The same crude hand that made a bland "Veterans Day" of Armistice Day and changed Washington's Birthday into "Presidents Day" -- stripping both of their historic poignancy and flavor -- has been at work on Christmas as well.
Our modern Christmas comes earlier and earlier, now hard on the heels of Halloween; and well before its Twelve Days are here, the celebration is as exhausted and dried out as the poor, prematurely uprooted Christmas tree.
True now to its pagan origins, the season of trade and jollity as we observe it long ago crowded out the preparatory season of Advent, which is too bad. Advent offered a season of self-scrutiny and preparation for the momentous gift of divine love. Its great hymns -- "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "On Jordan's Bank" -- alternated with sobering lessons of our long tale of human shortcoming. Like Milton's great poem, Advent sang "of man's first disobedience/and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/ brought death into the world, and all our woe."
Christmas, thus prefaced, was not an anticlimax but the completion of something. It hinted at a history which was not to be viewed as a cycle of random events, as in antiquity, but as a great drama with a beginning and a middle which presumably would have an ending as well. It began with the innocence of Eden, where good and evil were unknown. It went on with the serpent, the fateful apple, the taste of which was to share the knowledge of the gods and thus to enter history. It was, as they used to say in the Saturday-afternoon movie serials, "to be continued."
It was not given to puny mankind to understand very well these deeper rhythms of its experience. That they existed was more a faith than a certainty, to be sensed through poetry or song or taught by prophets and seers claiming access to the Creator's eternal purposes. Yet the promise of significance was there. And for nearly two millennia this has been the essential teaching of Christmas -- that history is not meaningless, not a tale told by an idiot, but a coherent and continuing story whose consummation is yet to come.
The old Christmas, then, offered a yearly glimpse into deeper matters. Man might be cursed; the historian Gibbon might believe that our common experience revealed little but "crimes, follies and misfortunes"; yet there was an abiding principle of hope. There would come a time, beyond time, when mercy, justice, goodwill, hope and charity, the best achievements in the troubled human record, would prevail, even triumph. The designer of the stars and planets and galaxies had visited his creation and left that mysterious pledge behind. That was the Story beyond and beneath our more temporary and trivial stories.
And now? Not long ago a deep thinker proclaimed "the end of history." It had something to do with the events of the last 40 years or so. Whatever it meant, it differed quite radically from the kind of history of which Christmas speaks. In fact, if history has become less useful as a category of understanding today, as some fear, it may be because we no longer view ourselves as part of an ongoing drama that survives from age to age, whose plot is not to be deciphered by a few lines on the evening news. Modern paganism envelops us with its short timetables and shallow memories; it lures us toward the risky notion that history really is mere empty repetition.
Christmas may be one day in the year in which that bleak view becomes a bit less believable than usual, when we might even be tempted to believe the mystic words of the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:
... . And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge, and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
This is not, perhaps, the evidence of the senses; and it cannot be known as propositional truths are known. But if we listen, the poets and prophets will help us see it. That is the faith of Christmas.