We have no good reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25. Early church fathers settled on that date, rather arbitrarily, partly as a result of some well-meaning but tortured logic and partly to fit in with prevailing secular calendars and feast days. The Bible never mentions a date for the Nativity. Yet here we are, we believers, knowing that the Lord did come into this world. Here we are, believing, as per the Bible, that the event was in some ways entirely local to Bethlehem and its vicinity, marked by extraordinary signs and wonders – even if a larger world took no note of its momentousness. Here we are, wanting to celebrate the birth of hope and the promise of redemption, even as we enter the bleakness of winter. Here we are with tradition and culture telling us this is the time to mark the occasion. So we do. And it is good.
The apostle John tells us that Jesus came into the world as a "light [which] shines in the darkness," a "true light that gives light to every man." The darkness of early winter, during the shortest days of the year, is exactly the sort of darkness in which is most needed a true light to shine. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, sang that "the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death." These were wintry themes for wintry times, for a Jewish people dominated – relegated to vassalage – by the ruthlessness of Rome.
Mary, for her part, must have been perplexed. There she was, a virgin, visited by an angel of the Lord, told that she would be the mother of one to be called the Son of the Most High, one whose "kingdom will never end." Yet when the time came for the birth, her child was born amidst the animals of a manger, far from home, unheralded by anyone but lowly shepherds, virtually unnoticed except as one more entry tallied in the census of Caesar Augustus. This was hardly the propitious beginning to be expected for the king of kings, the Lord of Lords, the glory of God's own people Israel.
Ahead of Mary would be a flight from Palestine to Egypt, a return to a Hebrew outpost known as Nazareth, and a childhood for her son too unremarkable for posterity to record except for one incident at the Temple at the age of 12. Mary, too, would be in the dark, the darkness of unknowing incomprehension, probably baffled that such a great miracle could turn into such a lowly birth and mundane early life. Darkness, darkness, darkness, both literal and figurative, would shadow the arrival of the one we call the Christ.
All of which is to say that the darkness and chill of winter, right after the season's solstice, is as good a time as any to celebrate that which truly does demand a celebration. Thematically, it fits. Logically, it does compute. Spiritually, it feels meet and right. When better to celebrate occasion for hope than when the hope seems farthest away, and thus most needed?
Yet we are still left with a theological conundrum. How do we reconcile the simplicity of our Lord's arrival with the extravagance of our modern celebrations? How do we capture the solemn essence of the First Christmas while expressing the joy (and oft indulging in the excesses) of the "holiday season"? Where in our faith, so certain (in retrospect) of its origins, is there room for embracing the sense of overwhelming uncertainty of a virgin mother who believed what she was told, but found only squalor rather than any room at the inn?
Nearly a century ago, miles and miles of entrenched soldiers gave us one answer. Many of us are familiar with the story of the "Christmas truce" during World War I. The story is true. Without direction from their superior officers, and indeed against the wishes of some of those officers, soldiers on both sides of the horrible trench lines near Flanders stopped firing their weapons, crossed the barren no-man's land, sang carols, exchanged cakes, tobacco, even cognac, and in some places even played soccer. Imagine breaking bread and playing games with foreign warriors who, in just a few short days, might well become your executioners. The spirit of Christmas works wonders.
Another story illustrates the same sense of faith amidst mortal danger. Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation tells of his father, a Russian White Army officer in that same Great War who then found himself fighting to save his country from the murderous Bolsheviks who took power in that world war's wake. Surrounded by the Communists near the Arctic Circle, he and sixteen others skied through enemy-held territory for hundreds of miles, toward the safety of Finland:
They had so little food that at one point they were reduced to eating the beeswax candles they carried with them…. On one of those timeless, dark days, my father said, the woman in their group reminded the men of something they had all lost track of -- tomorrow would be Christmas Eve…. They stopped in a small glade for the night, and my father cut down a small fir. They placed some of their remaining candles on its branches and adorned it with blue ribbons cut from a blouse the woman had carried in her knapsack. With the dark veil of night covering them, they lit the candles and their small pine became a Christmas tree. The scene seemed almost mystical to my father -- 17 human beings sitting in the glow of a makeshift Christmas tree in the thicket of a primeval forest. They forgot about the frost of the northern wintry night, their exhaustion, and their anxiety about the future. No more hatred remained in their hearts, my father told us -- only love for God and men alike, friends and enemies. They said a prayer, sang some Christmas hymns, and then sat silently, thinking about what they had lost and were leaving behind, including their families. (My father never saw his mother or his father again.) The candles burned out, and it became dark again around them.
Christmas tells us that the darkness will not triumph. Von Spakovsky's father made it to Finland, and then after another world war made it to America.
A full half-century later, the power of Christmas became evident again, showing that even the most vicious of enemies recognize its significance. In When Hell Was in Session, his memoir of captivity and torture by the North Vietnamese, former Sen. Jeremiah Denton relates numerous stories about how the worst of his tormentors provided special "privileges" to the prisoners at Christmas, and how even months away from Christmas, in talking to the prisoners, the prison guards referred to the length of the war by reference to how many Christmases had come and were expected still to come before the Communists expected to be victorious. On Christmas the prisoners, even newly released from unimaginable bouts of torture, would be allowed to attend Mass, and given (relatively) better meals including pieces of turkey. Denton wrote that "Christmas to us meant the rarest of treats, treats so humble that in days past we would have considered them absurd. We spent all of Christmas Eve composing greetings to each other, and the night was filled with the quiet tapping [in code, on the sides of the cell walls] of trapped men wishing each other peace on earth, good will too all. I sang carols in a low voice that in the deep silence carried to the others…."
Most familiar, perhaps, is the story John McCain told:
On Christmas Day, we were always treated to a better-than-usual dinner. We were also allowed to stand outside our cells for five minutes to exercise or to just look at the trees in the sky. One Christmas, a few months after the gun guard had inexplicably come to my assistance during my long night in the interrogation room, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw him approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me. Again he didn't smile or look at me. He just stared at the ground in front of us. After a few moments had passed he rather nonchalantly used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away.
We Christians commemorate, in the coming into the world of our Lord and Savior, an occasion that cannot be rubbed out, one which commands grudging respect even from those who wish us great harm. The most vivid of those commemorations can seem like minor miracles in and of themselves. We may not know for sure the exact day of the year when Christ came, but we know he did indeed come; it is a knowledge which is, and must be, enough to sustain us. With Mary, our soul should "magnify[y] the Lord," and our spirits should "rejoice in God [our] Savior."
May the blessings of Christmas be with all of us this year and every year – and may our gratitude for them always be like candles shining in an Arctic winter night.