Sense and Nonsense: God’s Holiness in History

At Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s in 1995, the Holy Father, our best teacher, repeated the majestic “time” themes of the incarnation – today, the hour. Hodie natus est: Today is born our Saviour, Christ the Lord. “The hour when the Son of God is born in the stable of Bethlehem is the hour in which God’s holiness breaks into the history of the world.” We hear “tidings of great joy.” It is the “‘holy night,’ as a well-known carol proclaims. It is the night that marks the beginnings of the economy of the New Law, accomplished by him who alone is ‘the Holy One of God.'”

What is new about Christmas of late is the increasing political and social pressure to forbid any public, or, increasingly, private expression of Christmas and what it means. No cribs, no special days—we celebrate the winter holidays, not Christmas. Even to say “Merry Christmas” risks offense. The most subtle form of this ideological pressure, I think, concerns the difficulty of explaining what the joy of Christmas is about. We have sanitized all public expressions, removed most of the Christmas meaning from the stamps, the stores, the schools, and the public square, even if some carols and oratorios remain as harmless cultural remnants. What is most offensive about Christmas, however, is the existence of some real joy that is unshared, and worse, uncomprehended by the modern mind.

Of course, the very premises on which this joy exists are faith and exact knowledge of the Christmas events. Belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God introduces a kind of “inequality” into the world, in spite of the fact, as St. Paul said, that the inequality is not why God is God but why he poured himself out to become one like us. Any hint that objective grounds for “inequality” exist—some believe, some do not—runs against a certain understanding of democracy.

Consequently, Christmas joy and celebration are increasingly felt to be threats to civil cohesiveness: Christmas merriment is divisive. The solution is not merely to remove any public indication of what Christmas might be about—the holiness of God breaking into human history—but to make it seem unjust of the believer to admit his inner joy at the message of Christmas or, worse, express it in any traditional rollicking or gladsome way. It “unjustly” makes the unbeliever feel he is missing something.

In his earlier audience, the Holy Father explained the reason for joy at Christmas. Without the Incarnation, there is no reason for any joy. Christmas is not a celebration of “joy” as a kind of subjective bounciness, but of what is ultimately worth being joyful about. “It is well-known that for believers the true foundation of joy of this feast lies in the fact that the eternal Word, perfect image of the Father, became ‘flesh,’ a frail infant in sympathy with weak and mortal men. In Jesus, God himself came close to and remains with us, incomparable gift to welcome with humility into our daily life.” The Pope put his finger on the problem—the celebration is a joy, to be welcomed “with humility.” The fact that we experience its joy is not our invention, yet it is our normal, delighted reaction to what Christmas is about.

The increasing refusal to listen to any expression of Christmas, to tolerate it, or to allow its joy to be manifest says much about our culture. When the “holiness of God breaks into our human history,” into our daily lives, in fact, we are not to pretend that this is something of our own fabrication or merit. On the other hand, it is not simply nothing. To show no response, to be allowed to show no response, borders on totalitarian control.

But if we ask ourselves about this growing refusal to permit any expression of Christmas’ meaning or joy, we must see in it the real direction of our culture. It is not just that we do not “believe” in the Incarnation, but we do not even want to hear about it. Evangelization is confronted not merely by the disbelief of those who do not have the grace or openness of heart to know, but by the coercive arm of public power and opinion maintaining that the expression of joy itself is a threat to the closed mind that now governs our society. We are a people who not only do not know, but do not want to know, and insist that we will not know.

Yet the holiness of God has broken into the world. “Today is born our Saviour, Christ the Lord.” The cause of our joy remains and dwells amongst us.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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