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.