This year Christmas came early to my town. Even before the children went from house to house, the windows and houses of Berwyn, Pa. were decorated with long rolls of Christmas lights. In our local online discussion forum, a woman said she wished everyone could wait until Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. After all, seasonal jewellery is reserved for the season.
You can imagine the reaction she had. Unhappy to the point of anger, other neighbors explained that after a miserable year that sometimes seemed endlessly dark, it was a great relief to drive and see the lights shine. At least you could enjoy the light, even when the shops themselves were closed! You were right: For many of us, Christmas is not about celebrating a specific event, the birth of Jesus, at a specific time. It’s more like a whole season of feelings. Avalanches of cards, unexpected warm smiles from passers-by, bells ringing, carols, children shaking in the light – all this makes for a good mood.
Are the simple pleasures of Christmas deeper than we think?
What should Christians do with such simple joys and pleasures? Are they innocent distractions, obstacles to faith, or something deeper than we attribute to them?
Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, has become a Christmas classic, partly because he captures the sentimental spirit of Christmas so well. In almost every scene Capra plays on our sympathies, with the heartbeat on the puppy love between George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed); on the meanness of Mr. Potter, the greedy banker (Lionel Barrymore); on the tender affection of George’s daughter Zuzu for the flower she won at school.
The most obvious sentimental appeal comes from Angel Clarence (Henry Travers). At the end of the film, George faces bankruptcy and imprisonment because his alcoholic uncle has embezzled money from the company, despairing about what he has done with his life and trying to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. He is saved by the clumsy but loving Clarence, sent to teach him the true value of his life.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, centre), surrounded by family and friends on Christmas Eve in the film It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946.
The Everett Collection
Clarence shows George how much worse the world would be if he’d never been born. This revelation causes George to change his mind and take his life back. In the last scene, all the people he has helped crowd in his home and fill a big basket with money, saving him from a ruinous debt. During the party, Zuzu hears a bell on the wreath of the Christmas tree, a sign that Clarence has earned his wings. But It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie that doesn’t talk about Christ. On the contrary, it does us good by playing with our emotions and making us sympathize with the virtuous characters and despise the wicked.
When I was a kid in Michigan, we lived next door to one of Frank Capra’s daughters. She was highly respected in our city for her work as a director of creative programs in prisons. Following in Clarence’s footsteps, she went to dark places and tried to help those who could no longer see the good in their lives to regain their sight.
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Why would she do that? Out of generosity and good feelings? It’s possible. But I think Capra, who was Catholic, reveals more than one good feeling in It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is based on the insight that each person, each thing, carries a universal meaning in his or her individual existence.
After all, George’s life is not good because he enjoys it – he experiences misery and frustration above all. It’s wonderful, because despite the trials, he acknowledges that some things are good: Coconuts and ice cream, dancing and singing, the love of a husband, the little flower of Zuzu, and even the raw bread, salt and wine that Mary used to baptize the new houses that George Construction and Loan helped finance. This vision of the world, I would say, is the very theological meaning of Christmas.
Of course, the generous feelings of Christmas have a strength of their own, regardless of creed. They saved George Bailey in the same way as Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a century earlier. I remember watching the Christmas episodes of sitcoms as a kid, where this or that kid asked his or her parents what a real Christmas was. The parents, clearly too ashamed to say anything concrete about the birth of Jesus, were content with words as big but vague as peace, joy and love.
But although such feelings can overwhelm us for a while, they are rarely taken into account. It’s enough to make our hearts swell a few sizes during the movie, but then we’re sent back to our lives as we were two hours earlier. If feelings make us kind to others, it’s only when we can afford to put good feelings aside the most, and they disappear when things aren’t going so well.
Matthias Stomach, Adoration of Shepherds, ca. 1625.
In his 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, the economist E.F. Schumacher regretted that in today’s world the true understanding of one’s neighbour is replaced by sentimentality, which naturally dissolves into nothingness as soon as the ego is threatened and fear of any kind is awakened. In other words: Good feelings aren’t enough to make us good people. Goodness can only transform us by penetrating deep within us – our mind, our capacity for knowledge and wisdom.
This does not mean that knowledge and feelings are in conflict with each other. Elizabeth Seton, the first American woman canonized by the Catholic Church, decided to convert from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism, partly because of the overwhelming feelings she felt while praying in the chapel of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Florence. Seton would later write that in her somberness and glory, in the dark atmosphere around the altar by candlelight, she found a foretaste of heavenly delights. She was guided by her sense of truth.
But as a Catholic, I believe that part of the faith is to discipline emotions so that they are not only rooted in my heart, but also in reality and truth. That’s one of the reasons I feel sorry for my neighbor who complained about the pre-Halloween Christmas party. For Catholics, the liturgical calendar brings form, meaning and order in the course of days and weeks. This tells us that different days and seasons require different thoughts and feelings. The unbridled joy of Christmas, the feast of the birth of Christ, and Easter, the resurrection, are preceded by the solemn seasons of Advent and Lent, which call us to reflect on our sins and to do penance.
This calendar reminds us that faith is not a personal feeling that comes and goes. Feelings are more related to a reality outside of us. We do not randomly determine our moment of joy, but we wait for a specific holy day. It is a truth discovered by all the great religions of the world: By keeping a fixed calendar, our personal emotions become the reason for true communication with others, with the whole cosmos and with the Divine.
Based on this, communication is more than just personal feelings. Our feelings are based on truths that we have in common and can flow from them, even though many of us, like the parents in these sitcoms, are ashamed to talk about it out loud. For believers, Christmas confirms the way things are and asks us to think differently about reality.
In the first centuries of Christianity, many Romans considered the mystery of the Incarnation with contempt.
We generally regard truth as something abstract and universal, as a mathematical concept. For example, my idea of a triangle exists independently of the triangle I see in real life. For Christians, however, Christmas is the time when the universal God, the creator of all things, is knocked down to come into the world and take flesh as a special person. In the first centuries of Christianity, many Romans considered this idea with contempt. They could understand people by using the mind to come to the knowledge of the truth, which is universal and eternal. But Christianity affirms that the Son of God, who is himself wisdom, took flesh and became man at some point in history, Jesus Christ.
It seemed impossible for the Romans: How can something be eternal in time? If Christ was the Redeemer of wisdom, what about all the people born before He came into the world? Why should the eternal Spirit accept the despised state of the flesh? Such suspicions led them to reject Christianity as absurd. As early Christian theologian St. Paul put it: The early Christian theologian, St. Paul, was a man of the world. Augustine in one of his Christmas sermons: They would rather see this great miracle as fiction than fact…. They despise man because they can’t believe him.
Christmas lights in Burlington, Vt.
For Christians, it is the mystery of the Incarnation, in the light of which the world takes on a new value and dignity. The individual is no longer against the universal, but carries the universal within him. Christians call this paradox a sacramental view of reality, which means that everything, even the smallest thing, is imbued with a meaning that should be respectful of us.
Incarnation challenges us to see a certain moment in history, a certain thing in the world, no matter how small or insignificant, and to recognize that it has a universal depth of meaning and value. Bread and wine are things that are eaten and passed on, but at the same time they have a lasting sacramental meaning.
A classic expression of this sacramental vision can be found in Isak Dinesen’s novel Babette’s Feast (1950). The story is that of a French Catholic woman who settles in Norway as a refugee and works there as a cook for two older sisters. The sisters belonged to a strict Lutheran sect whose members rejected the pleasures of this world, for the land and all it had in store for them was a kind of illusion, and the real reality was the New Jerusalem they were striving for. For the sisters, luxury food was a sin, so they told Babette to only serve sober dishes like cod and bread soup.
The sacramental vision does not deny that the world is often undesirable, that we are often weak and powerless.
But one December evening, just before Christmas, Babette announced to her employers that she had won the lottery and that she wanted to prepare a real French holiday for the entire religious community. The members have vowed never to talk about food, but they are disappointed by the sumptuous meal – including the real champagne – and are attracted by the joyful community that unites everyone’s personal feelings. Thanks to the inherent goodness of this feast, writes Dinesen, the stars came closer and the guests saw the universe as it really is. The New Jerusalem is real, but his king has established himself among us, so that the kingdom is already there and nestles in the things of this world.
The Covid 19 pandemic and the other challenges of 2020 raise the question whether there is anything good to be found in the darkness of this world. But the sacramental vision does not deny that the world is often undesirable, that we are often weak and powerless. After all, Christmas took place in the gloom of the middle of winter; the God containing the universe was in a humble straw-covered manger surrounded by oxen and donkeys. We can, if we want, see this as another sentimental Christmas scene, but it shows that even the humblest things can work miracles. The joy of Christmas becomes more and more solid as we acknowledge the goodness of things, even in their misery and vulnerability.
Mr. Wilson, poet and critic, is the author of the latest book, Strangeness of the Good, published by Angelico Press.
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