This Good Night is Still Everywhere to Me
The reason Christmas is still our culture’s most celebrated day is because at some level we subconsciously remember the revolution of that night a few thousand years ago in the Middle East.
“Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.” GK Chesterton, ‘The God in the Cave’
Soak it in Boney M, elaborate lunches, shopping malls, and family bickering – but the truth remains, as GK Chesterton noted, we are all still haunted by the weird notion that God was once a Baby.
We see it in our scepticism in our rulers, our sympathy for the downtrodden, our love for the small stuff of the world, our veneration of childhood (the ancient world had no such conception), and our strange belief in the holiness of certain places.
It is not too far out to say that in some mysterious way our civilization was born with the Child on Christmas Day. If God was no longer outside the world, but in a dark corner of it, what did that say about our fellow human beings, about our rulers, and about the nature and matter of this world?
To be sure, there have always been stories about gods appearing as humans. But this was a different story altogether. The Jews were the only strict monotheists left on earth. They did not believe in gods. They believed in an eternal, transcendent I AM. For an infinite being who was in fact beyond being to appear in a mother’s arms was a twist in their story, as unexpected as their glorious Messiah being killed by the Gentiles on a cross.
They say that St Francis of Assisi was the first person to popularize the Nativity Scene. He gathered animals in a stable and physically showed the humility of God’s birthplace to his fellow townsfolk, and now the ox and the donkey, the tired peasant woman and her carpenter husband far from home, the baby in a manger of animal feed, the shepherd, and the Wise Men all form a picture in our minds that is revolutionary, yet always taken for granted.
Chesterton, the great journalist of the early twentieth century, saw the too-obvious mystery and noted that the whole story could perhaps be explained by the three sets of visitors to Bethlehem that first Christmas.
1. The Shepherds
For Chesterton, the shepherds represented that healthy and humane paganism which had sustained the world for centuries – belief in household gods, the magic of the seasons, a vague personality shining through all nature… It was this paganism that had triumphed over the demon worshipping, child sacrificing sea-lords of Phoenicia and Carthage in the shape of the Greek-influenced Roman Empire: a paganism that was withering in the midst of imperial ambition and slavery.
And what these shepherds saw that night was something that would not overturn that tradition, but rather fulfil it, and purify it:
Yes, the pagans were right that the secret of the world somehow lay in seeds and crops; yes, they were right that gods must be local, that the material world is somehow linked to the divine – but what they could never have foreseen is the fulfillment of these notions in the Creator as a human baby.
In this sense, the old pagans were superior to the philosophers of the age who had increasingly grown sceptical of any notion of truth or goodness. As a star guided them to a dirty old stable, they did not find a young Plato in his Academy, a young politician forming a republic – no, it was “a place of dreams come true” – and “[since] that hour no mythologies have been made in the world.” The myths of the local gods had come true – there would be no need of them anymore.
As the hymnist put it, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
2. The Wise Men
Chesterton writes of the Wise Men:
“That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things; and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.
“Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.”
The Wise Men, reading the stars, represented the height of the ancient world’s wisdom and scepticism, and they left their warm palaces to bow down before a Jewish baby in a dirty stable in a faded old village.
In short, the Wise Men found the personal root of all philosophy – the Great Mind made small enough to hold and to touch.
3. The Roman Soldiers
But we often choose to forget the third, darker force in the old story. Their images don’t fit very well on a Christmas card – they are the Roman soldiers sent to slaughter King Herod’s young rival.
Herod was the half-Jewish puppet king of the Roman empire. And for a brief moment he restored the worship of demons to his land when he sacrificed the infant baby boys – the Holy Innocents – to his fading rule and power.
He killed them hoping to include Jesus in the blood bath. As Chesterton hauntingly put it, “The demons also, in that first festival of Christmas, feasted after their own fashion.”
But that tradition, of the god-king asking for blood to placate the darkness surrounding his throne, would fade away with the dawn of Christendom. In fact, the animal sacrifices of the Jews would disappear themselves within a few decades, never to return.
4. The Fourth Group of Visitors
There is a fourth group of visitors every Christmas – us. Every year, we find ourselves in the shadow of the same story – the story of the Creator as a Baby, clinging to his mother’s arms. We may not realise this; we may just unconsciously, to whatever small degree, take comfort in its subtle implications of the universe as a holy and human place.
But “as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity” we would do well, in our age of industrial warfare, temples of shopping, and cheap regard of the smallest among us, to look once more beyond our deep and dreamless sleep, into the dark streets of Bethlehem, where shineth the Everlasting Light.