Our destiny is not ultimate non-existence via the grave but an everlasting existence beyond the grave. The birth of Christ is the death of Death. The Incarnation was at the centre of history and was also its end. This is the Good News of the Gospel that we celebrate at Christmas.
There are three ways of understanding history and our place within it. We can believe that history is progressing towards a golden age in the future, or that it is regressing from a golden age in the past, or that it is a constant struggle between good and evil, irrespective of any mythical golden age. We can believe that things are getting progressively better, progressively worse, or that they remain essentially the same. These three views might be seen as historical optimism, historical pessimism, and historical realism.
It was the view of G.K. Chesterton, as it is the view of the present author, that every generation faces the same perennial struggle between good and evil, irrespective of concepts of “progress.” This was the thesis of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, which was written as a riposte to the historical optimism and progressivism of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. Essentially, Chesterton argued that the Incarnation was at the centre of history and was also its end. Everything before Christ points in expectation towards Him, and everything since Christ also points in expectation towards Him. Everything in history points to Christ because Christ is Himself the point. Everything ends with Christ because Christ is Himself the end of history, in the sense that He is its very purpose, the end to which history points.
Such a view of history is rooted in an understanding of man’s own purpose. If Christ is the Everlasting Man, we are also everlasting men because of Him. Our destiny is not ultimate non-existence via the grave but an everlasting existence beyond the grave. The birth of Christ is the death of Death. This is the Good News of the Gospel that we celebrate at Christmas.
If this is so, we must see history as the everlasting struggle of everlasting men to be united with the Everlasting Man. This understanding of history sees it as being woven with three metaphysical threads: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Each of these threads is merely the playing out within history of the three permanent and perennial facets of man: homo viator, homo superbus, and anthropos.
Homo viator is man on a journey, or man on a quest. He is pilgrim man who knows that his only purpose in life is to get to heaven. Homo viator is man struggling to become a saint, relying on supernatural assistance to help him on the journey.
Homo superbus is proud man. He is the one who refuses the quest so that he can do his own thing instead. He gets sidetracked in the pursuit of his own appetites until he loses his way. He loses his locus in pursuit of the lotus and forgets the way home.
Anthropos is he who looks up in wonder at the cosmos and sees that it is beautiful. He uses his imagination, the imago dei within him, to perceive Creation and to create beautiful things in thanksgiving.
It is the struggle between these three aspects of the human condition which weaves the very fabric of time with good, bad, and beautiful threads. In every generation homo viator, the good man who is trying to be a saint, is attacked by homo superbus, the proud man enslaved to his own appetites. Homo superbus is usually more powerful in a worldly sense than homo viator, and he uses his power to persecute his virtuous neighbour. This is why saints are always martyrs; they witness to the truth in enemy-occupied territory.
Anthropos is also a witness to the truth, creating beautiful works of art which shine forth God’s creative presence in His creatures. Pope Benedict XVI understood this when he proclaimed that the only real argument for the Church is to be found in the saints She has produced and the beautiful art She has inspired. These are the good and beautiful threads which weave their way through Time, interwoven with the worldly thread of Pride, which casts its shadow without ever vanquishing the light.
These three threads can be seen weaving their way through the Gospel narrative of the Nativity. The goodness of the Virgin does not distance her from the darkness of her times. The politics of the day necessitates the taking of a long and arduous journey, even though she is nine months pregnant. There is no room at the inn for the Mother and unborn Child, as there is no love in the heart of sinful man for the Child Himself. Mary gives birth in the uncomfortable surroundings of a stable. Her child is laid in a manger, there being no crib for a bed. A handful of good men, prompted by grace, visits the Child, adoring his Presence, but they are in a small minority. The heedless majority are carousing in the streets of Bethlehem, living for the moment and oblivious of the light of love in their midst.
After the Child is born, the secular state, the domain of homo superbus, is so incensed by this rival to its power that it plans to kill the Child. Indeed, it is willing to kill every child in order to retain its power, massacring the innocent in order to destroy Innocence itself. Such is the hostility of the state that the Holy Family are forced to flee their homeland, becoming refugees in a land of exile.
What does all this tell us about the plight of good and noble souls throughout history? It shows us that the good are refugees in a land of exile, seeing the silver lining that frames every cloud through a vale of tears. And yet it also shows us that the Mother’s joy transcends all sorrow in the glory of the birth of the Child. The goodness of the mother and the beauty of the Child overcome all that is bad in the prideful history of humanity. It is the goodness and beauty which points to the Golden Age beyond time in which the Mother and Child are triumphant forever in the presence of those who take the pilgrimage of life, following the star that leads to heaven.
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The featured image is “The Holy Family” (1518) by Raphael (1483–1520) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.