“The Christmas Answer,” by Edward L. Parsons
December 23, 1946
Christmas takes so great a place in our thought today that we cannot help wondering why the Church waited so long—nearly three centuries—before putting the Feast upon the calendar of Holy Days. It was not because the stories in the Gospels were not familiar. It could be only because in some fashion no urgent need called for the answer which Christmas could give. Other ranges of thought dominated the Church. Put in somewhat exaggerated phrases, one might say that during those centuries most Christians were so confident of the living presence of the victorious Lord, so sure of the guidance of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the congregation of the faithful, and in spite of the unfulfilled “promise of his coming,” so deeply concerned with that promise of the future that the celebration of a birthday seemed to answer no special need. With eyes on the future, why commemorate the past? Dazzled by the vision of the Divine Word, which through the ages had lighted every man and now in Jesus Christ flooded the world with the “Brightness of the immortal Father’s face,” waiting in faith for the victory of that eternal word, these men deemed the present and the future to be enough.
But the mood changed when the Empire was conquered and the Church discovered that in its victory it faced the hard reality of a society nominally Christian but still half pagan. The most elementary education in bare Christian morality, to say nothing of the high things of the spirit, became an absolute essential. The Christ, no longer living in spirit-filled hearts, must be made alive. His birth, his childhood, his mother, all the things which made him intelligible to these children in the Gospel, became of importance. Christmas, as one of them, answered a need. It was part of the historical process which unfortunately more and more channeled the gift of the Spirit through priest and bishop, and more and more found the presence of the Living Lord only where the eye could see him, the tongue taste him in the consecrated host. Its celebration was one of the factors which made the Lord real, close, understandable, touching the life of the common man.
One sees the same principle of need working in some of the Protestant groups after the Reformation. The repudiation of the Christian Year was of course part of the revolt from its medieval system, but it could never have been so complete had not the essential factors in the faith of these Christians made it unnecessary. They lived under a profound sense of the transcendent power of God with a faith so centered in the Cross as to exclude all other aspects of Christian experience. Like St. Paul, they did not seem to feel the need to know Jesus after the flesh. Christmas has come back to them as a secular holiday which has gradually revealed its deeper meanings only within the last generation or two.
When we come to the present and our own special needs, the great Feast seems to touch us at many points, to answer many of the needs of our troubled world. We do not need to be assured that Jesus is real, but we do need the civilizing power of the child. We need that picture of the home and the Holy Family. We need, in a sorrowing, unsure world, the sense of the permanency of homely things, and the invasion of joy. Perhaps, to drop to a very practical matter, we do well likewise to link the plight of so many of our people in the midst of plenty, with that ancient story of crowded Bethlehem. It was the Lord of life for whom there was no room in the inn. There is a wealth of meaning in the parallel. And we certainly need the message of peace and good will, an eternal message, but desperately relevant, in this same suspicious and tortured world.
One after another the familiar interpretations of this happiest of Christian Holy Days come flooding into our thoughts, and yet instinctively we feel that there is something more. We have not yet, it seems, touched the deepest need nor found its answer. The Holy Family is a lovely picture; the angels’ song is only an echo from heaven of the sighs of millions of stricken hearts and anxious minds. But the song does come from heaven, and perhaps it being Christmas we are not too fanciful to find in that brief phrase what we are seeking.
For clearly our greatest need today is the certainty of God, the profound conviction that he does rule, that his righteousness and justice and love are imperishable. And here at Christmas, through all its friendly and homely meanings, through the fancies and legends which have gathered round it, there is a deep and searching note. The heavens open—we seem to hear another voice interpreting the angels’ song and the announcement of the Savior’s birth. “Listen!” it seems to say, “you do not understand. This child is God’s Word to man. In him God speaks. You have tried your own strength; you have built with your own hands; you have trusted your own minds and been driven by your own wills; and where are you? Your world crumbles, your hopes dim, your faith weakens. But now listen! The heavens open. It is God speaking. This Word comes with power, with the authority of eternity. This birth in which God speaks is no mere adventitious happening. It is God speaking. It carries the meaning of life, the secret of the universe. It points the way of salvation. It is God speaking. Here in this Child is the way, the truth, the life. You ignore it at your peril. You repudiate it to your destruction. It is God speaking and him you cannot escape.”
Christmas will bring many kinds of messages to many kinds of people throughout the world. It will answer in some fashion for an hour, a day or a week some deep need. But all those needs only point to the deepest need of all: the craving of the human heart for God, for the authority of eternal things. In this tragic, troubled, unsure world, on Christmas Day the heavens did open and God spoke.
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.