be described as personal and social. We get these latter ideas themselves largely from our efforts to understand what this life might mean. This Trinitarian God, complete and happy in Himself, created the world from nothing, that is, neither from previous matter nor from His own substance such that the world itself is God. The world exists because of the freedom of God, of his complete inner Life, not from any necessity in God to need something else besides the inner Trinitarian Life.

However, God did not create just to see if He could do it, as a sort of confirmation of His own spectacular powers. He created the world that other free creatures could be given or could behold, according to their capacities, this inner Life. To do this, of course, such beings had both to know and to be free. They had to exercise their freedom to choose God’s way at His invitation. By the very nature of a free creature, the invitation could be (and in fact was) rejected. The cause of this astonishing rejection lies close to the wonderment about why Christmas is warred upon, namely, because of a refusal to admit that we are not sufficient in ourselves–that what is really our destiny is something more than we could expect or hope for by our own powers. We refuse to become more than we are, a refusal that involves a greater love.

So the Incarnation as we know it has the note of reconciliation about it. The Nativity of the Lord in a manger is God’s initiative about how to repair the rejection of Him that we know as original sin or the Fall. Evidently, the avenue God chose, as Leo intimates, was one of a number of alternatives that were theoretically available to Him. The only way a free being can reject his own rejection, as it were, is freely to acknowledge the initial disorder in the light of a Savior who is capable of providing a link to the Godhead. That link is the Incarnation and Nativity. This is why we speak of the Word made flesh, Who is like unto us in all things, but sin, Who is a child so that we cannot be deceived about His reality in this world.

What we are left with is precisely Christmas. The way the Father chose to restore us to what He had intended for us in the first place seems at first improbable. Yet, it is somehow enormously logical. It happened in an out-of-the-way place, in Bethlehem, at a time in world history when the evangelist tells us that the whole world was at peace under Augustus Caesar. What was put into the world at this birth would be crucified in this same world, under a later Emperor’s governor, Pontius Pilate, some thirty years later. But what was put into the world continues. The Holy Spirit was to be sent. The vast drama of our history has followed, and it still follows. Some two thousand years later we still find here the stone that the builder rejected, too often we reject it ourselves. We still balk at a carpenter, at shepherds, at angels on high.

And yet, the very account of this event still seems to divide us because it is not neutral, even in its telling. It is not just another "event" in human history. It is the event in human history. We should not doubt that behind all the ferment about Christmas, the suspicion persists that this singular event is what causes the division between those who celebrate Christmas and those who hate it, war upon it. In spite of the song, we cannot "have ourselves a merry little Christmas." We can only be given what Christmas is, that is, a Child Who is born to us, Who is Christ the Lord. Nothing more, nothing less.

"‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring...."

"I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning."

"I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, with every Christmas Card I write...."


Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.



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