Christmas doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s a jumbled mess of metaphysical impossibilities and cultural inanities all slicked over with soggy sentimentality and consumerist impulse. Bashing secular Christmas for its inconsistencies — a supposed season of joy and peace kicked off by the feeding frenzy called “Black Friday” — is a time-worn December tradition for preachers. But the Church doesn’t really have a leg to stand on: the theology of Christmas is a glorious morass of paradox and staggering absurdity. We know it only insofar as it is familiar to us, and that familiarity tends to dull our sense of the marvelous, outrageous wonder of it all. Whichever way you slice it, Christmas baffles. And I think that’s precisely the point.
The truth of Christmas is not a proposition for us to comprehend but a gift for us to receive. But how? I find that poets are better at paradox than preachers, and often make better companions for baffling times. On this day of paradox par excellence, there are two poems in particular that I turn to year after year.
The first is “Christmas” by the 20th-century English poet John Betjeman.
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
I love that Betjeman begins with (and never really leaves) “the sweet and silly Christmas things.” The first five stanzas of the poem are entirely devoted to the stuff of a secular Christmas: cheerful pubs, bright bunting in the town hall, shops “strung with silver bells and flowers.” Even the decorating of the village church in the second stanza is really just a part of general Christmas merriment, rather than some special expression of spiritual devotion. It’s all done “So that the villagers can say / ‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.”
And all of this is good. Betjeman surveys these things fondly, with a sprinkle of longing and only the slightest dash of irony. The sentimental stuff of Christmas isn’t bad, after all. Families coming together (even “girls in slacks … and oafish louts!”) and the excitement of children and the tinsel-trappings of the season: these are all good things.
But they are not the Good Thing. Whenever I read this poem, I imagine someone at a warm, cheerful holiday party. Standing with a glass of high-octane eggnog in his hand, he’s just finished a light and friendly conversation with an amiable acquaintance. Now he is, perhaps only for a brief moment, alone in the midst of a party overflowing with all “the sweet and silly Christmas things” cherished by our culture. Suddenly, in the sixth stanza, a question rises in his brain: And is it true?
Article continues below
What prompts the question? Maybe my imaginary partygoer glimpses a crèche hidden under the Christmas tree. Maybe there’s a card on the mantle depicting a beautiful Renaissance Madonna with child. In the third line of the sixth stanza, Betjeman connects the question with a “stained-glass window’s hue.” Has the poem’s speaker just escaped the frenzy of a bustling commercial street by dropping into an empty church? However it happens, the question of the Incarnation suddenly breaks into the poem.
That is precisely how it must be. Part of the holy nonsense of Christmas is that it comes abrupt and unexpected. The Feast of the Nativity — the Church’s celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation — cannot be merely an extension of the good things of “the holiday season” as the secular world keeps it. Christ’s birth cuts at an angle to all the kingdom of this world: all of our bad things, and all of our good things — all of our sad things, and all of our happy things. Christmas interrupts us, just as surely as a wondering thought can steal suddenly upon a person at a party, or an unexpected encounter with a piece of art (a stained-glass window, a painting, a statue, or a great work of music) can raise unanticipated questions in the soul.
And is it true? Betjeman’s question, with a touch of modern embarrassment and slight skepticism, does not grow organically out of the ordinary nonsense of Christmas. Rather, it grapples with astonishing, paradoxical news: an unexpected announcement from somewhere strange that changes everything in the here and now. Betjeman begins with all the good things this world affords, which really are abundant at Christmastime. But he ends by turning from them to the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the “Baby in an ox’s stall” — and realizes that nothing else in all creation “can with this single truth compare.”
That fact doesn’t make that single truth any easier to comprehend. The theology of Christmas is just as thoroughly senseless (or, to put it more grandly, “fraught with paradox”) as all the secular stuff. And for my money, no poet tackles the glorious absurdity of this day better than Robert Southwell, the 16th-century English Jesuit, does in his “The Nativity of Christ”:
Behold the father is his daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch’d therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.
O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.
Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!
Betjeman begins with the tissued fripperies. Southwell begins in the stable. With the great biblical word of announcement — Behold! — Southwell dives right into the paradox of Christ’s birth: “The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.” What a delightful summary of John 1:10! “He was in the world, and the world was made by him.” The entirety of the first stanza is given over to the wonderful impossibilities of the Incarnation: the Word can’t speak, the ancient of days is an hour old, and heaven’s highest joy lets out an infant’s cry. Tremendous power is present — “might” and “force” — but the great paradox is that it is revealed most perfectly in weakness. It is “feeble,” and “faintly creep[s].”
But what is the point of all this paradox? It is shocking (and poetically delightful), but why does it matter? Southwell tackles that question in the second stanza with a string of commands: “O dying souls! behold your living spring! / O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!”
To whom is he speaking? For whom are these stern imperatives issued? Southwell’s list of paradoxes in the first stanza speaks directly to us. The “dying souls,” “dazzled eyes,” “dull ears,” and “heavy hearts” of the second stanza belong to us.
The greatest paradox of all, the paradox above and behind all of Southwell’s clever paradoxes, is that the gift of the Incarnate Christ — a gift that reveals God in a new and surprising and utterly unexpected, even nonsensical way — transforms not God, but us. God is not lessened or changed by the Nativity of Christ. But by “assumption of the Manhood by God,” humankind is renewed and restored. Receiving God’s gift to us makes us what we were meant to be in the first place: God’s gift to himself.
Southwell’s final stanza surveys the cosmos from the edge of the manger. He tells the story of Genesis 3 in just one line: “Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast.” So we stand: reduced, diminished, unmanned (in a different sense from the usual use of that word). And how does God address our alteration and loss? By coming down to meet us in our deepest depths: “Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh; / Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d, / As hay the brutest sinner to refresh.”
If men and women have, by the Fall, been made beasts, then God’s solution to this dilemma is to become the food of beasts: literally to lie in the feeding trough of cattle. And that beastly food, contrary to all sense, makes us human again.
“Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew, / Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!”
For “God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine.”
God bless you on this holy day, and grant that you may perceive by faith (and perhaps with a little help from verse) the great truth that lies beyond all human knowing and hoping. Merry Christmas.