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Richard John Neuhaus had a great talent for aphorisms. The one that I am most inclined to repeat appeared in this magazine’s first issue, published in March 1990: “the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” Neuhaus went on to elaborate with another gem: “Religion that is captive to public life is of little public use.” From the very start, the necessary connection between the two, and the equally requisite distance between them, was to be a guiding theme of this enterprise, now into its fourth decade of robust and indispensable existence. 

Christmas is a time of conviviality and joy, an opening of the heart to our precious relationships with others, so often unacknowledged or forgotten amid the insensibility of the everyday. Consider the appeal of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and the transformation of Scrooge’s mindset from a hard and isolate individualism to a softened openness to others, a generosity of spirit. We owe so much of the glorious way we observe Christmas to Dickens, and to the Victorians. 

Part of that legacy, though, may be a certain Victorian evasiveness. It is not without reason that people complain we don’t keep “Christ in Christmas” or that we forget “The Reason for the Season.” Delightful as the season’s spirit is, it is a byproduct and not the thing itself. The name of Jesus Christ is never spoken in A Christmas Carol, even if the story is obviously a great and compelling allegory of God’s redemptive love. But can the allegory exist indefinitely apart from the thing being allegorized? That is the kind of uncomfortable question that this magazine exists to ask, and answer, with boldness and integrity. 

So in that spirit, I want to emphasize that Christmas is a precious beacon of light entering into a world of darkness, the real world that we inhabit, when we are willing to be aware of it. Even with all our comforts, all our medical miracles, all our prosperity, this world remains a vale of tears, as it always has been. Christmas challenges all of that. It is not just a matter of us letting go of our pinched spirits and ungenerous hearts, and throwing our hats up in the air in joy, and letting our generosity overflow into gifts and feasting. It is God’s invasion of our often sad, and diminished, world. He is performing an intervention.

After the horrific events of October 7 this year, and their appalling aftermath in Western capitals and campuses, we should not need reminding of this world’s capacity for darkness and bigotry. But these events provide us an opportunity to remember one of the other great achievements of this magazine: its success in fostering a community of Christians and Jews who are bound together in love and mutual respect and genuine moral and theological kinship. May that success continue to grow and spread undaunted in the years to come. 

I write this in the anticipatory season called “Advent.” The word refers to coming, to arrival, to  something new and extrinsic. It can be like the anticipation of presents under the tree, something good that we know is coming, and in fact has already come. But Advent refers not only to our waiting for Christ’s Nativity, but our waiting for Christ’s return—it designates that betweenness, that provisionality, “for the time being,” in which we exist.

It is exactly that territory that First Things inhabits, understanding our world as something in-between—both immanent and transcendent, burdened by the power of darkness and yet freed by the power of light, faithful in waiting on promises yet to come, and faithful in the work of honoring the divine image that dwells in each of us. May God continue to bless this magazine, and those who produce it. And may those of us who find solace and insight in its pages do our part, by providing the necessary material support for its work.

Wilfred McClay is a professor of history at Hillsdale College, and author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.

Image by Valerie Everett licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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