The World’s Desire

There are two, and only two, rational attitudes towards the Christmas season. One is P.G. Wodehouse’s: “It was December, and another Christmas was at our throats.” (I quote, accurately I hope, from memory). Whether it is the forced fellowship of most Christmas parties or just a sign of my descent into premature curmudgeondom, each year I find myself more and more of this persuasion, as soon as Thanksgiving disappears.

The other attitude, which I wish I could say is more my own, may be best represented by a man criticized sometimes from the Jansenist/Sourpuss chorus (to invoke Pope Francis) within the Christian persuasion:

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright).

G.K. Chesterton may have smoked, drank, laughed, and enjoyed himself more than a certain type of Catholic thinks seemly. At least he was enough of a Catholic that he never tried to argue that his own religious practice should become the rule for the whole Church: that we should, say, draw out particularly uncommunicative Trappists or tell abstemious Franciscans to lighten up a little. He performed the useful service of reminding us – us weary, adult Catholics – that joy and repose either are the very heart of our faith or we may have no true faith at all.

He also reminds us that joy is a true gift, not a brutally sentimental assault at brotherhood once every twelve months or something we earn during the rest of the year by exercise programs, self-improvement schemes, political reforms, or even religious practices. The various princes of this world – and especially the politicians and other demagogues in it – have a lot at stake in making us believe that they can devise technologies for putting real happiness within the reach of human hands. They know that even when such illusions fail, they can offer a new tonic, charge twice as much, and get an even bigger market share of the pursuit of happiness.

The Christian faith is quite different:

The Christ Child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Birth of Christ by Hans Leonhard Schaufelein (1505)
The Birth of Christ by Hans Leonhard Schaufelein (1505)

True hearts! Who even talks about such things anymore? Even in the Church? We have gone back to an ancient pre-Christian refrain: What is truth? And what are hearts, for that matter? Give us psychology, Prozac, and neuroscience. Above all, let us “take charge of our own lives.” We know what we want.

The Christ Child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

Many Christians profess this belief, but how many are willing to practice it? St. Thomas More is reported to have said to his judges after they sentenced him to death, “I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation.” Any man who can think about future merriment and hope for his executioners’ salvation in the shadow of the executioner’s axe can truly claim the name Christian. He knows what the world desires, whether the world knows it or not.

The faith is such an odd turning of everything we might have expected upside-down, bringing down the high, raising the lowly, that it remains hard to take in, even after years of familiarity. Yet it draws the attention of the whole Creation:

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

If you can find a recording of this poem of Chesterton’s with the English composer Enid Richards’s lovely music, it may provide an oasis of sanity in the holiday onslaught to come. Even more, if you can find the sheet music (it’s in the Oxford Book of Carols) and some friends or family to sit around the piano and sing it together, you may actually discover why the Christ-child came in the first place.

I hope you do. Merry Christmas!

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. 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 A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • J.T. L.

    Thanks Robert and a wonderful article for Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas to you.

  • Rosemary

    Thank you for introducing me to this lovely poem.

  • ray smith

    Beautiful poem of GKC .I read it long ago but forgot the exact reference to look it up again, help.

  • william manley

    Merry Christmas, Robert. Thanks for your much needed insights. They were very timely for me.

  • Nancy Janzen

    We could all use a little Chesterton this time of year. I got an eBook of 50 of his works for $1.99. I forgot where though.

  • maxmarley

    Happy Christmas and thanks for a delightful article.

  • Dave07

    Thank you for this article, which I read on Christmas Eve. GKC’s poem is beautiful, and I’m still trying to find the music. I’d like to recommend it to our choir director for next year. So far my searches haven’t been successful. There is a Youtube version of the poem, but the music does not appear to be by Enid Richards. In which edition of the Oxford Book of Carols is the music to be found?