In G.K. Chesterton’s essay, “Dickens and Christmas,” we read that “in fighting for Christmas, he [Dickens] was fighting for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday.” What strikes me about this particular passage is the word “irreverent.” How apt that word is to characterize us, our modern piety, for thinking it to be “irreverent” when we hear described, in one breath, the eating, drinking, and praying typical of a genuine Christmas. We compulsively see these things as contradictory, at odds with each other. Yet, they are meant, like our bodies and souls, to belong together, without apology, without scruple. This joy given to us is, in the final analysis, an incarnate joy, a “Word made Flesh,” that ultimate “scandal” upon which alone our particular faith, with its intelligence, rests.
Almost the only “moral” cause most contemporary intellectuals recognize is that of “poverty.” What is not justified in its name! Poverty is somehow considered to be a moral blemish on everyone else besides the collective “poor,” perhaps even a blemish on the universe itself for presuming to exist at all. Thus, existence becomes itself not a given good, but a conditional event which, because of poverty, probably ought not to have happened. And yet, the poor themselves do not normally find their own existence to be so problematic. They are quite glad to have it. In fact, they even are so rash as to celebrate the festivals of our existence with an abandon that often seems to the fastidious to be wasteful — yes, “irreverent.”
“There is nothing on which the poor are more criticized,” Chesterton wrote, “than on the point of spending large sums on small feasts; and though there are material difficulties, there is nothing in which they are not more right.” Far from this spirit, “doing” something for the poor has often become recently a sort of massive media event. I once heard on the radio a scheme for everyone who contributed ten dollars to stretch his arms together across the country, while singing some fund-raising song; at the time, I couldn’t take the idea seriously. One is tempted to be cynical about such things, to be sure, such “ideologizing” of poverty, as it appears. We are urged to help the “starving poor” in particular places, then we read: “Nothing South Africa has ever done is as horrible as Ethiopia’s Stalin-like policy of mass starvation. ‘What is happening in Ethiopia today is catastrophic,’ says William Shawcross . . . ‘Indeed . . . it is now clear that the government is using a deliberate policy of starvation . . .” (See Adam Wolfson, “What Governments Do to Blacks in the Rest of Africa,” Policy Review, Fall 1985.) So the enthusiastic collections for the poor can often, alas, be used to repress the poor. The defense of the feasts of the poor, then, ought not to be naive — but this should not make us forget the ordinary, what most people do.
We are urged to think that the “small feasts” in our own families or neighborhood are signs of betrayal of the poor, whereas they are rather the proof that the poor, considered by themselves, and not as mere “objects” of concern for governments or philanthropists, understand the intimate relation between worship and good food and drink. “Some say that the poor should give up having children,” Chesterton continued, “which means that they should give up their great virtue of sexual sanity. Some say that they should give up ‘treating’ each other, which means that they should give up all that remains to them of the virtue of hospitality.” Thus, the great feast of hospitality, the great feast of Christmas, is no accident. Its very “extravagance” or its “irreverence” not only consists in giving things away, but also in the realization that we are guided by something besides ourselves. But how is this possible? Surely its understanding must lead on to the heart of reality itself.
Thomas Aquinas began the great third part of his Summa Theologiae, a part he never lived to complete, with the question of whether it was “convenient,” or fitting, that God became incarnate. We are to notice, of course, that Aquinas did not ask whether this Incarnation was “necessary,” as if somehow God were determined to proceed with us in this particular fashion. The whole glory of the Incarnation was that it need not have happened. On the other hand, if this event did somehow happen, then we human beings endowed with reason cannot but reflectively seek to account for it, to understand it as best we can. Aquinas then went on to point out that the “nature of God is the essence of goodness” which seeks “to communicate itself to others,” and this in the highest manner possible. And how was this? Aquinas could do no better than to cite Augustine: “He [God] joined to Himself a created nature so that one Person from the Three, the Word, might take on soul and flesh.”
In the proper order of things, our very knowledge of such an event as the Incarnation, of what it implies, calls for our response. And how do we human beings “respond” to such things? “Wherever you have belief,” Chesterton wrote, “you will have hilarity, wherever you have hilarity, you will have some danger.” Christianity calls us to respond to what is given to us in the way we are. We do not “make” the Incarnation. We receive it, and we are glad. What else but simple “hilarity” would be appropriate?
All feasting is dangerous partly because all life is dangerous. The Incarnation itself was a risk on the part of God because, like all gifts, it had to be “received.” But when it is received among us, the Word made Flesh, we cannot “pay back” the gift as if it were somehow a question of justice, of a quid pro quo. The only thing we really can do, the only thing that is really appropriate to do, is to “rejoice” — with the “irreverence” of that trinity of eating, drinking and praying” the typifies the tradition of this “holy day which is a holiday.” Some things are beyond reward and beyond expectation — when, nevertheless, they still somehow happen in our world, in our particular lives, the only appropriate thing we can do is to rejoice and be glad at such tidings of great joy. Such things are indeed worth fighting for.