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Friday, April 3, 2015

Christmas Day

Christmas Day  
The Speaker, December 21, 1901

The approach of Christmas will serve to remind even the most sullen and sceptical of the power of a word, for even if all historic records of the Great Teacher after whom it is named were to vanish from history some shadow of His tenderness and some reverberation of His strength would linger in all the humane traditions that are implied in the word Christmas. Christianity is assuredly better expressed in the word Christmas than in the word Christendom. Christmas has not only in it the sublime idea of a universal reconciliation, including the basest man and the brightest angel; it has also that element by which all the religions have lived and for want of which half the philosophies have died- the element of what may be called the sensational in the highest sense of that noble and respectful word. Whatever else it is, Christmas is always instantaneous. All modern celebrations, even when they celebrate men who have been dead but for a few summers, seem like commemorations of far-off and forgotten things. But anyone who, walking through the streets at night, hears the bells begin suddenly to laugh and thunder upon Christmas Eve will find it difficult to persuade himself that something of thrilling import to humanity has not at that moment occurred.

But when we speak of the great Christianity of Christmas it may be as well, first of all, to realise what was the essence of that Christianity. The essential meaning of Christmas Day may be said to consist in a dramatic revolution in a fundamental human group. The whole of human history works back to a human trinity as established and orthodox as the divine- the trinity of father, mother, and child. The common instinct of humanity would mention them in this order— father, mother, and child— the father first because he is the strongest, the mother next because she is the next strongest, and the child third because he is the weakest of the three. The essence of Christmas consists in this simple revolution that the trinity of father, mother, and child is turned into the trinity of child, mother, and father The strongest of the three is the human servant, the less strong is the immaculate hand-maiden. The weakest of the three is the King of the heavens and the earth. It is impossible to exaggerate the moral audacity of this conception. The sea is set over the stars, the snails fly higher than the birds, and the great pyramid of human tradition stands upon its apex. But this resonant paradox is the thing called "the Holy Family," upon which the European civilisation has from the beginning been built up.

The worship of the child which is implied in Christmas has three aspects which are of supreme importance to, and, indeed, constitute the essence of, the Christian civilisation. First, as has been previously suggested, it involves the conception of reverence to the weak or the thing which is commonly called the weak. For, in truth, the principle is no paradox, but merely the discovery of the elementary fact that there are many different kinds of strength, and weakness is one of the most powerful. Whether a thing be strong or no depends upon what work is set before it, and the strength of the lion and the stability of the mountain may be in certain matters a mere weakness scorned by the greater strength of the thistledown or the fly. This great reverence for the secret powers of the weak, the mystical energies stored up in the weak, has been the chief mark of European civilisation with all its arrogance and brutality. In the Middle Ages we produced the cult of the woman round whom gathered so much war and ceremonial. In the nineteenth century we produce the cult of the child round whom gathers so much science and literature and art.

We may say, then, that the first conception behind the institution of Christmas is this conception of the mysterious and terrible nature of the weak. It was, perhaps, what made men in old times tend to represent the fairies- the incalculable spirits who blessed and slew- as smaller even than children. It is certainly the whole of this mystical heritage of old-world terror which an ordinary man feels rising within him when asked if he knows how to hold a baby in long clothes. But if this be the first of the Christmas conceptions, the second may be expressed in the phrase that the worship of the child is in its essence the worship of the future. The great Messianic conception hovers in some degree over every child that is born. No collapse of humanity can be regarded as final, no wilderness of monotonous materialism can be conceived as unlimited, while nature still pours out upon the globe the armies of the children, each one a potential deliverer. Humanity can never forget that a Baby born in a stable redeemed it from what seemed the most hopeless of all its aeons, an infinity of dreary civilisation and unlimited limitation, an endless end of the world.

Lastly, Christmas represents the reign and influence of love. It is a truism to say this, and a truism may be defined as the thing which is most necessary and most difficult to say. In our day the typical teacher and man of letters may say any paradox he pleases: he may say that ideals are immoral, that martyrs are cowardly, and that the tail wags the dog. But the one thing he cannot say, because he dare not say, is the truism, the truism that nothing in the end satisfies any of us but charity and peace. If there is one supreme merit in Christmas it is that just as it is the time of children it is the time of truism. At this time we rest for a moment from the fever of intellectual differentiation and consent to be human, to become for the first time truly original in contact with the great origins. It may be that before this season is over we may see some way of sending to two nations in agony some message which shall rise above the panic of self- assertion, having the strength which smiles and the great courage which pardons.

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