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Find the fun in profundity

18 December 2006

How do we reconcile the human side of Christmas with the divine? The stocking and the stable? Gillian Evans ponders a seasonal paradox

IN ONE OF his Christmas sermons, the 12th-century Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux lays before his monks the tender notion of the “little Word”, the verbum abbreviatum (Romans 9.28, Vulgate), which has shrunk himself to a size we can cope with. The idea that God could have come down to our level was by far the hardest thing for the early Christian world to grasp.

Today, we find it easier to think in terms of a human Jesus who set a good example than to accept that he was also God. But, at first, it was the other way round. How could the kind of God whom the intelligentsia of the day respected, who would never get his hands dirty, who was so far above the ordinary goings-on of life that it was disputed whether even “being” might be beneath his dignity, really become one of us? Surely he was just wearing a cloak of human appearance, a kind of mask?

Leo I became Pope in 440, and presided over the Western Church through a period that included the Council of Chalcedon of 451, which agreed that Christ was two natures in one person: a divine nature and a human one.

This was the end of a century-and-a-half of claim and counter-claim, a regrettable mutual mudslinging between divided Christians, which resulted in an official clarification of the way the incarnation was to be understood. The crowds of protesters subsided a little. It remains open to question how much most of them understood of the recondite debates they had been cheering on.

Leo did not forget that this was, at best, even for those who thought they understood it, a mechanical explanation of a mystery, which did not cease to be mysterious when the celestial “genome” had been mapped. What mattered perhaps was not the technical formulation, but the fact that to gaze at that child and see him as a pretence, a mere seeming appearance, was to misunderstand what he was.

Once it was grasped and accepted officially that the Word of God had come to earth as real human being, and a helpless infant at that, explaining what he had come for became all-important. In one of his sermons, Leo says

that Christ entered into battle for us in his human nature so that Satan might be overcome in the very nature that he had conquered when he persuaded Adam and Eve to sin.

This had symmetry, a supreme fairness, to his way of thinking. In a much-altered climate of thought, John Locke was still insisting on the underlying principle as crucial in the 17th century at the beginning of The Reasonableness of Christianity.

“It is obvious to anyone who reads the New Testament, that the doctrine of redemption, and consequently of the gospel, is founded upon the supposition of Adam’s fall. To understand, therefore, what we are restored to by Jesus Christ, we must consider what the Scripture shows we lost by Adam.”

THE CORE PRINCIPLE of belief in a God who was willing to do something about our plight has turned out to be capable of being told at many levels, in many ways, and in many media. The nativity comes early in the liturgical year, and the worship of the year goes on to tell the story which ends with the crucifixion of this baby, the resurrection, and new hope.

The medieval Mystery plays also represent the nativity as part of a narrative, beginning with the doings of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other Old Testament preliminaries, and moving on to the annunciation, the salutation of Elizabeth, a shepherd’s play or two, the Magi, the flight into Egypt, Herod, and onward to the teaching of Jesus and his death and resurrection.

In many nativity scenes, angels look at the child in delighted amazement. Why should the angels be so pleased? Because this infant is a cosmic challenge, as well as a human-and-divine paradox. In nativity scenes, the infant Jesus, the “little Word”, is almost always shown with his mother, who holds him in her lap, and shows him to the world, and invites it to gaze and to wonder.

Alessandro Allori (1535-1607) produced a series of Renaissance compositions to please his Florentine patrons, in which the child Jesus is placing a crown of flowers on his mother’s head. Yet, in his other hand, he holds a crown of thorns. The Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, painted in about 1501, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, includes some of the apocalyptic symbolism of the passage in Revelation 12 in which a woman “clothed with the sun” cries out in labour pains. These are not comfortable Christmas pictures.

Should we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable at Christmas, then? Christmas is a celebration of something huge; something accomplished; something that transforms the world — achieved by a modest downgrading of the divine to fit our creaturely limitations.

AN EVENT of both staggering cosmic importance and gentle intimacy is to be celebrated. And what happens? Ten days of disappointed expectations: not the presents I wanted; too much rich food to eat; too much money spent; too many dark midwinter days with ordinary occupations unavailable; too much solitude for those who do not have a family; too many quarrels for those who do.

Does this matter? In one way, it does not. There is an accommodating generosity in Jesus’s approach to human frailty. But he is also severely uncompromising in the deep expectations he has of us.

It all began with good intentions. The present-giving was originally almsgiving, the Good King Wenceslas approach. This has given way for most of us in the West to an activity whose main challenge is to ensure we have hit the right level of expenditure for presents for friends and relations, who are expected to give presents to us in return.

In Louisa M. Alcott’s American novel Little Women (1869), there is a reminder of the older expectation. “Some poor creature came a-beggin’, and your ma went straight off to see what was needed. There never was such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes and firin’,” exclaims Hannah, the family servant, on Christmas morning.

Yet the urge to give to the needy at Christmas had already become overlaid in 19th-century England with a certain sentimentality, which allowed one to keep one’s distance from the discomforts of the disadvantaged. Charles Dickens “had a surprising fondness for wandering about in poor neighbourhoods on Christmas-day, past the areas of shabby genteel houses in Somers or Kentish Town, and watching the dinners preparing or coming in”, remarked John Forster in his Life of Charles Dickens (1872).

HOW, THEN, to balance current social expectations without losing sight of the paradox and the challenge? In one of Dickens’s Christmas Stories, written in 1850, he festoons the narrative, “A Christmas Tree”, with so many ideas about Christmas that the branches sag.

The Christmas tree was then a novelty, a German Christmas tradition encouraged by Prince Albert. Dickens calls it “that pretty German Toy”. He heaps it with “bright objects”, which turn out to be images of the meaning of Christmas.

He remembers the toys he was given as a small child, and how, as he grew older, he began to associate Christmas with a sense of wonder, when “common things become uncommon and enchanted”. This happened on his first encounter with The Arabian Nights. For Dickens’s Christmas is a rich jumble of magic and theatre and ghost-stories; holidays from school; time at home with the family — alongside “an angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travellers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger”.

Dickens was not inventing this “mixed Christmas”. It is much older. We do not know at what time of year Jesus was born. But the eventual (probably third-century) choice of 25 December set the feast in midwinter, when people had long been in the habit of cheering themselves up with feasting, drinking, and games around the fire. They saw no reason to give all that up to celebrate the nativity. They simply joined the two kinds of celebration together, as we do today. The Christmas “Wassail” (“Good health”) is a drinking toast (probably Viking) by origin.

A HINT OF the spirit in which Christmas has shaped itself is to be found perhaps in carols, essentially non-liturgical and informal, sometimes dangerously theologically inventive, partly secular. They resemble the medieval Mystery plays in making Christmas accessible, supremely the Christian people’s festival, in which joy is merriment, too.

In Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale”:

Janus sit by the fyr, with double berd,

And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;

Biforn him stant brawen of the tusked


And ‘Nowell’ crieth every lusty


In the contemporary story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, everyone at King Arthur’s court is ready for sport and Christmas games, for they know that the next season is Lent, and a modest diet of fish and self-denial is all they have to look forward to.

Then came episodes of pursed-lipped Puritan anti-Christmas campaigning at the Reformation and after. The Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas so strongly that it was forbidden to celebrate it in Boston in 1658-81, and, of course, Cromwell banned it in England. But, despite such interruptions,

the celebration of Christmas pursued its merry, rackety way through the centuries in much the same mixed style, long before Dickens, though each century had its special flavour.

Samuel Pepys reveals himself as a devout Christmas sinner, cheerfully unapologetic about the way he treats his wife. On 25 December 1664, “Up (my wife’s eye being ill still of the blow I did in a passion give her on Monday last) to church alone — where Mr Mills, a good sermon.”

He relates that he and his wife had a happy Christmas dinner, despite her black eye. Then church again later, where he particularly notes “very great store of fine women” in the congregation. The next day, he mentions the family card-games, “very merry” and blind man’s buff and other “Christmas gamballs”.

That did not prevent the serious-minded keeping a careful focus on the spiritual mystery at the heart of the festival. John Evelyn, the 17th-century diarist, Pepys’s older contemporary, merely made meticulous notes of the main points of the Christmas sermons he heard in his diary (and he heard more than one in the day) and omitted the “gamballs”.

Nor did the merry-making others enjoyed stop people from feeling left out, if the Christmas available to them was less enjoyable for personal reasons. Mary Shelley, for example, records a particularly gloomy occasion in 1814, in her journal entry for 24 December.

“Read view of the French Revolution — Walk out with Shelley — and spend a dreary morning waiting for him. . .” Christmas Day “have a very bad side ache in the morning so I rise late”.

The balancing exercise is not the same for everyone, and it may present many kinds of dark challenge, such as fighting depression and loneliness.

THE EVOLVING, mixed Christmas of the centuries since has become a commentary on the real humanity of Jesus. He seems to have enjoyed a good meal, for he set sour tongues wagging by “eating and drinking”. It is hard to imagine that he would not have enjoyed the games and chatter of innocent family and community enjoyments. (I never understand why the inventor of the sense of humour is so rarely recognised to have one himself.)

The little Word, the verbum abbreviatum, made himself “readable” to everyone, theologian or not, by being fully human — not merely in the technical sense, but also in a sense that would surely have made him good company in any age — stimulating, sharing his companions’ pleasures, but always the leader who sets the style and expectations.

It remains a challenge to celebrate Christmas with the right kind of birthday party, but, if we get it wrong, the little Word is big enough to forgive, and set us right by example.

Dr Gillian R. Evans is Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.



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