You don’t have to be a genius like Dickens to appreciate the special warmth and light of Christmas. But more and more it would help, since few of us now spend much time outdoors experiencing these days of cold and dark. And others have made Jesus – who by reliable accounts was, by turns, both compassionate and severe – into a year-round warm and fuzzy security blanket. So it takes some effort to see the special nature of the birth we will celebrate tomorrow and in coming days, which is both a comfort and a challenge.
In some ways, this is nothing new. As Benedict XVI rightly argued in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, “The ordinariness of Jesus, the provincial carpenter, seems not to conceal a mystery of any kind. His origin marks him out as one like any other.” Generations of Scripture scholars now have labored, largely taking their start from materialist or secularist assumptions, to show that this is really the whole of the Christian story. He was born like everyone else; his life unrolled like his neighbors’; yes, he said some remarkable things – but we can find rough parallels in earlier Judaism and even other religions; the miracles are unbelievable and must be explainable as really natural human phenomena like sharing (loaves and fishes) or as merely symbolic stories (the Eucharist, above all).
Against all that, however, stand two millennia of witnesses to the way Christ works in individual lives and the world. Thomas Aquinas, no credulous thinker he, recalls that Jesus Himself encouraged people, if they could not believe in Him as who He was, to believe in Him because of “the miracles by which Christ confirmed the doctrine of Apostles and of the other saints.” Thomas added for the sake of his contemporaries – and us:
And if anyone says that nobody has seen those miracles done, I reply that it is a well-known fact, related in pagan histories, that the whole world worshipped idols and persecuted the Christian Faith; yet now, behold all (the wise, the noble, the rich, the powerful, the great) have been converted by the words of a few simple poor men who preached Christ. Now was this a miracle or was it not? (Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed)
This highly improbable conquest of the mighty Roman Empire (and in several crucial respects the rest of the world) has been so successful that we no longer appreciate what a revolution it was. For example, modern societies no longer believe, at least in theory, that some people are elites who can demand freedom and respect while others are “slaves by nature.” For a brilliant secular account of how that massive revolution in morals and manners occurred, even though few people today realize its debt to Christianity, read Tom Holland’s book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
So, yes, in these days, let us take comfort in the birth of this Prince of Peace who, over and above all controversies and conflicts, continues to provide what the world cannot give, yet blindly and desperately seeks.
But let’s also remember after the respite of this season that we now live in a world that increasingly resembles its pre-Christian, even anti-Christian, counterparts. Abortion, euthanasia, pornography, disrespect for marriage and family, the high-handedness of elites who believe in their right to lord it over us – all those pre-Christian phenomena indicate the return of struggles for sheer power.
Meanwhile, recognition of all of us as God’s sons and daughters recedes along with Christianity. The shift is cloaked in the language of freedom and human dignity, of course, because large swaths of Christian influence still exist. But the neo-pagan dispensation is a different religion that aims to drive out the true faith – and must be opposed. Forcefully.
It’s precisely in the name of the Prince of Peace that we take comfort in this season, and renew our strength in his grace. But there are words of His that many among us, sadly even many Christians, would like to forget, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
In my experience, there are two main reasons why people forget that saying. Often, it’s because they simply don’t like confrontation. They believe that “dialogue” – a good thing in its proper place – can overcome evil. It can’t. Evil is deep and sinister, which is why God had to become man and die on a cross. As Cardinal Newman put it:
Quarry the granite rocks with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passions and pride of man.
The other reason people don’t want to remember Jesus’ sword is that the battle, especially at times like these, seems hopeless. What to do when an anti-Christian spirit has insinuated itself into government, economics, education, culture – even many Catholic institutions? Resistance seems futile.
But let’s recall: when the Soviet Union (the “evil empire”) suddenly fell, it still had thousands of nuclear weapons, a huge army, the KGB, and a ruthless network of repression and control over its own people and subversion around the globe. Only a few souls full of faith and hope – notably John Paul II – believed all that could be defeated. By the way, the documents for the USSR’s dissolution were crafted on December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception) and signed by Mikhail Gorbachev on December 25, 1991 – exactly thirty years ago tomorrow.
So even as we enjoy the company of friends and family tomorrow, and rest in the knowledge of the peace that passeth all understanding, let’s also remember that in coming days we’ll also need to take up the Lord’s sword and be confident in His Mother’s claim at Fatima – proven true by events – that “in the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
*Image: Nativity by Giotto (di Bondone), 1315-20 [North transept, Lower Church, Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, Italy]
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Dr. Royal’s New Year Resolutions
Brad Miner’s A “Carol” for the Ages