Christians have celebrated the Savior’s birth in all sorts of hard circumstances, beginning with the very first Christmas. Centuries of beautiful Nativity scenes have accustomed us to think of that moment as rich in peace and piety, not only for the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the Magi, but even for animals and all of Creation. And no doubt it was, which is why we’re right to indulge in a little of what the Scrooges of the world dismiss as “sentimentality” during this season. But it’s also worth remembering that it couldn’t have been easy for a woman late in pregnancy to travel, under orders from an alien empire, in the depth of winter; or normal – even in those days – to have to lay a newborn in a manger, which is to say a livestock feeder. If it was, Luke would not have bothered to mention it.
And that, like everything connected with the story of Jesus, was as it should be. We who have endured this annus apocalypticus MMXX, are more than ever aware of the evils in the world that were – and are – the reason for His coming, and continued presence among us.
Wars, divisions, hatred, envy, greed, foolishness still flourish. Our very attempts to remedy the evils in the world are, inevitably, tainted by the evils in our hearts. And yet, through various times even darker than our own, a light was established among us. In spite of everything, it changed and continues to change the world.
Still, T.S. Eliot imagines one of the Three Kings thinking:
. . .were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
(“Journey of the Magi”)
It’s only right that we take comfort in this season and gather together – as some of us, at least, still may despite microbes and politicos – to celebrate what that challenging birth has done. We now know, with certain knowledge, why the falseness and futility of every time and place does not and cannot satisfy us. Yet the special hardness of this year gives our prayers greater urgency.
Jesus comes as Lord of the World, but not like a secular ruler. To see him in that way would be to reduce him to a mere competitor with our Pilates and Caesars. His Kingdom is of an immeasurably higher, wholly different, order.
In our moment, that Lordship is being denied in two large ways.
First, we’re in the midst of a struggle between a Christian and post-Christian culture. Our universities, media, entertainers, technology lords, etc., are increasingly and openly anti-Christian – even anti-religious – and quite aggressive. The new year threatens to take this conflict to new lows. The courts have generally been sympathetic to religious liberty. But our courage and vision are about to be tested, individually and collectively. We’ve been mostly losing those battles for decades. But at least the challenge is clear.
The other way Christ’s rule is being denied, however, is even more worrisome because it’s internal to the Church. (One sign of the problem is that amidst the many trials this year, our Church could not even set up a recognizable Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.) Worse, for at least two centuries, the Christian churches have been intimidated by Enlightenment views – for example, that miracles cannot occur because, well, miracles can’t occur.
So, belief in the Incarnation that we will soon celebrate, Christ’s victory over sin and death on the Cross, the Resurrection, and more has grown weak in our churches themselves. Christian morals and social principles survive because they are ingrained in many people. But absent the doctrines, they too are fading. For many “Christians” today, Jesus merely preached a Gospel of niceness and indulgence of bad behavior.
Anyone with eyes to see can confirm every day online that, for all the talk about respect for others, the simplest courtesies and mutual forbearance are fast disappearing, along with the Christian virtues. Our “cancel culture” essentially means that when someone does or believes something you don’t like, they’ve lost their status as human, beings made in the image and likeness of God. You can shun them, abuse them, get them fired.
I wish I could say that Christians today haven’t been evangelized into their own cancel culture, but my personal experience – as editor of this page and a frequent public commentator – says otherwise. Yes, there are many things today that a Christian must fight and fight hard. But if you find yourself relishing the clash and thinking nasty, dismissive remarks about others are proof of faithfulness, you’re flirting with cancel culture. And it may be time for an examination of conscience.
It all reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor, where a woman reflects on the outbreak of World War II :
[T]here was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honor would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England?” “God forgive me,” said Guy. “I was one of them.”
It’s only by drawing on the deep well of Christmas graces, the only real source of the kind of serenity and vision that marks out Christians from others, that we will avoid the current hysteria about politics, hysteria about viruses, hysteria about vaccines, hysteria about the Church, hysteria about everything that is so large a part of the contemporary world.
Our simple goal in this season should be to celebrate the birth of the Child who redeemed that world, but also to strengthen a peace and clarity in ourselves that the world – and even the proper battle against the evils in the world – cannot give. First, seek Ye the Kingdom, and all that will be added to you.
God bless us every one.
*Image: The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert, 1510-15 [National Gallery, London]