Christmas intensifies the “already / not yet” tension that makes us, at once, at home and restless in this world. More “already”, and more “not yet”. As the Kingdom appears here, we sense more of it that is beyond us. Thirst is slaked, but then the mouth is more dry. This experience comes and goes in normal times, fleeting, hinting, but the approach of Christmas condenses it. With Advent we nearly come apart with longing.
The Christmas symbols we’re given in the gospels are one thing: babe in manger, virgin and angel, choirs in the sky. But the symbols we’ve crafted for ourselves in the centuries since reflect the same increasing tension between Mundanistan and Narnia. They are suggestively but not clearly shaped. They teach us what we almost know.
Lights in trees. Lights in trees! What are lights in trees? Not biblical. But you must imagine seeing them for the first time, like a child, or hearing a stunned cry in the street – “Look, there are lights in the trees!” (We would hear this in angel voices every Advent, if we were not asleep.)
Light in the tree. The supernatural grafted onto the natural. Even half-aware savages, under the pressure of grace, create simple but enduring symbols.
And money! We bemoan the “commercialism of Christmas”, as if the money shooting around is some peripheral add-on, some alien barnacle encrusting our lily-white holiday. But the Magi brought gold! They brought wealth! Lucre! Smack! The separation between what we know as “money” and the stuff of life which it procures is modern and docetic. Money, or currency, is a modern and freeing innovation. It is an abstract, symbolic store of value which makes wealth mobile and standardized, which allows the production of more wealth. Which is all good. But this new distance between our currency and what it symbolizes is the historical accident that allows the pharisees in our pews to want to amputate wealth from celebration, when in fact there is no celebration without the consumption and gifting of wealth. In fact, wealth (in some form) is what is being celebrated, by means of wealth.
So, Christmas, which was started by God making us rich for no reason, cannot be anything, culturally, if people are not giving each other stuff bought by money. When God acts, earthly wealth must move.
But the man-made symbols are derivative. Light in the trees goes dark unless fed from somewhere. Wealth is moved by something. We are living through the death of Christendom, as the long, slow tide of faith recedes. The world has declared its majority and says it can build a civilization without infusions of supernatural. So: can Christmas survive without the Church’s perpetual proclamation of the Incarnation of the Son of God?
A festival of lights and wrapped presents? I don’t think it will survive.