Of late I’ve grown rather cool toward Christmas. It’s a curious development. When I was a child, Christmas seemed the height of magic and mystery. Now when people ask me my favorite holidays, I answer Easter and Thanksgiving. I reason that the Resurrection and Gratitude are two of the best things there are, and I thrill to the atmosphere of both holidays.
Speaking purely in terms of atmosphere, Christmas, coming at the onset of winter, always feels to me like the beginning of a long slog: The King of Heaven has descended into the morass of human existence. Easter, by contrast, has for me the sense of an arrival, an accomplishment.
My fascination with Easter began in adolescence. I took part in Passion plays and absorbed the great art and music associated with Holy Week—Titian, the St. Matthew Passion. I thrilled at how the desolation of Good Friday was swallowed up in the joy of Easter Sunday, and how all this harmonized with the rebirth of Spring. Easter brought me face to face with the concrete realities of Christianity. The Temple, the Praetorium, Golgotha, the Empty Tomb.
I wonder if the fact that we let Christ slip more easily from Christmas than from Easter has something to do with our attitude toward the biblical accounts. The Easter story has the clarity of documentary reporting. On the other hand, we tend to treat the Infancy Narratives like vague myths from the land of make-believe, or innocuous fables for the grandchildren. Before long the Babe in the Manger has become a generic baby, and Christ is little by little subtracted from his own birthday. Once he is gone, we are left with platitudes and sentimentality. Hence the aesthetic problem I alluded to. I find Christmas too sentimental, and I find its particular brand of sentiment soft and soporific.
Of course, we Imaginative Conservatives know that Christmas is made of much stronger stuff. Consider the fact that it has divided history in two. Whenever we state the year we are implicitly referencing Christ’s Nativity—a fact which the fashion of using C.E. or “common era” attempts to gloss over but doesn’t change. Christmas affirms that Christ is the center of history, both figuratively and literally.
Do you remember the turn of the millennium? It was a momentous occasion, two thousand years from the birth of Christ. Yet if Christ figured into the discussion at all, I missed it. The talk of the town was the “millennium bug,” in which the apocalypse was imminent because we entered the wrong digits into our computers.
I believe it was Pope Benedict XVI who said that the root problem of the modern world is forgetfulness about God. More precisely, Jesus is remembered, but on our terms. We make third-rate and distorted images of him, far from the rich portraits of the Gospels. It is in returning to those Gospels and also, I propose, through great expressions of culture—because Christ is a catalyst for culture—that we will find him.
Oscar Wilde has a wonderful passage about Christ and culture in his De Profundis. The gist is that Christ’s Renaissance, his rising from the dead, is more important and influential than the later Renaissance, the one we read about in the art history books. Wilde and his generation idolized the Middle Ages, a culture they saw as more vital and genuine because it was founded on a belief, not in the works of man, but in the person of Christ.
Wilde’s aphorism implies that Christ is the center and measure of human history, not our high and mighty achievements. To say so is not to be anti-humanistic, but to acknowledge that everything man accomplishes has a source.
G.K. Chesterton pursued a similar theme in his masterpiece The Everlasting Man. Jesus, the obscure carpenter from an obscure Roman province, decided the fate of antiquity. The whole Roman Empire converted to belief in him. It was a startling reversal, worthy of the Gospel itself (“the last shall be first”). Pontius Pilate, the responsible Roman, survives in our creed as a byword for shirking one’s duty. Jesus was the mustard seed that grew into the mighty tree of civilization.
Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book:
A man who says he is God may be classed with a man who says he is glass. But the man who says he is glass is not a glazier making windows for all the world. He does not remain for ages as a shining and crystalline figure, in whose light everything is as clear as crystal.
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” and Christ is known in part from the beautiful things our culture has produced. Great religious art and music shows this in a high degree. But lately I notice his presence where you wouldn’t expect it—secular paintings, stories and poems, Westerns, situation comedies. The story of Christ is embedded so deeply in us that artists can’t help but echo it, even if unconsciously.
A case in point. Recently I was watching one of my favorite episodes of the old Twilight Zone. If you’re a fan of vintage television, maybe you’ve seen it. It’s about a World War I fighter pilot who suddenly shows up at a military base in 1959. Nearly everyone doubts his story of how he got there, he is put on trial for his claims and, in the end, he performs a redemptive sacrifice—but not before ascending the heavens in his plane. Do you sense a Christ-like pattern in that outline? So did I.
You can no doubt supply your favorite Christian allegories from literature, film, and other art forms. In addition to being “the greatest story ever told,” the life of Christ has also generated countless other stories. No more durable story has ever been found for mankind, though many have tried to formulate one. Ideologies and regimes have crumbled to dust, but the Christian hope remains.
Were we to peel back the layers, I’m sure we would find signs of Christ in many unexpected places in our inherited culture and in our world. Even the secular symbols of Christmas—the evergreen tree, holly and mistletoe, Santa Claus the great Gift Giver—all point to the divine presence. Which I suppose is one of the main lessons of this season: If you want to find the Everlasting Man, look where he is hidden.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Madonna del Libro” (1480) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.