Not, I admit, exactly a column, or at least not an original column. But curious to see what we’d said about Christmas in “On the Square,” I found some quotes I liked and wanted to pass on. Three are by Father Neuhaus, the fourth by a Lutheran pastor, Paul Gregory Alms.
The sources of the full articles appear at the end, as do links to an interesting Jewish reflection on Christmas by my colleague David Goldman; a reflection, spurred by Christmas, on the credulity of atheists by Umberto Eco; an article on the dating of Christmas by my friend William Tighe; an amusing estimate of the actual cost of celebrating the twelve days of Christmas in accordance with the song, as reported by Joe Carter; and Carson Holloway's explanation of what Christmas offers those who don't celebrate it as a holy day.
“I don’t know why he has to spoil the season by bringing that up. For him every day is Good Friday.” Her complaint was against Father’s homily, which underscored that the baby Jesus was born to die. Yes, Good Friday, but Easter, too. Although Father insisted that we should not rush to Easter.
In the daily office, the reading for March 25, the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas, is from Leo the Great. “Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that is incapable of suffering, was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.”
This God-man, this God-baby, is born to suffer and to die. In the last several decades it has become almost a commonplace among Christians to say that God suffers with us in our suffering. Many draw great consolation from this, and understandably so. And yet the claim that God suffers is not without its problems. It cannot be so simple as the maxim that misery loves company, from which it follows that God is the very best company to have in our misery. . . .
The one person, Jesus Christ, both true God and true man, stooped into our littleness to draw us up to the greatness of life eternal, which is not this life infinitely extended but is the very life of God. From the beginning and through the millennia, human beings looked upward in search of the divine. Mary looked downward, at the baby in her arms. She looked into the very face of God.
— Richard John Neuhaus
With stunning abruptness we’re jostled from the Christmas Mass (the Christ Mass) to the feast of St. Stephen, proto-martyr. And then on to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. It is an antidote to the sentimentality that inevitably attends devotion to the baby Jesus. A sentimentality, let it be allowed, that is not to be scorned. Others may make neat distinctions between “authentic sentiment” and sentimentality, but these days of Christmas are a time for the suspension of neat distinctions. Sentimentality is all too human, and all too human is what God became.
In recent decades, the Church has revived the office of permanent deacon. Stephen was among the first of them. The deacons were to attend to the taking care of business so that the apostles could be freed up for prayer and preaching. So much for job descriptions. Right off, Stephen is eloquently preaching and getting himself in deep trouble with the authorities, ending up as the first of the martyrs.
Unless one counts the Holy Innocents as the first martyrs, and there is a venerable tradition that does just that. Those baby boys of Bethlehem played a part in salvation’s story beyond their knowing. Recall the fourth-century hymn of Aurelius Prudentius, Salvete, Flores Martyrum:
Sweet flow’rets of the martyr band
Plucked by the tyrant’s ruthless hand
Upon the threshold of the morn,
Like rosebuds by a tempest torn.
First victims for th’incarnate Lord,
A tender flock to feel the sword;
Beside the very altar gay,
With palm and crown, ye seemed to play.
Ah, what availed King Herod’s wrath?
He could not stop the Savior’s path.
Alone, while others murdered lay,
In safety Christ is borne away.
In safety borne away not to escape but to fulfill his destiny by dying in order to redeem those first holy innocents, and the innumerable others of history’s Rachels weeping for children lost.
— Richard John Neuhaus
Santa occupies a large patch in the quilt of the commercial Christmas, which both stresses and bankrupts families. He steals a large portion of the spotlight away from the Child born in Bethlehem. He stands for much of what is wrong in today’s world: greed, acquisitiveness, and covetousness.
But isn’t there something in this enduring Santa myth worth considering? Santa is, first of all, a whole bunch of fun—good clean fun at that. With video games detonating their way deeper into our kids’ consciousness and with Internet and film peddling immoral messages to younger and younger children, the happy, overweight Northerner seems a refreshing alternative. The popular media content pitched to our children as kid stuff derives from the over-sexualized, violent, bad dreams of the middle-aged who seek only to neutralize their longing for the innocence of childhood. Santa brings none of that: only jolliness, fantasy, and anticipation of his gifts.
Santa is a pre-Enlightenment figure, a fossilized remain of a time when the world was a more magical place—when elves could make toys, reindeer could fly and an old man was able to fit down a million chimneys. Santa represents a universe where the truth is glimpsed in mystery. In this archaic, lost world, the cold data of our senses, the scientific truth of things, is only the start, not the end, of what it meant to live a fulfilled life. Santa is, then, part of a worldview hospitable to the Christ Child.
Christmas has never been a holiday strictly limited to the Church. It made its way into homes and towns through folktales and cultural rituals. It contrasted the cold exposure of winter with the warm solace of the family hearth. It is not a blessing to reduce Christmas only to Jesus, to a strictly religious observance, to a “church thing.” That would grant victory to those who wish to shunt faith, the supernatural, wonder and miracles off into a separated religious realm where they can be more easily ignored, even mocked.
The abuses and distortions present in today’s Christmas ought not scare us away from a joy that can transform the few days at the end of December. This feast ought to fill our families and homes with overflowing messiness: lights, trees, winter stories, gifts, food, songs, and traditions. Christmas is, of course, about the story of Jesus’ birth.
But that story is a fruitful one, a noble tree sending out narrative roots into the nooks and crannies of our imaginations. Santa is one of the great whimsical outliers of that one true story of a baby born to a virgin. Santa Claus is ours and, for all his faults, I wish his story well.
— Paul Gregory Alms
There is in the Christian theological tradition the accent on God as the “Totally Other,” the ineffable that transcends our capacity to think or speak. J.B. Phillips’ popular classic Your God Is Too Small is always recommended reading. To appreciate the total otherness of God is to be immune to the angry ravings of the “new atheists” who so ferociously attack a “God” in whom Christians do not believe.
Their God is too small, and yet not small enough. Throughout the ages, people had looked up into the heavens in search of God. Bearing Jesus in her womb, holding Jesus in her arms, Mary looked down into the face of God. Immanence and transcendence require one another. The Totally Other is the predicate of Emmanuel, God with us. Finitum capax infiniti.
Call it a paradox, call it a tension, call it a dialectic. Better still, call it Incarnation. Incarnatus est is the end of playing off the infinite against the finite, the human against the divine, as though Reality were a zero-sum game. How can modern man believe in miracles, Rudolf Bultmann asked, when he knows how to switch on a light bulb? Or, as a parishioner opined the other day, why pray for the healing of a headache when Tylenol works so well?
Incarnatus est is the forging of an unbreakable union between the miraculous and the quotidian, the transcendent and the immanent. All our thinking, our creativity, our science, our labors, along with our sorrows and disappointments, is participation in the life of God become man, in faith’s anticipation of our destiny fulfilled in the life of God.
— Richard John Neuhaus
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Richard John Neuhaus’s On St. John and Mormons.
His O Come, Let Us Adore Him.
Paul Gregory Alms’ Santa Claus and the Christmas Wars.
Richard John Neuhaus’s The Real Presence of Christmas.
David Goldman’s Sympathy for Scrooge.
Umberto Eco’s God isn’t big enough for some people.
William Tighe’s Calculating Christmas.
Joe Carter’s The Cost of Twelve Days of Christmas.
Carson Holloway's Christmas and Western Civilization.