|01-01-2006 - Traces, n.1
The world described in The New York Times editorial for Christmas Day is a world after
grace, beyond grace, so to speak, where it seems reasonable, at least once a year, to knowingly base our hopes on an absence rather than a presence, on nothing rather than something
The New York Times editorial for Christmas Day was simply entitled, “December 25.” It was obviously a reference to the controversy about what to call the day. The editorial recognized the uniqueness of Christmas, but sought to detach it from a precise historical event. “Christmas is something different” from other holidays, the editorial acknowledged. Unlike holidays that commemorate certain historical figures or events, the “point of Christmas” is “feeling.” The example is Dickens’s Scrooge. Christmas is not really about what happened in Bethlehem, but about Scrooge’s “conversion,” about “the cartwheeling of his emotions after his long night of the soul.” The feast might as well be called Scroogemas.
Scrooge was not against Christmas. He was against Christmas sentimentality. He was not anti-Christian. He was post-Christian. In the editorial, there is repeated reference to “what we would like to feel” at Christmas, culminating in the desire for Peace.
This desire is there, “whatever you believe with an absolute literalism or with a more analogic faith [?], whether you believe at all, whether you are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or merely human.” Christmas is about the fulfillment of the human heart’s desire for Peace. The problem is that there is no basis for hoping that this desire can be fulfilled. There is “no use pretending the world isn’t exactly the way it is,” says the editorial. And yet, “we are right to remember how we would like to feel. We are right to long for peace and goodwill.” How come?
Why is it right to sustain an illusion? When you think about it, this is really amazing. It is like Charlie Brown’s incapacity to realize that Lucy will always remove the football. Again and again he runs to kick it, and of course comes crashing down when she removes it. In the cartoon, this makes us laugh; in the post-modern version of Christmas, this behavior is deemed reasonable.
Reading the editorial, I thought of the second reading of the Midnight Mass: “The grace of God has appeared” (St. Paul to Titus). A world without grace is a sad, resigned, impotent, scared world. But that is a pre-Christian world, a world before the grace of God appeared. The world of the editorial is different. It is a world after grace, beyond grace, so to speak, where it seems reasonable, at least once a year, to knowingly base our hopes on an absence rather than a presence, on nothing rather than something.
In his Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI stated it very clearly: “The modern age is often seen as an awakening of reason from its slumbers, humanity’s enlightenment after an age of darkness. Yet without the light of Christ, the light of reason is not sufficient to enlighten humanity and the world. For this reason, the words of the Christmas Gospel, ‘The true Light that enlightens every man was coming into this world’ (Jn 1:9), resound now more than ever as a proclamation of salvation. ‘It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22).”
To my knowledge, this is the first time since his election that Pope Benedict has directly cited this passage from Vatican II, cited by Pope John Paul II at the beginning of practically every one of his major writings. Still, I don’t remember that GS 22 was ever tied directly to reason. Without the grace of Christ, reason cannot reach its full capacity. Without the grace of Christ, reason cannot reach the root of reality. This is not primarily a matter of morality. Even the best of human efforts is doomed to failure without the presence of grace in the world, without the strength of the attraction of the presence of Christ. Instead, we suffer from a weakening of “the dynamism that makes us human” (Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim). This is the drama to which Christ is the answer.
According to the Times editorial: “Peace does not simply appear in the sky overhead or be embodied one morning in a manger” and therefore “humans never cease to be human.” But the Christmas claim is precisely that the Peace for which we yearn was indeed embodied in a manger. As a result, in the Pope’s words, “the Almighty becomes a child and asks for our help and protection. His way of showing that He is God challenges our way of being human.”
Instead of Scrooge’s conversion, we have that of Zaccheus, based on the attraction of a Presence, not on a feeling.