Christmas, time, and eternity

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I need to begin with a confession: I’m one of those people who gets his Christmas cards done way ahead of time. This year I started a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, which is more or less what I always do.

Why so early? Because this is how people with a compulsive streak do everything. Granted, our obsession with punctuality makes us pains in the neck, but remember – we compulsives are the ones who arrive on time for appointments, meet our deadlines, and make the trains run on time.

Time. That was what I was thinking about during one of those long Sunday afternoons when I was laboring over Christmas cards: “Why am I spending my time doing this when everybody else is watching football?”

Social convention was the first, obvious answer. Sending Christmas cards is expected of you, no? But then it occurred to me that my reasons for devoting time to this activity go way beyond social convention. In fact, they have a lot to do with nostalgia – with remembering people and places and times past, and telling those people, some of them anyway, “I can’t be with you now, but I remember you with affection just the same.” (Call me the greeting card Proust.)

And as I thought about all that, Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol also occurred to me, as they sometimes have before. People go back to that story year after year, apparently never tiring of its peculiar charm. But what charm is that? Surely this isn’t one of its author’s masterpieces, no David Copperfield or Great Expectations. Truth to tell, it’s psychologically shallow and unspeakably sentimental. So why does it matter so much to so many?

The answer, I’ve decided, is time – or, more precisely, how A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843 and a tremendous hit from the start, handles it. Dickens may not have been aware of it, but what we have here is a marvelously intuitive parable about the human experience of time. Time past (warm and glowing and joyful). Time present (full of problems and anxiety). Time yet to come (dark and foreboding – for people of a certain age, somewhere you’d rather not go).

Like the best fairy tales and Greek tragedies, the tale of Scrooge and the Cratchits, especially Tiny Tim, and the three spirits touches people at a very deep level of universally shared experience. A person no more tires of hearing it than a small child tires of hearing his mother sing him to sleep.

A Christmas Carol by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1857)
A Christmas Carol by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1857)

American popular culture has another artifact like that – Frank Capra’s greatly loved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Here, too, a man’s life is replayed for him, and then comes a twist – he’s shown the ugly hypothetical future of Bedford Falls as it might have been if he’d never lived. Although to the best of my knowledge the word is never used, this movie may be the best depiction of a life lived as vocation that’s ever been filmed. And like A Christmas Carol, it comes to a close – what else? – on Christmas.

Dickens and Capra both give their stories happy endings. George Bailey gets to keep his bank, Tiny Tim gets better, and from now on it’s said of Scrooge that he knows how to keep Christmas well. As artists aiming to reach and please mass audiences, the creators of Scrooge and Bailey could hardly have done otherwise.

But a moment’s reflection should make it clear that the happy endings are phonies. Sooner or later Bailey’s rinky-dink bank will get swallowed up by a corporate behemoth. Christmas spirit or not, Scrooge will end in that dismal graveyard. So, for that matter, will Tiny Tim. That’s how it is with time. Life moves on. Life ends. Is there any answer to that?

The question brings us to the greatest Christmas text of Christianity, which treats the feast as a celebration not only of time but also of eternity. I refer of course to the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel. The Church in her wisdom proposes it to us as the Gospel reading for Mass on Christmas Day.

No doubt the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are more accessible. Along with circumstantial information about events and insights into the interior lives of Jesus’ mother and foster father, they conjure up recollections of Christmas cribs under scores of Christmas trees and of people near and dear to us who were with us then.

Still, for sheer theological grandeur, nothing comes close to John’s Prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.1-5)

The inspired words are a paean to eternity’s entrance into time through the Incarnation. And to the astonishing fact that, with this incarnation event, time-bound human beings have been given the opportunity to participate in a life after this life – a life that will never end because it’s life in eternity. As John puts it, “To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1.12)

Time and eternity. Christmas celebrates the special moment in history when eternity reached out to time, raised it up, redeemed it, and illuminated it as the gateway to a life beyond life. In a Christmas prayer, St. Bernard of Clairvaux says, “You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of your eternal love.” That’s the real message of my Christmas cards.

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.