This holy day inspires wonder in believers and non-believers alike
When you strive to defend the achievements of Christian civilization you encounter an awful lot of kickback, a lot of angry hostility towards Christian culture. It can be dispiriting.
But Christmas is a time for absolute and entirely positive joyfulness. It is not the chief Christian festival, for that honor is reserved to Easter, the so-called Queen of Feasts, but it is perhaps the most loved — and not only by Christians but also by so many who have lost their faith or never had it to begin with. That gentle agnostic Thomas Hardy wanted so much to believe that the lovely story was true:
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Hoping it might be so: those words nicely express the pathos and the longing of very many people in our sad old materialistic world, people who know the story but can’t quite hear the music, who are so used to miracles of technology in every aspect of daily life that they can’t recognize the biggest Miracle of all, that God became a human person so that he could raise humanity to the divine.
Italy’s most loved Christmas Carol, written by St Alfonso Liguori, expresses this truth most succinctly:
Tu scendi dale stelle, o Re del Cielo… Ahi, quanto ti costò l’avermi amato!
(You come down from the stars, o King of Heaven… Oh, how much did it cost you, loving me!)
Luciano Pavarotti sang it; there are splendid versions too by Andrea Bocelli, Caterina Valente, Beniamino Gigli and many others. To me its most powerful line is how much did it cost you! One thinks of those three gifts – gold for his Kingship, frankincense for his Divinity, and myrrh as a dreadful omen of the death that he was doomed to die. What gifts to bring a new-born baby!
Many of us who read this short piece already share the belief that Hardy hoped to have. Sadly, most people in the world, in every generation and not just our own, are deaf to the music. But the really lovely thing about Christmas is that more than any other day it brings believers and non-believers together: those who don’t or can’t yet manage to believe often substitute mere sentimentality for belief, yet they do share some kind of instinct for the divine, they have some sense of the awesome wonder lying just beneath the surface of their lives.
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