“Contrasts at Christmas,” by Edward L. Parsons
Christmas does not really belong in the world in which we live. With its homely festivities, its stories of angels’ songs and peace on earth, its exaltation of a baby, its sentimental wishes, there is something incongruous about it in a world of war and ruthless competition and bitter hatreds. Never perhaps since the days when Augustine wrote the City of God has the incongruity seemed more obvious than today. Then the great Empire which had ruled the Western World for centuries was crumbling into ruins. Chaos, insecurity and uncertainty faced the men of a dying world. In such a world why talk of angelic visitors, of shepherds and a stable and a baby? Augustine told them why. He wrote the City of God to proclaim to them that in this crumbling dying world the Church, which bore the name of that little Child, would stand secure and imperishable.
And today? We face a world not crumbling for lack of power but threatened with destruction because of its power. The most appalling fact of today is not the wreckage of war—ruined cities, starving people, chaos in Europe and in Asia. It is the revelation of power. Men have seen it focused in the atomic bomb; but the bomb is only a symbol. It is only the last product of a surging extravagance of power undreamed of in the past. The Soviet Union on the one side, Britain and America on the other possess this power. The world is in their hands; its future set by their decisions. So the daily press, the journals, the speeches in Congress, the big industrialists and the little businessmen and the labor leaders and the men of the armed forces keep telling us. Power politics? What else is there today, for what else fills men’s minds. They know there can be enough food and enough shelter for all. The days of scarcity need be no more. As Norman Cousins puts it, “He (man) has at last unlocked enough of the world’s secrets to provide for his needs on a world scale.” It is distribution with which men must be concerned; and distribution means the exercise of power. They shudder at the atom bomb; but they know that, to paraphrase a famous saying, it is not the bomb which matters; it is the men behind the bomb. They wield the power.
And along comes Christmas in this world which lives trembling before the revelation of power. If it was incongruous in that chaotic world of 1,500 years ago it is surely more so today. How can you hear angel songs above the drone of bombers in the sky? What is the use of dwelling on the picture of the manger and the Child when the world must decide what to do with a hundred million armed men? Why be concerned with the humble three of the Holy Family? It is the Big Three with whom we have to deal.
Well, that is all exaggerated for there are far more than 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to the Baal of Power. There are countless ears catching the angels’ songs. There are countless hearts touched with more than pleasant sentiment as they picture the Holy Family there in Bethlehem. And these “Christian souls” are right. Christmas is utterly incongruous in this world of power and yet Christmas is utterly and altogether—what shall we say?— timely? relevant? No, vastly more than that! Christmas alone is perfectly congruous, for Christmas brings to the surface those imperishable values for which men in all this struggle of power are really groping. It focusses men’s thoughts, at least for the moment, upon the secret of ultimate power.
First note then that it is the children’s festival. It is a great “birthday party.” In the midst of ruthless power it reminds us of the love which lies at the heart of God, the tenderness and gentleness with which he would have men live day by day. The Holy Family is no pious phrase. Normal men and women respond to it. Normal men and women know that all the joyous centering of Christmas upon the children, all its quaint and homely and naive customs are congruous in the age of power because power is empty, power is tyrannous and meaningless for men unless it learns the lesson of the Holy Family. Its use is not to destroy but to enhance these intimate and universal joys. Let the wielders of power remember that!
And again, as the story takes us to the ordinary home, it takes us to the common man, the simplicity, the everydayness, the naturalness of life. The cattle, the ox and the ass, the smell of the hay, the dim light of the flickering little lamp, the anxious Joseph and the radiant Mary—it is very simple and commonplace and within the range of all men’s experience. In the story the shepherds come first, perhaps like Jolly Wat in the old ballad, laying at the feet of the baby all their most precious possessions.
Jesu I offer thee here my pipe
My Skirt, my tarbox and my scrip.
The wise men follow the shepherds with their gold and frankincense and myrrh, great figures in that day, but not great enough; in the imagination of later days they become kings. But Christmas belongs not to the kings.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
The kings may kneel at the manger, but only as the shepherds give them room. Let the wielders of power remember that!
It all sums up finally in just what that verse of the Magnificat suggests. This is the day of the children, of love and tenderness and homeliness; but its significance lies in the fact that these things express the ultimate in power. The Child born in Bethlehem is the Savior who is Christ the Lord—the Anointed One—the King. He is born to rule. His rule is in righteousness and justice and love. But it is nonetheless rule. There is no permanence in any other rule. No other kingdom can last. We have thought much in these war days of the suffering Christ. We have seen him on the cross taking up into himself the vast suffering of the world. But we need another emphasis now. This is the birthday of the Lord of all life, the King. He is no longer the gaunt and dying figure of the crucifix. He is the leader of the hosts of God, Christus Victor. He wrests the power from the hands of the proud and in the name of the transcendent God takes possession of it, for God’s people everywhere. Why then be appalled and shuddering at the present world? This is the birthday of him to whom all power is given. Battles may be lost; but the war will be won.
For unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
Edward L. Parsons (1868 – 1960) was the third bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California and a member of Christianity and Crisis’ editorial board. He later joined the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union board of directors, serving as chairman from 1941 to 1956 and remaining on the board for the rest of his life