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
"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...."
"Im dreaming of a White Holiday, with every Holiday Card I write...."
Advent seems now to be a season in which we have an unending series of pre-Christmas
celebrations, usuallyeven mandatorilycalled "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 dont 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.
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" (LOsservatore 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
A "democratic" theory that presupposes the truth of relativism
and agnosticismusually 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
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 Christmasthe
stores, the tinsel, the glitter, the hassleis 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 worlda spiritthat 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.
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
Onethe 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
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 Gods 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 ourselvesthat
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 Gods 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 Emperors 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."
"Im dreaming of a White Christmas, with every Christmas Card
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
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