Sense and Nonsense: Beloved People at Home

On December 23, 1923, Isak Dinesen, from her farm in Ngong in present-day Kenya, wrote to her mother in Denmark:

I wish I could smell the Christmas tree and the indescribably delicious aroma of roast goose out here; it is quite right… that “the nose is the memory,”—but I am sure that you will all be thinking about me when you eat the goose and light the candles, and when you sing “Now is the chiming for the Christmas feast,” which I think the most beautiful of all the carols and the one which most reminds me of Christmas at home. So “Happy Christmas” to you all, beloved people at home.

I have always found something especially poignant about such passages, of the folks who are not “home” for Christmas, of the very meaning of what it is to be “at home” at all. And Christmas is the physical, incarnational feast; it needs and has the music and the smells, the goose and the candles.

In his Question on the Nativity of Christ (III, 35, 4), St. Thomas Aquinas asked whether Christ ought to have manifested his birth to the world by Himself, without the help of others. Thomas replied that Christ’s nativity was ordained for our human salvation, which is achieved by faith. This same salvific faith includes both the divinity and humanity of Christ in its tenets. However, the manifestation of Christ’s divinity ought not to prejudice our belief in His humanity. This prejudice to His humanity would indeed have happened if Christ had exhibited the proofs of His divinity exclusively by Himself. Consequently, He manifested His divinity through a few other creatures, mostly—besides His parents—a couple of foreign kings and a few local shepherds.

Thomas went on to argue that we need to know that Christ was really human, a fact manifested best to us by His nativity and subsequent life on Earth. Thus, if Christ had been made known to everyone from the beginning of His dwelling here as an infant, and this exclusively by Himself, this striking event not only would have impeded the actual salvation we were given, “through the Cross,” but it would have “placed in doubt the truth of Christ’s humanity.” We would have thought Him to be an “apparition” of some sort. Of course, there were and are a number of theological schools which do hold that Christ was and is just an apparition. Some think this is a very “scientific” position. But it is not the Christian position. And it is not a very interesting position either.

The Christian view is that Christ was by no means a mere phantom. He was Word made flesh. This meant not merely that He was human, matter and spirit, but more specifically, that He had a Mother. Essentially, it was through her that Christ was manifested to the inhabitants of this world. Chesterton, as usual, put it best:

Modern theology tells us that the Child of Bethlehem is only an abstraction of all children, that the Mother from Nazareth is only a metaphorical symbol of motherhood. The truth is that it is only because the Nativity is a narrative of one lonely and literal mother and child that it is universal at all.

Not merely was Christ not a phantom, but He was not a philosophic abstraction either. He was not some sort of symbol for all children, but nothing actual in Himself. He was a real child, born at a real place, in the time of a real Caesar.

In one of the Christmas sequences in Charles Schultz’s The Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together, the kindergarten class is performing a Christmas recital before their parents. Each student gives from memory the next line. Linus is panicking as the recitation goes on; he has the last and most important line, but he cannot remember it. He is helplessly whispering to his sister Lucy next to him that he cannot recall his line. “We are here to tell of a wondrous light,” the first boy happily begins. The next boy continues, “A wondrous light that was a star.” Lucy is next and has no difficulty with “And wise men saw the star and followed it from afar.” Charlie Brown is next, “They found the stable in the night beneath the star so big and bright.”

It is at this point that Lucy learns of Linus’ memory lapse. The next girl goes on, “The wise men left the presents there… gifts so precious and so rare.” Lucy whispers loudly out of the side of her mouth, “Whaddaya mean you can’t remember it?” The second from the last member of the class gets his line, “Look up, look up, the star still stands, seen by millions in many lands.” Lucy continues to a now terrified Linus who is next, “You better remember it right now, you blockhead, or when we get home I’ll slug you a good one.” This tactic works, and Linus finally shouts in triumph before a happy class, “The Star that shown in Bethlehem still shines for us today!” In the last scene, the beaming Christmas chorus wishes everyone in the audience a “Merry Christmas,” while Linus is lying flat on the floor, saying to the Lord, “Thank you!” for sparing him such a fate, both humiliation and Lucy’s promised blows.

Christmas is a feast of our Redemption, of God’s ways with us. It is a joyous feast because it hints that we do not save ourselves. In 1766, just after returning from his continental tour, Boswell recorded a conversation at the Mitre Tavern in which Boswell told of a foreign friend who informed Boswell that “I hate mankind, for I think myself to be one of the best of them and

I know how bad I am.” To this rather prideful comment, Johnson, in a remark that more than any other tells something of why the Incarnation and Nativity were necessary, retorted, “Sir, he must be very singular in his opinion, if he thinks himself one of the best of men; for none of his friends think him so.”

That is to say, Christ came among us not because He did not know how bad we might be, even when we vaunt ourselves for being the best of the bad, but to give us hope even in our disorders that the way to God remains open to us through this star that shone in Bethlehem that still shines on us today. The goose and the carols, the smells and the candles, the beloved people at home, are possible because of this Hope that continues to dwell amongst us, in sacrament, in faith, in this concrete world. Christ still relies on us, not just on Himself, to announce, in our home especially at Christmas, that He was not a phantom or an abstraction, but a Child, born in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the whole world was at peace.

We, “blockheads all,” in Lucy’s phrase, cannot, like Boswell’s foreign friend, “hate mankind” when we know Who it was Who was born on a day which should be spent in our very homes, even if, like Isak Dinesen, we are far away from them, perhaps even if we do not have a home. Ultimately, Christ became a child that we too may dwell in His home.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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