The Catholic Thing
Christmas Hope Returned Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 24 December 2012

One of the most extraordinary passages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring appears as Frodo and Sam are taking evening rest near the end of their long struggle to defeat evil: “There, peeping among the cloud wrack, above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

That, or something very like it, has always been the main insight behind the celebration of Christmas. Legions of modern archaeologists, ethnologists, psychologists, anthropologists, literary theorists, students of myth, historical/critical Scripture scholars, neuroscientists, common village atheists, high-paid media scoffers, and other odd specimens of the species homo sapiens cannot obscure this simple fact. When that light penetrates this world, a truth is revealed.

I have known people sunk in depression and tempted to self-slaughter – some clinical cases, others caught in the coils of bad choices that spun wildly out of control – who say that the only thing that kept them from giving up was the simple truth that, in spite of everything, there’s good in the world. Not all of them immediately connected that good to God. But in our time, once you’ve turned towards something – anything – good and true that can survive the worst life can bring, you are on the royal road to a whole series of new discoveries and never know where it will end.

It’s good to remember in this season that Christmas is in truth the beginning of a kind of adventure. This year, I see that cultural despisers of religion have moved beyond merely excluding Christ from the public square to mockery of the sentimentality of Christmas. Many of them are laboring under the misimpression that believers today are like some pre-modern naïf who has never heard of doubt – or thought.

The fact is that most believers today have heard of almost nothing else – and have passed through and beyond easy skepticism. But the doubters have a point about how Christmas is often celebrated. If Christians only give the impression that God was born and everything is now all warm and fuzzy, we are leaving a lot out.

In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman was already warning in one of his Advent sermons that the question “and who shall abide the day of his coming?” applies to the First Coming and Christmas as well as the Second and Last Judgment. There’s a reason why Herod was willing to slaughter the innocents to stop the light of that star from entering our world. That light turns everything upside down and no one is secure in his own private pursuits any more. Hence, the ancient as well as modern aggression.

Any sane Christian understands true Christmas cheer. Even when it’s mostly sentimental, it’s more real than the world of self-styled realists. For a number of reasons, we’ve lost the distinction between authentic sentiment – which is to say appropriate human feeling – and the inauthentic and unreal emotionalism now evident everywhere. But those who have glimpsed the pure white star beyond all trial and self-delusion know that what the world dismisses as “mere feeling” has nothing to do with deep sentiment.

One thing Christians ought to make clear is that we’re well aware that the star comes with great consolations and also with great and real demands – if we remain faithful to the vision. The hobbits would have been quite happy to remain within the snug life of the Shire. But the Shire is not all a fully human person will want. It cannot even survive in a “forlorn land” without some who will venture out into great discomfort – precisely in order to preserve what many think of as ordinary goods.

A shopping mall is not exactly the Shire, but it’s a similar temptation to false ease and quiet. The secularists now rightly denounce all the advertising and crass commercialism of the season – the season meaning now a frenetic search for low prices that extends from before Halloween well into the New Year. We’re even grown accustomed to believing that the health of the economy depends on what is bizarrely called “consumer confidence” during this season.

In this as in much else, it’s not so much the what as the why that’s the problem. Giving and receiving gifts is one of the great human things. In some cultures, there is an elaborate system that regulates the whole process and imbues it with meaning that preserves and expresses, rather than degrading and distorting, humanity. The exotic gifts of the Magi show the great honor an ancient culture knew was appropriate for the King of Kings, even as a newborn babe.

The star at Bethlehem, like Sam Gamgee’s star, cannot really be harmed by the shadows that try to engulf it. But we can be. Which is why it’s good for us to send people into the struggles of the world who have had an experience as children of a light that the world cannot give. Many of our current ills stem from large numbers of people who have never had the gift of such an experience.

Even a believer formed by Christmas may stumble around amidst living challenges. But once you have seen that “light and high beauty,” you will also have real hope of stumbling across what you need to find your way again. And you will never be under the most crippling of illusions – not Christmas sentimentalism, but the illusion that what is truly good is too good to be really true.

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Randall, December 24, 2012
I wish everyone would read this article. Merry Christmas to all TCT readers!
written by Willie, December 24, 2012
I am always perplexed as people open their gifts and proclaim,"this is the best Christmas ever!" Sad to say in our culture Christmas happiness costs money.
written by Frank, December 24, 2012
My gift this Christmas will not be found under the tree, it will be found in the quiet humble knowledge of the mind and the joy of my heart. I came home to the Church last April after 18 years of struggle. My wife and I have never been more in love with one another as our love is to Christ and reflected back to our wonderful union. and oh are we living an adventure! Merry Christmas to all!
written by Sue, December 24, 2012
A clerk complained to me yesterday that she couldn't wait till the day after Christmas because she had been listening to the same *six* carols played on the speakers for *months*.

Once one understands that this crass commercialization and banalification of Christmas has been *planned* - every bit as much as the 911 attack - it is easier to rise to the challenge of defeating the enemy.

Let there be lightness in our step today!

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
written by athanasius, December 24, 2012
I was taught that even though ancient pagan peoples did not have the full truth of God, their pagan beliefs were evidence that there is a longing for God deep within us, and these people expressed it through paganism.

In our secular age, this still rings true. All people deep inside long for the light, love, and truth that is Jesus Christ. Those who don't explicitly want to believe in Jesus still seek for Him in their lives. In our modern American culture, people have transferred all that seek from Jesus into the mythical person of Santa Claus. He is kind, jolly, and generous, and the spirit of his holiday leads others to want peace on earth and reconciliation with others. Santa has the added bonus of not growing up to carry a cross, so he is much easier to follow than Jesus.

Even Hollywood, with all of its wackiness, produces some films that really do capture the true yearning of the human heart.

I have always felt that we Catholics, who know the fullness of truth, should not scowl on all of this "secular celebration", but rather use it to point out the underlying truth that is the foundation of the yearning that I think is really behind the hope the world feels at Christmas. If people are searching, let's point them in the right direction, as gently as possible, rather than look down on them. They are on a journey. We are on that same journey. If we have been blessed to be farther along than they, then let's reach back and say, "Come along." The Holy Spirit works in strange ways. Maybe he uses Santa to bring people to Christ.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, everyone!
written by Chris in Maryland, December 24, 2012
A Merry Christmas to you Mr. Royal for that sublime essay, and thank you to Frank for sharing the Joy of coming home! God bless all of the good men and women of The Catholic Thing, Fr. Schall, Tony Esolen, Fr. Bramwell, Ms. Goodwin, Mr. Kainz, Mr. Beckwith, and on and on...and may He bless all of us who read and comment, AND ESPECIALLY GOD BLESS GRUMP!

Jesus Christ, wishing to sanctify the world, is made flesh!
written by Maggie-Louise, December 24, 2012
A lovely essay, Dr. Royal. Thank you.

written by Charles Reding, December 24, 2012
Thanks for putting us on the Royal "road to a whole series of new discoveries"!
written by William, December 26, 2012
What a beautiful essay! Thank you.

This line, "It’s good to remember in this season that Christmas is in truth the beginning of a kind of adventure," and the closing especially remind me of some words from Cesare Pavese that Msgr. Giussani was fond of quoting, "The only joy in the world is to begin. It is beautiful to live because to live is to begin, always, and every instant."

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