When December comes, coffeehouses are already serving red cups and, in department stores, plastic sleighs and lighted trees are already on display. “Happy Holidays” was once a euphemism for another greeting, one celebrating the event by which our years are numbered; but “Merry Christmas” now barely echoes in that anodyne supplanting phrase. We can lament our secular culture’s recoil from the few remainders – and even the mere reminders – of the Christian Faith; we can decry the “War on Christmas.” And yet, if we are honest, we must admit that the first diminution of the day’s religious character did not come from without.
What is the reason for the season? And what is its deepest meaning? Different answers will be preached from pulpits in late December. Some will identify the joys of familial bliss, and others gratitude for the common blessing that we otherwise fail to count. While sermons like these make meaningful stops by a certain manger on the way to their larger points, the compromise they strike between the sacred and the saccharine is telling. Why, after all, wouldn’t Thanksgiving afford the same reflections? And what is specifically Christian about the lessons such preachers draw? If the true reason for the season fails to resonate through our culture, we should not chide those agents in the world which transmit it too weakly; we should rather blame the muffling hand which we ourselves place on the clamorous bells of Christmas morn.
The dilutions and substitutions of the radical message of this feast do indeed begin with us – and why shouldn’t this be so? Who could communicate the true meaning of Christmas, in word and in deed, but saints? Who but a saint could bear the absurdity of the event? The ancient Saturnalia that the early Church converted – that feast of fools which made masters into slaves and slaves masters – is only a weak image of the carnivalesque upheavals that Christmas unleashes: angels serve summons to shepherds, a Virgin bears a son, kings bring gifts to a babe, a God becomes a man.
In the Prologue to his Gospel, St. John names that God with the Greek word, logos – a term that can be translated as “word,” “order,” or “reason.” But no sooner is God named as “Reason” than is the rational principle of the Greeks overturned with the preposterous declaration: “And the Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14). St. John confronts us, at the outset of his confession, with the chaos of the incarnation: the Divine Reason, insane with love for sinful man, takes on the nature He would redeem. The Almighty becomes a helpless Child. The Ancient One who once thundered from Sinai sleeps in a cradle in piercing cold.
The myths of the classical world strive toward this unthinkable Mystery. Their lecherous gods cavorted with mortals. But only in the Gospels are men loved with the Love of a God – for only here does the God who is Love achieve Divine Charity’s greatest prodigy, that miracle wrought by Divine Mercy’s sovereign design: the salvation of men by means of sin itself through the undertaking of its own consequences. The gods of the Greeks and Romans suffered passions; but Christ, the Impassible God, freely submits to the Passion. The Resurrection is the culmination of that Divine disorder which God’s birth at Christmas begins.
This year Christmas comes amid disorder of a different kind: a rising tide of violence and a ubiquitous dissolution of borders. The foundations of nations seem to sway from an east wind. These, indeed, are the times of “wars and rumors of wars” – and yet we are counseled to peace despite the darkness of the days: “but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Mt 24:6). The God who comes at Christmas is one whom “even the winds obey” (Mt 8:27).
The winds of the world should not trouble us. Even in ancient times, the last days of the year were revered precisely for the special calm they bring. According to the old myth, Aeolus, the god of the winds, would still the seas for nine days so that the halcyon could make a nest on the ocean itself. Yet the hush that falls over the world at the year’s end signals another birth: that of God’s Only Begotten. The silence of these days invites us to listen for the Heartbeat of a newborn God.
If this message can only be borne by saints, let us heed the philosopher’s words: “Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally.” Let us live, visibly and temporally, the otherworldly joy that Christmas communicates to the inner sanctum of our ownmost heart; let us live Christ’s peace in spite of the alarums of the world; and let us teach others what this feast’s message truly means through deeds of that holy love which speak louder than any seasonal greetings could. Let us, indeed, be saints. And let Christmas find us worthy of that message of the angels: Emmanuel, God-with-us!
We at The Interim wish you the Joy and the Peace of the Holy Season of Christmas.