Christmas: Reflecting on the eternal in a troubled world
WASHINGTON, December 6, 2014 — Our society is sharply divided over a host of contentious issues, from the question of how the police interact with minority communities, to immigration, to the growing conflict in the Middle East. Political partisanship often replaces a concern for the future of the country, as jockeying for power replaces any larger notion of public service.
If we were ever in need of the message of Christmas, of a focus upon the eternal, of peace and good will, now is certainly such a time.
The kind of Christmas we need, of course, is not the extravaganza of shopping on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and newspapers telling us each day how much money was spent the day before. This is a caricature of Christmas and it may tell us a great deal about the condition of our society that so many have embraced it with enthusiasm.
Christmas, of course, is many things. It is a season of celebration and family reunion, of merriment and good cheer. More than this, however, it is a time for contemplation of the meaning of life, of our own lives, and of seeking our answer to the question of what God expects of us.
Even many who proclaim themselves to be Christian fail to understand that the views of man and the world set forth by Jesus — and the one which dominates in the modern world — are contradictory. This point was made in the book “Jesus Rediscovered” by Malcolm Muggeridge, the distinguished British author and editor.
Muggeridge, who had a religious conversion while preparing a BBC documentary about the life of Jesus, pointed out that the desire for power and riches in the world, a desire to which so many are committed, is the opposite of what Jesus preached, Indeed, Jesus was tempted by the Devil with the very worldly powers so many of us so eagerly seek:
Finally, the Devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said ‘All this power I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whosoever I will give it.’ All Christ had to do in return was to worship the donor instead of God — which, of course, he could not do. How interesting, though, that power should be at the Devil’s disposal and only attainable through an understanding with him! Many have thought otherwise, and sought power in the belief that by its exercise they could lead men to brotherhood and happiness and peace — invariably with disastrous consequences. Always, in the end, the bargain with the Devil has to be fulfilled — as any Stalin or Napoleon or Cromwell must testify. ‘I am the light of the world,’ Christ said, ‘power belongs to darkness.’
The Western world, once motivated by Judeo-Christian values and a view of a God-centered universe, now has other values. Malcolm Muggeridge lamented, “I firmly believe that our civilization began with the Christian religion, and has been sustained and fortified by the values of the Christian religion, by which the greatest of them have tried to live. The Christian religion and these values no longer prevail, they no longer mean anything to ordinary people. Some suppose you can have a Christian civilization without Christian values. I disbelieve this. I think that the basis of order is a moral order; if there is no moral order there will be no political or social order, and we see this happening. This is how civilizations end.”
And yet, despite all of this, there is a spiritual yearning in our American society, a feeling that things are not what they should be, a desire to set ourselves and our country back on a better path. Christmas speaks to that spiritual vacuum in our lives, but only if we will listen to its message. And it speaks to Americans of all religious faiths and backgrounds. Jesus, after all, was a Jew who preached traditional Jewish moral and ethical values. Moslems revere Jesus as a great prophet and teacher.
G..K. Chesterton, discussing the message of Christmas, wrote:
… there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not, in its psychological substance, at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects of the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him in to good.
A key question for Chesterton was, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” His sense that the world was a moral battleground, wrote his biographer Aliza Stone Dale, “helped Chesterton fight to keep the attitude that has been labeled ‘facile optimism,’ so that he could never recover the wonder and surprise at ordinary life he had once felt as a child.”
During this holiday season all of us would do well to reevaluate the real gods in our lives and in the life of our country. Were men and women, created in the image of God, really brought into this world to devote their lives to amassing wealth and power, and drawing lines between one another on the basis of race or religion or nationality? Jesus didn’t think so.
The words of the hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west, In Christ no north or south,” should give pause to those who are always dividing people and proclaiming at the same time their devotion to “Christian” or “Jewish” or “Moslem” values. We are all in this human enterprise together, although we often act as if this were not the case.
There is a kind of truth embodied in Christmas that our weary and troubled world would do well to contemplate. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote:
It is very important to know the history of Socrates because Socrates is dead, but the history of Christ doesn’t matter because He is alive. If and when we know the final truth about human life, we shall find that the legends, or what pass for legends, are far nearer the truth than what passes for fact or science or history.