The opening lines of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “The Night before Christmas” bears an interesting parallel with the opening lines of “Silent Night.” They both establish a mood of inactivity and quietude.
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” is followed by “mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.” “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” represents a similar mood of inactivity and quietude. These settings are biblical in the sense that quietness and sleep prepare the way for God to bring about great things.
They bring to mind the “deep sleep” described in Genesis 2:21 and Genesis 14:12 when God caused a deep sleep (tardemah) to fall upon Adam, and later, upon Abraham. In the first instance, Adam awakened to find Eve. Adam had nothing to do with the creation of Eve. It was all God’s work. In the second instance, after being placed in a deep sleep, Abraham awakened to be anointed as the spiritual father of his people. He was God’s choice. He was not self-appointed. “The Night before Christmas” and “Silent Night” symbolize pre-conditions that prepare the way for God to do great things. In the poem, the arrival of Santa Claus can easily be seen as the expected arrival of Christ on Christmas.
The two most popular Christmas stories that are brought into living rooms through the medium of television are Charles Dickens’ immortal classic A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s cinematic and treasured production of It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these stories also have biblical implications. Consider the notion that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
In both stories, sin and death play essential roles. Ebenezer Scrooge’s sin is his utter selfishness, vividly expressed in the form of extreme miserliness. He is shown, through supernatural intervention, the gravestone that marks the premature death of Tiny Tim. George Bailey’s sin is one of despair. He is convinced, at least temporarily, that he is better off dead than alive. This despair led him to attempt suicide. He is given a vision of the death of his beloved hometown, Bedford Falls, which would have turned into a center of corruption had Bailey not been there to save it from the ruthless machinations of the evil Mr. Potter.
Death is something that happens to all of us. The deaths pre-figured in both stories, however, would have been premature. They would have taken place too early, when life still retained its pulse and could do no end of good things. Both stories have happy endings, nonetheless, since the central characters of the stories undergo conversions, discard their sinful attitudes, and awaken to life’s great opportunities. Joy replaces sadness, love replaces self-centeredness.
Once George Bailey is made to realize that he has always been better off alive than dead, his assisting angel, Clarence Odbody, says to him, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” “See George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it all away?”
We might ask the same question concerning the birth of Christ: If Christ never came into the world, He would have left a terrible hole. Christmas heralds the importance of life, the discarding of sin, and seizing the opportunities to do good things. It challenges the selfish to think of others; it urges the desperate to have hope.
Sin is connected with an extreme preoccupation with self. Love helps us to rise above sin. The angel’s final words to George Bailey were these: “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends.” Another way of expressing the nature of sin is that it closes itself off from the Christmas message, which emphasizes the great gift that life is and how we are to enjoy it through love and friendship. St. Paul, whom we quoted above, followed his warning that “the wages of sin is death” by annexing the words, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” May we all receive this divine gift with gratitude and joy.
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