Sometimes it’s easy to strive too hard to find new meanings in the old familiar Christmas story. The symbology is in some senses profound but also so obvious, and in some ways so simple, that it can seem hackneyed, especially in our modern, jaded world. The impulse is either to give mere lip service to the Christmas message or, for those with a different cast of mind, to try to complicate it in search of some great new insight.
In the latter frame of mind, I found myself writing this, based on a visit on location earlier this month….
In an 1100-year-old church in Basel, Switzerland lies the tomb of Desiderius Erasmus, a sage of the ages, described on his tombstone as “incomparable in every discipline; kind, and erudite….” The great “Christian humanist” of the 16th Century labored for decades to reform the Catholic Church without open schism, to find common ground rather than sow discord, to promote learning and piety but not disputatious scholasticism or pietistic exuberance. The church itself, a former cathedral, is stunningly beautiful but dark and dim, whispering its centuries of sanctity through every reverent piece of woodwork or engraving….
Bosh. Blind alley. Never mind the lovely Christmas festival occurring right outside the Basel Münster that was supposed to serve as a thematic bridge between Erasmus and new insights on the theology of Christmas. This ponderous theme was going nowhere.
Trying another approach….
Seven years after being given up for dead, the city of New Orleans is thriving. Its restaurants are full, its public schools are vastly improved, its streets are clean, and its economy for three straight quarters has been the most rapidly expansive in the country. On Wednesday night on the edge of the Garden District in this reborn city, at the Trinity Episcopal School Festival of Lessons and Carols, some 320 students celebrated the anniversary of another birth in a time of trial…..
Oh, please. Trite, forced, maudlin, bathetic. Cue up the “mists of time” and the encomiums to “sacred mysteries,” and leave no cliché unvisited. Trinity sixth graders could produce prose more incisive than that.
So then the next approach was about how not even the tornado that whipped through part of Mobile, Alabama on Thursday morning can kill the spirit of Christmas…. Or maybe it should be about how the collapse of “fiscal cliff” discussions in Washington shows the evanescence of human institutions in comparison with the permanence of the Love introduced to the world in a manger….
Stuff and nonsense. Tommyrot. Cotton candy. (At this point, Charlie Brown asks if anybody can tell him the true meaning of Christmas. The Grinch hears the singing from Who-Ville even after he has stolen all his presents. The Misfit Toys on their island start sniffling that another Christmas is about to pass them by….) Dime-store windows have deeper meanings than such treacle.
So then it’s back to Erasmus. Surely he wrote something insightful about the Nativity, right? In all his disputations with Martin Luther, in all his communications with his dear friend St. Thomas More, in all his homiletics or satire or theologizing, surely the great Church apologist propounded some great analysis of the Virgin, the stable, the shepherds, or the Magi.
Alas, the tomes on a college theology major’s bookshelf produce no such Erasmian wisdom. Nor do hours of Internet searches. The 16th century didn’t feature widespread celebration of Santa Claus or Macy’s, and Christmas wasn’t exactly at the center of cultural or theological life. Easter, yes. Resurrection, yes. Sin, perdition, sacraments, salvation, redemption: Of course. But Christmas wasn’t a particularly huge focus, one famous sermon by Erasmus’ erstwhile sparring partner Luther notwithstanding.
But… but… but Erasmus did write this, in his famous Paraclesis, which was his preface to a new edition of the Bible:
Why do we not all ponder within ourselves that this must be a new and wonderful kind of philosophy since, in order to transmit it to mortals, He who was God became man, He who was immortal became mortal, He who was in the heart of the Father descended to Earth? It must be a great matter, and in no sense a commonplace one, whatever it is, because that wondrous Author came to teach after so many families of distinguished philosophers, after so many remarkable prophets.… The mysteries of kings, perhaps, are better concealed, but Christ wishes his mysteries published as openly as possible.
So it is a “great matter” which we are blessed to be taught, but one that should be “published as openly as possible.”
And what is the nature of this “great matter”? Well, wrote Erasmus, it is in the life of Christ himself, and the imitative life of all who would follow him, to behave in such a way that “riches should be disdained, that the Christian should not put his trust in the supports of this world but must rely entirely on heaven… [that] those who mourn are blessed and should not be deplored, and that death should even be desired by the devout, since it is nothing other than a passage to immortality. And if anyone under the inspiration of the spirit of Christ preaches this kind of doctrine, inculcates it, exhorts, incites, and encourages men to it, he is truly a theologian, even if he should be a common laborer or weaver.”
Just as this is a God who does not merely remain aloft (and unapproachable) in the heavens, but instead “descended to Earth,” His great message is likewise one not reserved only for erudite theologians or scholars but instead accessible to all, understandable by all, livable by all. We should not scoff at the simplicity and the familiarity of the Christmas story, nor at the easy accessibility of its themes of rebirth; as Erasmus wrote in the same section of his Paraclesis, “nothing may stand forth with greater certainty than the truth itself, whose expression is the more powerful, the simpler it is.” (Emphasis added.)
And: “The sun itself is not as common and accessible as is Christ’s teaching. It keeps no one at a distance, unless a person, begrudging himself, keeps himself away.”
So we have a God making Himself accessible, yet we ourselves strive for more complex meanings and scoff at the familiarity of the themes. We therefore err: It is not the story or the traditional interpretations of it that are hackneyed; what is hackneyed, what is trite, is the modern dissatisfaction with the quiet glory of an event at once simple and profound.
Riding around New Orleans after the Festival of Lessons and Carols, what one sees is not a new or more complicated city, but a revitalized city within the same familiar street grid beneath the same familiar oaks alongside the same, familiar river of currents powerful and deep. And that is good.
As Trinity middle-school students have done every year since 1960, as Linus has done in the TV special every year since 1965, a Trinity student this year stepped to the church lectern and read:
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people…..
And the church went entirely dark, except for bright back-lighting behind the glorious stained glass window above the altar, and in that darkness a church full of students, parents, faculty and alumni sang of a silent night, a holy night, where all was calm and all was bright. There needed be no great erudition there, no complicated insight. The message isn’t exclusive; it is a universal one, which shall be – which is offered to – all people.
“This philosophy,” wrote Erasmus, “unlettered as it appears to these very objectors, has drawn the highest princes of the world and so many kingdoms and peoples to its laws, an achievement which the power of tyrants and the erudition of philosophers cannot claim.”
But we, we even in our mod cocoons, are invited to claim it. We claim it, Erasmus said, by living it. To repeat: We need only celebrate “the truth itself, whose expression is the more powerful, the simpler it is.”
A blessed Christmas to all. Simply blessed.