December 26, 2006

A Christmas essay (for Boxing Day, a little late)

PowerLine pointed me to this fine essay, Christmas in Christendom, by the late Dr. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, originally printed in 1967...

  Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.


A note of haste sounds clearly in the staggering text of St. Luke: the shepherds run to the new-born God as would an army of men, upon the breaking out of peace after a long war, run to their hearths and to their own.

The early Church was in a hurry to celebrate Christmas. Pagan antiquity had become bankrupt spiritually and intellectually by the time that God deigned to become Man. Philosophy had failed. The handful of sages who had made Greek episteme their own and who actualized the lofty moral precepts of Stoicism lived out their lives in a quiet desperation, convinced that human existence is little more than the lot of a condemned prisoner who waits in his cell upon the call of the executioner. A cold wind full of despair whistles through Marcus Aurelius’ contention that “it is possible to be a good man, even in a palace.” the final irony of classical antiquity consisted in its having wrought civilization out of barbarism as it chiseled palaces out of stone quarries: it had to suffer stoically, as does a man a burden or a secret tragedy, the very glory that it created.

So it was a very tired and sad world that hurried to the Good News of Bethlehem: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

Observers from another world would presume that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and their promise of a final victory over the tomb, would have fixed the eyes of the men of this time upon a distant but guaranteed salvation — and blinded them, consequently, to the world. And this did happen, of course: the flight of the monks to the Egyptian desert, the severe and often savage asceticism of the early Fathers, the joy of the martyrs as they elbowed aside their fellow Christians in the colosseum and then embraced the lions in the service of a final crown — all bespoke a contempt for this world by men whose faith was so palpable that things visible were but a pale screen between them and an Eternity they already experienced in the flesh.

But Christianity — formed as is its Cross of a cluster of tensions that are never resolved — while permitting and even encouraging this flight from the world, simultaneously exalted Creation as the work of God, and therefore judged it to be very good indeed, as did the Father when He rested on the seventh day. Although the “world” might be very evil (the terminology is Pauline), “Creation” was sacred. And it was Christmas that made possible a better yet, that concentrated within itself — this distinction...

Posted by John Weidner at December 26, 2006 6:01 PM
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