When we know and love a story, hearing any part of it makes us remember all the rest. The birth of Christ is so familiar that we know it this way; we reach back to the angel and Mary's magnificent "be it done to me according to thy word;" we rejoice in Christ's birth; we look forward along the road that draws us toward Jerusalem, to the Hill of Skulls, and the empty tomb.
This, however, is not the way Mary and Joseph lived that wintry night we commemorate. They remembered the past with its angels and commands. They could not foretell the future. They, like us, were caught in a mysterious and joyful present and faced unknowable years ahead. Their state was like ours, we who live and work in universities. For all of us who have the privilege of working with the young, Christmas fits like a glove, mirrors the best of ourselves.
Christmas has always meant a kind of rebirth, a renewal of ourselves and a strengthening of our spiritual powers both in the order of nature and in the order of grace. All three of these good things are naturally ours in a university. We face the annual renewal of a freshman class, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, raw as onions and open as canyons. Any university is a place of testing. The problems are ourselves, the elders against whom the young measure themselves. Our tests don't need much organization; they do need to be frequent and demanding. The young will put them together, as they grow in skill, feel the draw of knowlege and the deep pull of service. We, their elders, tend the ground they live on, call them together, join them in the chase of learning against which both we and they can measure ourselves.
As we work with the young, we are almost forced to renew our own youth. Young people take it for granted that we will, and their laughter draws us halfway to meet their demand. They strengthen us to know afresh the challenge of our jobs, to understand the university as the mighty keep of the future. We stand on ground where death is unimaginable, sickness an intruder and most around us wear the proud livery of youth and beauty. As years go by and the lines lengthen, we know moments when we can say, "See, they depart, and we go with them;" we hunger for the days we can say, "See, they return, and bring us with them."
The rebirth of Christmas changes every human and divine relationship; declares that the great bridge between time and eternity, between God and man, holds across the tiny body of an infant. We who have know that rebirth must labor to share it with the young. Our job is to spread the great light and the good news; to remind young and old, as the gospel says, "you have nothing to fear." Our job is also to teach that great joy is "to be shared by the whole people," and that most of the sharing must be the work of the young.
It is good for us who have wrestled the ambiguities of time to see young men and women before the weight of years makes history servitude; to share with them in the dreaming clarity that shows them the world as their oyster, their private joy. We know too well the darkness that waits upon the dreams the young dream; our vision of their future is shaded by our memories, our "awareness of things ill done and done to others harm" which once we took for exercise of virtue. But Christmas recalls, even to us, a time when grace was without guilt, when the future was undarkened, and when the joy of the present like "the glory of the Lord" shone around us.
Teachers know the spiritual strengthening of Christmas; we see with new eyes the ground of our teaching, why we ourselves labor. All of us came to serve, and we brought to that service learning, understanding and the hard check of reason. In the minds and hearts of our young people, we aim to remake the republic in which they live out their time, as well as the Church of God which will bear them into eternity. These are high aims, and most of us fail as often as we succeed. Christmas recalls to us why we try.