James V. Schall, S.J.
“Christmas . . . is one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making. But among those feasts it is also especially and distinctively English in the style of its merry-making and even in the style of its religion. For the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things: first on the terrestrial side the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness and on the spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy.”
– G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 1906
“Nativitas Christi non debuit esse communiter omnibus manifesta. Primo quidem quia per hoc impedita fuisset homana redemptio, quae per crucem eius peracta est…. Secundo, quia hoc dimuninuisset meritum fidei, per quam venerat homines justitificare…. Tertio, quia per hoc venisset in dubium veritas humanitatis ipsius.”
– Thomas Aquinas, III, 36, a. 1
Christmas, as we celebrate it, recalls the Incarnation of the Word made flesh when Christ became, in the Nativity, manifest to the world. This Nativity was an unexpected and, at the time, unrecognized event. It occurred over two thousand years ago by our time measurements; it took place in an out-of-the-way place in the Roman Empire, the Incarnation in Nazareth and the Nativity in Bethlehem, to be exact. At the time, the Nativity was witnessed only by a few people: Christ’s parents, some local shepherds, soon the Magi, and finally but gradually the Jews themselves, though they mostly did not recognize its meaning.
Even more slowly the Good News became known to the Gentiles, in a manifestation that still seems very far from being completed, though we know not the day or the hour. If we wonder about the apparent slowness in spreading this Good News of the Incarnation and Nativity, we are tempted to question of the Father’s schema for our redemption. Surely, it could have been a more “efficient,” a more rapid, process. It seems to lack power and proper planning. It seems haphazard and not particularly effective for its apparent purpose, which had to do with going forth and teaching “all nations” the meaning of what transpired in these places.
Mohammed came some seven hundred years after the Incarnation and Nativity. Mohammed specifically denied the transcendent fact that Christ was “true God.” Christ, Mohammed thought and taught, was only a man. Islam spread much more rapidly throughout the world in its first century than Christianity had managed to do up to that time. In retrospect, the Muslim conquests seem to have been permanent. They were achieved mostly at the expense of Christian peoples who were quickly reduced to second-class citizenship when not destroyed.
Except for Spain and parts of the Balkans, these conquests have never been reversed. The Crusades failed in the effort. Few if any today think the conquests could or should be reversed. In the meantime, we cannot claim that the rest of the world’s population has been much changed by this event of the Nativity. China, India, Japan, and the Buddhist states remain pretty much the same.
Though believing Christians can be found most anywhere on the planet in small numbers, the Christian world itself is confined largely to the limits of the old Roman Empire and its colonial offshoots in the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Moreover, in areas that were traditionally Christian, we find a significant loss of faith together with a denial of any need to teach to anybody what Christ instructed.
In fact, people claim a right not to believe. The number of practicing believers has rapidly declined in Europe. Evidently Europe has lost the desire, if not the ability, to replace itself, let alone grow in numbers. It must import much of its workforce. This influx of new peoples has great geopolitical significance. It could change the face of every European city or nation.
In regard to the Nativity of Christ, Aquinas asked what, at first sight, seems to be a curious question. Here is how he formulated it: “Was it ‘convenient,’ at its first happening, that the Birth of Christ be manifested to all people?” The very way the question is framed indicates that Aquinas looks for a reason to explain to us what happened and, at least minimally, what this manner of the Lord’s coming into this world in an obscure place could signify.
The answer that Aquinas gives is not just guesswork. Human reason, if it sets itself to the task, can see that the manner in which Christ was born may well have some deeper sense or appropriateness connected with it. Reason, in knowing of the Incarnation and Birth of Christ, seeks to make sense out of these sequential events, even while it knows that our minds are limited and, compared to those of other spiritual beings, weak. Still we know some things. This is Aquinas’ point. We will learn something further even from the little that we can comprehend of this initiative of God into our history if we think about it.
The fact that the Nativity did not come to be immediately known by everyone in the world the moment it happened suggests something more profound was going on. Suppose that everyone in the world had immediately known of the Birth of Christ the moment it occurred. This knowledge would have impeded our understanding of the way redemption was in fact to play itself out, that is, through the Cross. We had to learn God’s plan gradually to come to terms with its meaning.
A second reason why the Nativity was not immediately known to everyone was that, were it known, it would diminish the faith through which men are justified. Faith is not required if we already fully know what is to be believed.
And thirdly, had the Nativity been known immediately and to everyone, rather than gradually increasing our faith and understanding, this knowledge would have diminished our understanding of Christ’s very humanity. That is, the fact that we see him progressing from His birth to the Cross in a single life sequence assures us of the truth of what is often the most difficult thing for men to believe, namely, that Christ was true man. It is easier to believe that Christ is true God than that He is also true man, as the history of Christological heresies shows.
In his discussion of Christmas, Chesterton said that for the Englishman, the note of the feast is that of comfort and charity. It is the feast of the home in which the great mysteries of love, begetting, birth, living, belonging, and, finally, death, take place. We not only make our homes livable, but comfortable. They are the places from which we come and to which daily we return. The kindnesses that we can do for others depend on what we have learned in that home from which we ourselves go forth into the world.
We are to love our neighbors as ourselves; that is, we cannot do the one without the other. This is not selfishness. Quite the opposite, Christ Himself spent some thirty of His years on earth precisely at home. His true humanity enables Him, as it were, to take his home with Him at his Crucifixion. It is no accident that His mother stood at the Cross. His death and resurrection are often pictured, rightly I think, as a return home.
On the 21st of December, 1958, the first grade class that Charlie Brown attended with his friend Lucy and her little brother Linus put on a community recital of the Christmas story. Eight children, seven of whom have happy faces, are lined up in two rows on stage. The one unhappy face belongs to Linus because, while the performance goes on before the audience, he cannot remember his lines. He is panicking. He stands next to Lucy. Each student recites his part in sequence.
The recitation begins, “We are here to tell you of a wonderful light.” To the side, we see Linus say to himself, “I’m sunk.” Another shining student continues, “A wondrous light that was a star.” Again, to himself, with a grim look, Linus mutters, “I wonder if there is any way I could get out of this?” Apparently not.
It is Lucy’s turn. The children are clearly delighted with their performance. She speaks in a clear voice, “The wise men saw the star and followed it from afar.” Finally, Linus whispers to her, “Psst, Lucy.” Meanwhile, another little boy goes on, “They found the stable in the night beneath the star so big and bright.”
To the side, Lucy growls, “What’s the matter?” Linus replies, “I can’t remember my piece.” A little girl takes up the story, “The wise-men left the presents there . . . Gifts so precious, and so rare.” Again Linus moans, “I can’t remember.”
We onlookers gaze at the happy faces, a little boy in the front row instructs them, “Look up, look up. The star still stands, seen by millions in many lands.” At this, Lucy threatens Linus in no uncertain terms, “You better remember it right now, you blockhead, or when we get home I’ll slug you a good one.” Linus is doubly paralyzed with this added threat.
Suddenly, at the end of the first row where he stands, midst the happy faces, Linus, under pressure of the threat, and perhaps not a little miraculously, remembers the crucial last line of the recital. He now happily shouts out his part, the perfect ending, “THE STAR THAT SHONE AT BETHLEHEM STILL SHINES FOR US TODAY!”
In the last scene, the young students proudly acknowledge the applause, “Thank you.” Meanwhile, Linus, totally relieved at this astonishing recovery of his memory, lies flat on his back on the floor. He can only whisper his grateful “Thank you” to a higher power.2
How, we might wonder, does this star still shine for us today? Christ is the divine Logos. His person is divine. Christmas is a present feast at every moment because, once the Word is made flesh, it remains ever present in this world through the Cross, through what is done in memory of Christ at the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
We are not, as Aquinas said, to have a doubt about the true humanity of Christ. If He did not lead the life He did, if those who were there did not witness to these events, we might have easily doubted that Christ actually lived. But when we know these events, we cannot but know that He was true man. Surely we would have found it easier to believe that He was God if He made known his divine origin immediately to everyone. That is perhaps true, but we would not have found it easier to believe that he was at the same time true man.
The scenes of the Nativity begin and confirm our awareness that as a baby, He was true man. Our salvation begins when we realize that God redeemed us in his way, none other. The Son of Man went home and was obedient to His parents. The two notes of Christmas, the note of comfort and the note of charity, are there. This is why we can still repeat with Linus, “The Star that shone at Bethlehem still shines for us today.” The fact that true God, the Logos, the Word, came into the world as true man leads us to suspect, as Aquinas said, that we return to our true home through the Cross, no other way. The “truth of His humanity” abides. This is our comfort.
James V. Schall, S.J. is a professor of government at Georgetown University and a priest of the Society of Jesus. He has published many books including Another Sort of Learning, A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, and On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs.
1. [“The birth of Christ ought not to be commonly manifested to all men. First, because such a manifestation would have impeded human redemption, which was effected through His cross . . . Secondly, such a manifestation would have diminished the merit of faith. . . . Thirdly, through this communal manifestation, the truth of His humanity itself would have been placed in jeopardy.”]↩
2. [The Complete Peanuts, 1957-1958 (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2005), 309.]↩