On first hearing the news that Calvin Coolidge had died, humorist Dorothy Parker impishly asked, “How could they tell?” I thought of that the other day when a friend told me that the Winter Solstice was coming, thus giving us the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Living in a place where, even on a good day, evidence of the sun is elusive at best, I felt not the slightest ripple of surprise. I mean, how could anyone tell?
Years ago I remember my wife sending away for a dozen or so solar panels which, when placed outside the house during the day, promised to light up the night sky as a result of all that energy collected from the sun. After a day or so in which nothing happened, she called the company to let them know their product was defective and to demand our money back. “Where do you live?” they asked. When she told them Steubenville, Ohio, they thought it hugely funny since there was never enough sunlight there to power anything.
Why do I bring this up? Because Christ, whom we Christians call Lumen Gentium, the Light of the world, was born in a time and place of complete darkness. Not just the darkness of December, mind you, but an entire world grown dark and desperate beneath the oppressions of pagan despair. And so when, four days following the Winter Solstice, the Church commemorates the coming of the One whose effulgence fills the heavens and the earth, she is making a claim that nothing in either world or weather can diminish. “The light shines in the darkness,” John’s Gospel tells us, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). Standing in starkest contrast to all that surrounds it, the timing of the feast reminds us that nothing is fortuitous with God. What better month, therefore, to send roses than in December?
Even the most cursory glance at the readings for the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice, will reveal a great canopy of light thrown upon the whole paradox of the Christmas Story. The epistle for that day is taken from the Song of Songs, a surprisingly ravishing lyric of sexual love that the Church in the audacity of her wisdom actually applies to Christ. A comparison is thereby struck in which Christ is depicted as the secret Lover in passionate pursuit of the Bride, who is his Church. What astonishing things he says to her, too! “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth…the song of the dove is heard in our land…Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come” (2:8-14).
Yes, it is a happy thought. But what really rivets the mind and warms the blood is the fact that such a message should stand in stunning and complete contrast to the timing and circumstance of its delivery. Are we really being asked to believe that on this day, the Winter Solstice, amid the thick gloom of rain and wind and snow, blessings beyond number are coming our way? That a world steeped in cynicism and sorrow, writhing beneath the burden of so much ennui, might actually awaken to welcome the very flesh of God? Are we really meant to hear the song of the dove amid the relentless blasts of a winter as profound and pitiless as the one we have been dealt? (I write this less than one week after the horrific slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, CT.)
Yes, that in fact is the plain meaning of the text. That thanks to the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s most daring descent into the muck and the mire of fallen humanity, a whole world will be remade, reconfigured according to the pattern set by the Little Child who carries salvation to the ends of the earth.
Here we locate the central jarring juxtaposition of the Christian religion, the sheer collision of divinity and humanity that we find square in the middle of the Christmas Story, which is the incredible account of God’s birth as a human being. Here is the nexus of eternity and time, heaven and history, glory and grit, compressed into a space no larger than a crib. Who could imagine such a thing? A timeless God falling headlong in love with a world longing for release from sin and death. Provided, of course, the Son agrees to become Incarnate in it. And then, in a gesture fraught with sublime folly, suffer and die on its behalf. Really, does anyone still believe in this stuff? The so-called Christmas miracle—has it got any traction left at all?
R. S. Thomas, a Welsh priest and poet, certainly thinks it does. “And God held in his hand,” he writes, “A small globe. Look, he said. / The son looked.” And what he sees is a world sunk in a vast and vile squalor, awaiting a deliverance it cannot pull off on its own. “Many people,” he continues, “Held out their thin arms / …as though waiting / For a vanished April…” Which can only come if and when the Son decides to step into the story in order to rewrite the tale in a way that allows the ending to turn out well. The poem closes with Christ, seeing all this from above, saying to his Father: “Let me go there…”
Called “The Coming,” the poem provides a kind of telegraphic expression of the essential truth on which the whole event of the Christmas miracle depends. Which is that God really does choose to come among us. That the work of pitching his tent in our midst, and so fulfilling the deepest desire of every human being that God might throw in his lot with people as unprepossessing as ourselves, is not wishful thinking, not some sort of chimera or conceit we need to grow out of. But that God really does want to be one of us, in company with all the other clowns and creeps that pock-mark the planet.
How well Chesterton captures the heart of the mystery, reminding us in “The House Of Christmas,” of all the impossible things that are:
A Child in a foul stable
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home…
And so we go, he concludes,
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Editor’s note: The image above is taken from “Adoration of the Shepherds” painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in 1646-50.