According to the laws of ancient Israel, in addition to the Sabbath observed every seventh year, the people of the Lord were to celebrate a Sabbath of Sabbaths, a Jubilee year: “You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year… It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family” (Lev 25:10).
This festival of forgiveness not only recognized that God, the Giver of all things, was their ultimate Owner as well, but it also recognized that the people had to be freed from the burden of their own past, the gradual and inevitable accumulation of debts. This principle of forgiveness, which lies at the heart of the penultimate petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is as necessary for sanctity as it is for the health of a society. As the French philosopher Simone Weil put it: “The payment of debts is necessary for social order. The non-payment is quite equally necessary for social order. For centuries humanity has oscillated, serenely unaware, between these two contradictory necessities.”
The feast which ancient Israel celebrated every 50 years is a shadowy anticipation of that more wonderful Jubilee which we celebrate every twelve months. Christmas is the anniversary of the arrival of our forgiveness, the beginning of a new era of absolute absolution. Indeed, it is the Jubilee initiated by God Himself, who, through a helpless Child, will ultimately cancel the debt of the world and buy it back – literally, “redeem” it – from its bondage to sin.
It is not by accident that the pinnacle of pre-Christian Western art was reached in the tragedies of the Greeks. Their somber vision constitutes a kind of wisdom literature of a world without hope wherein a doomed hero eventually succumbs to the destiny of a cruel cosmos. The Greeks knew that death is the annihilating riddle towards which each individual human journey inexorably moves, and the death of nature that we witness in winter is a sort of symbol for our similar fate.
Christmas, however, marks this end of the epoch of tragedy and announces the beginning of a new time, an era of forgiveness. The Child of this new chapter of peace – the very child that fails to appears at the end of Romeo and Juliet – arrives at Christmas as the embodiment of the New Covenant, the new start God makes with Man.
Christmas, therefore, is tragedy’s tragedy, the beginning of the beginning of death’s end, because it reveals and activates the salvific meaning implicit in every birth. Every child commutes the death sentence passed over all mankind by mortality itself. Natality annuls mortality, and realized fertility saves men from the fate of every individual man. The birth of a child is like a new path opening within a dead-end. The continuum of human procreation is a series of recursive digressions from the dark destiny glimpsed by the Greeks. While the ancient playwrights understood the meaning of individual death, they could not imagine that birth could have the same symbolic significance.
Thus, if Easter celebrates the resurrection of the One Man, Christmas celebrates the resurrection of men from their collective fate. Christmas marks the eventual return of man’s immortality. The first coming of Christ is, therefore, an image of His Second coming as well: the angels’ song to the shepherds echoes the eschatological reveille of the final, awakening trumpet.
Emboldened, then, by the echo of angelsong, we find the courage at Christmas to change our lives, to be unburdened of our grudges and resentments, to forgive as we would like to be forgiven. For, while Christmas is the celebration of a new birth and a new beginning, it is also – at its deepest level – the celebration of the abrogation of a just judgment passed upon us.
If we in the pro-life movement would win the hearts and minds of our fellow men, we must first make ourselves worthy of our own message by removing everything that impedes our preaching of the Gospel of Life: “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:5).
As we watch the slow accumulation of snow outside, we should be inspired to relieve ourselves of our accumulated memories of slights, feuds, and failings. The warmth of shared family love should make us melt the chill that creeps upon our own hearts to others who are less dear. And the celebration of the birth of Mary’s Child in a manger should sustain us in our charitable campaign on behalf of mothers in distress and their unborn babies. Forgiving the petty trespasses against ourselves, we can then take up our struggle against the Culture of Death with new strength and renewed fidelity to that first announcement of an undeserved, unthinkable, and otherworldly Love. For it is only through men of good will that peace on earth will flourish.
We at The Interim wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and peace and joy in the coming year.