In giving life to Him she was giving Him death.
All other children born must inevitably die; death belongs to fallen nature; the mother's gift to the child is life.
But Christ is Life; death did not belong to Him.
In fact, unless Mary would give Him death, He could not die.
Unless she would give Him the capacity for suffering, He could not suffer.
He could only feel cold and hunger and thirst if she gave Him her vulnerability to cold and hunger and thirst.
He could not know the indifference of friends or treachery or the bitterness of being betrayed unless she gave Him a human mind and a human heart.
That is what it meant to Mary to give human nature to God.
He was invulnerable; He asked her for a body to be wounded.
He was joy itself; He asked her to give Him tears.
He was God; He asked her to make Him man.
He asked for hands and feet to be nailed.
He asked for flesh to be scourged.
He asked for blood to be shed.
He asked for a heart to be broken.
The stable at Bethlehem was the first Calvary.
The wooden manger was the first Cross.
The swaddling band were the first burial bands.
The Passion had begun.
Christ was man.
--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God
Of course, it is true that in human nature there is always a conflict. It is not so much between body and soul as between good and evil, but the body is very often inclined to take the side of evil. It always tends to take the line of least resistance, and that usually results in evil.
--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God
Another point: don't imagine, as some people do, that all your questioning and seeking is a sort of prologue to spiritual experience. Of course it is a great spiritual experience in itself, and it is at present your way of union with Christ, who said, "I am the way, not simply, "At the end of the way, you find me." Also He said, "I am the Truth" and "seek and you shall find": so you can be sure that in seeking for truth you are in fact finding Him all the time; and I think that you are getting to know Him with the intimacy that a blind man learns to know a beloved but unseen face, through touching [it] in the darkness...
--Caryll Houselander, Letters
(The same basic point as yesterday's quote, but elaborated, and I really like that image at the end.)
Christ said "I am the Way," and I am sure that the search and longing for Him, the things that bring you closer to Him, are all means of union with Him. So that it would be silly and wrong not to realize that every prayer said in any church, every act of love to everyone, every doubt or question honestly entertained, is a means of union with Him; and He includes that meaning in "I am the Way."
--Caryll Houselander, Letters
Flowering plants bred for cooler climates tend to get confused here, when we can have temperatures anywhere from freezing to 70+F/20+C. This rose is an example. I just noticed yesterday that it was blooming. Appropriate, ain't it? It's amazing that it blooms at all, because it doesn't get the special care that roses apparently need in any climate. It hangs on, not looking very healthy, not growing very much, but now and then putting forth one or two beautiful blooms.
Always Winter and Never Christmas?
That, as everyone who's read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe knows, was the woeful situation of Narnia under the rule of the White Witch. And it's probably one phrase everyone who reads the book remembers. It's a brilliant way of capturing in a few words the significance not only of Christmas but of the entire cultural presence of Christianity, because the idea of a winter without Christmas does seem terrible, even without the hopeless additions of "always" and "never." (And it's unfortunate that it doesn't really work for people in the southern hemisphere.)
I've always lived in fairly warm climates--well, barring one winter in Denver--and since 1990 have lived in a subtropical one. Winter here is only chilly and drab, not cold and bleak. We don't even lose all of our greenery, and camellias bloom wildly: reportedly the nuns who arrived in mid-winter to found the Visitation Monastery in Mobile were misled by the camellias into thinking they had come to a hospitable climate. But nevertheless it is a dull season, and if it never ended one would eventually despair.
The modern world is trying to rid itself of Christianity, and achieving some success. But the more it succeeds, the more it reveals that the loss will only leave it bleak, angry, and embittered. If over many generations the very memory of Christianity should disappear altogether, something like pre-Christian paganism might emerge. But, as many have observed, a post-Christian society is a different beast altogether. Cold is one of its attributes; empty is another. Oh, it certainly has plenty of sensual and emotional warmth. But it remembers that it once believed that these things were real and eternal, and now it believes that they're only a side effect of matter rattling around in an inconceivably large, empty, and cold space: a sort of friction, perhaps, producing us and our loves and dreams as flint and steel produce sparks which flame for the barest instant before returning to the cold from which they came. And so the chill of those spaces seeps into its heart.
It would be one thing to live in a land where it's always winter and always has been and there has never been any such thing as Christmas. It would be quite another to live in that land with the memory of Christmas. The former circumstance might make you a cold-hearted brute, but the latter could drive you mad.
A couple of years ago I wrote about the way I felt, as a child, about the merely secular approach to Christmas--you can read that post here. I sense that more strongly with each passing Christmas. And there's a struggle within me as well. This Advent I've been even more busy and distracted than usual. I've hardly thought about Christmas, and my observance of Advent didn't amount to much. The signs of Christmas have left me almost completely indifferent, and the need for thinking of presents and family gatherings has seemed more a bother than anything else. I've even found myself wondering if I'm becoming one of those people who really doesn't much like Christmas. But I'm not. All I have to do to correct that impression is to imagine the world without it.
A couple of weekends ago my wife and I took two of our grandsons with us to buy a tree. We ordinarily wait until a few days before Christmas before buying our tree, but we wanted to take the boys, and for complicated family scheduling reasons it looked like that might be the only weekend where it worked out. So off we went to Fish River Trees, where we've bought our Christmas tree for some years now. Sometimes we cut it, and sometimes we bring home a living one and plant it after Christmas, but we've pretty much run out of space for new trees now, so this year we cut one.
The farm is a commercial enterprise, obviously, and it features as much Christmas hokum as any such. Well, no, that's wrong: it features more Christmas hokum, because it's entirely Christmas-oriented. By hokum I mean Santa Claus stuff, snowman stuff (in a climate which might see a very light dusting of snow every 20 or 30 years), candy cane stuff, a Christmas-themed "train"--trailers pulled by a disguised tractor which half-choked us with its exhaust--that sort of thing. Sometimes that stuff gets on my nerves a little, though I always enjoy the process of finding the tree and bringing it home and am glad every year that I did it, even if I wasn't enthusiastic at first.
This year there was something new; also, perhaps, a bit of hokum, if you in turn are a bit cynical. It was a nativity scene, with nearly-life-size figures situated in a simple wooden structure, and a few live animals wandering around the enclosure: a couple of donkeys, and, representing the bovine family, a rather intriguing species of cattle bred for the Scottish highlands, much smaller than ordinary cattle and having an extremely thick and shaggy coat. The figures in the scene were plastic, and no more realistic nor affecting than you might expect. Yet I found it touching. Not only was it a direct statement of the Christmas story within the commercial Christmas that usually slights or ignores it , but the presence of a stable (more or less) of rough wood, and of live animals with their heavy warmth and rough coats and their smells brought a flavor of reality to the scene. It's good for children, most of whom nowadays never encounter any animals except dogs and cats, to see what an ox and an ass are really like. And it was good for me: having spent a great deal of time around cattle when I was growing up, I find the smell of a barnyard rather homey and comfortable, if not precisely pleasant. To be around animals is to be forced--well, at least to have the opportunity--to consider what it means that our flesh, as the old translations have it, and all flesh, shall see the glory of God.
And I'm also forced to consider what the absence of the hope of redemption means, the direction in which western civilization seems to be headed: always winter, but not even never Christmas, because Christmas itself is no longer conceivable, replaced by a wan "holiday" evacuated of any significance beyond the need of human beings to huddle together for temporary warmth against the everlasting cold and darkness.
Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2011
We've had a pretty quiet and very pleasant Christmas Day. Only one of our four children is here, and we slept late and didn't eat breakfast until after 11 or so. Now it's getting late, and I'm sitting in the living room near the Christmas tree and listening to the rain. My wife and I had been so busy for the past couple of months that we hadn't thought about Christmas as much as we usually do (I certainly hadn't; she still managed to make some definite plans about food and family get-togethers.) Last weekend we bought a tree and she put the lights on it. We planned to wait till this weekend to finish decorating it, but suddenly realized late last night that we'd completely forgotten about that. So we've left it that way. It's actually rather nice, having only lights, although I think I prefer it with the full outfit, especially the glass ornaments that multiply the light.
I never have been able to take a good picture of one of our Christmas trees. I probably need to set up a tripod, because the exposure time is too long for me to keep the camera still. So I took one of my bad ones and messed it up even further, the way it might look if you were falling asleep while looking at it.
I'm not sure how I ended up at the BBC's site earlier today watching the Queen's Christmas message. But I'm glad I did. I found it impressive and touching, and began to think that it might not be a bad thing to have a monarch. As I've mentioned here more than once, I get the impression from conservative British writers that the Queen's domain is in steep and irreversible decline. But you certainly wouldn't think that from listening to her. It is a heartening message, and makes me hope that there really is such a thing as the Anglosphere.
A Marmite Encounter of the Third Kind
Speaking of British things, I have finally tasted Marmite. As it turns out, one can in fact buy it in at least one of the supermarkets here (the Publix chain). I of course am a great lover of English literature, and my wife and I have watched an awful lot of BBC TV productions, and read an awful lot of English novels, and we've both been curious about some of the English foods that are always being mentioned in those works. So for Christmas I bought a number of various English foodstuffs that could be found locally and packaged them as a present, officially for my wife, but really for both of us. And I included Marmite.
My wife had been snarking about my plans to eat "that stuff made out of motor oil." I thought that unjust, because it appeared to me (or rather I assumed) from photographs that it looked more like apple butter. But on opening the jar I discovered that my wife's impression was more accurate. No, it doesn't look like motor oil, but it looks almost exactly like that heavy grease that mechanics put in a thing called a grease gun (I'm not sure if those are still in use or if they've been made obsolete by some other technology).
In accordance with instructions from actual English and Australian persons, I buttered and toasted a piece of bread (inauthentically, however, I used pumpernickel rye), and spread a thin layer of Marmite over it. I resisted the temptation to taste the pure stuff first.
I suppose it's a bit of an anticlimax that I was neither appalled nor delighted. Overwhelmingly, it is salty. As salty as tinned anchovies--which I like. I can't say I like it very much, but I didn't find it sickening, either. If you haven't tasted it: imagine anchovy paste, but with a yeasty rather than fishy taste under the saltiness. I am rather surprised that anyone ever thought to market it as a food, and even more so that he was successful.
I had asked my wife, half-jokingly, to buy me some Marmite for Christmas, so I had to tell her I'd already done that, so she wouldn't. Other than that, I didn't mention any of these foodstuffs to her. One of things I bought was lemon curd. Imagine my consternation when she announced a day or two ago that she had just seen a recipe for lemon curd and was going to try making it for Christmas. I couldn't believe it. We have been married for 34 years, and I think one small jar of lemon curd which we had bought or perhaps been given some years ago was the only time lemon curd had ever so much as been named between us. I couldn't tell her not to bother without giving away my whole plan, so I let her go to all that trouble. Well, it was delicious, and the bought stuff can stay in its jar for a while.
A few weeks ago I was thinking that this might be the last Sunday Night Journal. As in 2009, when I took a year-long break from it, I have been wrestling with the tension between producing it and doing some of the bigger projects that I have in mind. I don't quite want to give it up, though. I think I'll keep it for a while longer, but make it shorter and lighter, not try to cram serious essays into it. We'll see whether this results in any actual increase of work on those other projects.
Instead of attempting to free ourselves from the things of the senses, or abstracting from them, we should try to probe deeper into them; not stopping at their external appearance, which changes, but seeking what is hidden deep in their substance; their being, in a word. For God is Being. And thus we shall find him beneath the veil of the senses.
This is the meaning of the Incarnation. God became tangible, in order to teach us to find him in all that we touch and see and feel; for we are necessarily bound to the senses in this life. Jesus did not do away with these external contacts; what he taught us is not to stop at them.
—Dom Augustin Guillerand
Pianist Stephen Hough, in the Telegraph: I'm happy when I see people enjoying themselves at Christmas for no religious reason.
Me, too. Thanks to a Facebook friend for this link.
You must see and hear this: a sort of online Advent calendar (I know, it doesn't actually start on the first day of Advent) with music. I think the link will take you to day 2 now--be sure to go back and see/hear day 1. (Thanks, ex pat!)
The once-unconventional idea that the Church placed Christmas near the winter solstice in order to substitute it for a pagan festival has long since become conventional wisdom, a way of belittling Christianity, at least, if not attacking it head-on. Well, it seems to be another bit of conventional wisdom that probably isn't true, according to this. There is a much more ancient tradition that Jesus was conceived on the same day of the year on which he was crucified, and that that date was March 25. So, nine months later...
(I know, the last day of Christmas is the 6th, and I'm posting this on the 5th, but I won't have time tomorrow.)
Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2010
When I was a child, Christmas was the most wonderful thing in the world to me. The only thing that even came close to matching its appeal was a trip to Florida, to the white sand and blue-green waters of the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, I was more interested in Santa Claus and the presents he brought me than in the Nativity of Christ. I learned fairly early that this was not really the correct way to think or feel about Christmas, but I couldn’t help it. Mary and Joseph and the baby and the stable and the manger and the shepherds and the angels and the Wise Men were all very sweet, but a little off to one side in the Christmas picture, not nearly as entrancing as the Christmas tree and the magical surprise of the presents that would appear around it on Christmas morning.
And yet I was conscious that without the Nativity the rest of it was meaningless and without real delight. When I say I was conscious of this, I don’t mean that I reasoned it out in a chain of logic—B is dependent on A, and therefore if I want A I must also have B—or put it into words for myself, but that I perceived, directly, that the things I loved about Christmas could not be separated from the event it commemorates. From the time I could read I felt that there was something amiss when “Season’s Greetings” was substituted for “Merry Christmas.” (Even in the 1950s, there was sometimes an impulse to make “the holidays” a generic secular winter festival; it would make an interesting subject of study to see just how far back that goes in popular culture and advertising, and how it developed.)
There was a seasonal or holiday magazine of sorts that appeared in our house sometimes. It was called something Ideals: that is, Christmas Ideals, Easter Ideals, and so on. I mainly remember the Christmas one. It was something more than an ordinary magazine, much heavier and thicker, really a sort of book, and as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of pictures, stories, and poems associated with the holiday. The Christmas one of course relied heavily on snow and evergreens and all the other trappings of Christmas in the northern parts of the U.S. and Europe. I loved it and pored over it again and again in the weeks before Christmas for the pleasure of tasting that sense of magical expectation that anything connected with Christmas gave me. Some of the pieces were of the generic winter variety: a snowy landscape with no hint of red and green to suggest Christmas, a description of a holiday gathering which did not name the holiday. Living in a hot climate, I felt a romantic attraction toward snowy landscapes, but in this context I felt that something was missing if they were no more than that.
And the music: I always felt that “Winter Wonderland” had something missing, but I think I was twelve or fourteen before I realized that it is not in fact a Christmas song. I never even much cared for the Santa Claus songs which left everything but Santa out of the picture.
I knew instinctively that the story of the Nativity, with all its implications about the nature of the world and our place in it, was the heart of Christmas. Maybe I preferred to look at the face, but I knew, unconsciously, that it was dependent on the heart for its life.
And this was true whether or not I recognized it. Those who celebrate a Christmas without Christ don’t recognize it, and don’t believe the connection between the two is a necessary one. But I’m pretty sure they’re mistaken. We can still see Christ in the popular American commercial Christmas by his absence; it’s as if all the a-religious trappings outline his form. If you try to imagine a Christmas which had never been founded in the Bethlehem story at all, you get something very different.
The secularizers who for various purposes of their own—anti-Christian or merely commercial—wish to eliminate Christmas in favor of a featureless Holiday that commemorates nothing in particular may eventually succeed. But that Holiday will inevitably be dull in comparison with what it replaces, and probably increasingly squalid as well, given the general drift of our society. The particular festive spirit that animates Christmas is a product of hope, a hope that cannot be entirely defeated by the world, because it looks toward something beyond the world. But anything which does not look beyond the world will sooner or later be defeated by it.
As with the holiday, so with the culture at large. The increasingly post-Christian culture of America and Europe are nevertheless more deeply rooted in Christianity than is usually recognized by its opponents (and some of its adherents). It’s at least theoretically possible that this culture will eventually get Christianity out of its system, out of the roots of its consciousness, and negligible as a cultural force, reduced to the private practices of an eccentric few. This would take several generations, and I don’t think it will happen, but it certainly could. And if it did, the resulting culture would, like Christmas, lose the hope and the humanism which had been its legacy from Christianity. As with Christmas, if the heart were to stop beating, the body would die.
We have seen the prospects for that new culture already, in the totalitarian nightmares of communism and fascism, in the wasteland of pleasure-and-power-seeking which is offered as the good life by much of the entertainment and advertising produced by capitalism, in the drab materialist collectivism of “Imagine” and the absurd materialist egoism of Atlas Shrugged.
Perhaps it’s not even too much to say that if Christmas were to die, the remains of Christian culture would die, too, and with it that softness toward the individual human person—imperfect, of course, and slow to develop—that has characterized it. As long as the mad mixture of the very earthly and the very heavenly which is Christmas—the poor and vulnerable newborn baby among the animals on the one hand, choirs of angels on the other—remains at the heart of the holiday, and the holiday remains very much alive in the culture, the natural coldness and brutality of the human race is always challenged from within the culture itself. Should that challenge be removed, no one would be more surprised by the result than those who worked to remove it. They might not live to see that result, but if their souls were not lost altogether, part of their purgatory might be the knowledge of what they had done to their descendants.
Someone posted this on Facebook. Pretty funny.
Weekend Christmas Music
Pretty much my favorite Christmas album.
And thanks to YouTube I learn that there is a DVD of them doing a Christmas show. Here's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," performed very much as heard on the album. I love Maddy Prior--she's so unpretentious and engaging, while singing so wonderfully.
(Also, I find it somehow encouraging that she's slightly older than I am.)
Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010
One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.
To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.
There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.
But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.
Man is in love, and loves what vanishes: what more is there to say? —Yeats
The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.
The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.
The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.
But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.
It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.
But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.
On the Last Day of Christmas
The actual last day of Christmas was, of course, a couple of days ago in the Western calendar, on December 6 (or December 5th—there seem to be different approaches to the counting). But the Feast of the Epiphany has been moved to the nearest Sunday, or however the rule is written. I don’t like the change—it seems too much a capitulation to the secular—but this year it does at least provide a harmony between the official calendar and the day when we take our tree down.
It’s at such points in the Church year that I regret the absence of a Catholic culture. After years of struggle against the secular-Protestant Christmas which mainly occurs during Advent, my wife and I are no longer fighting it all that hard. Our children are mostly grown, so we no longer have the motivating force of wanting to teach them the way it should be done. But one way in which we keep the flame alive is by waiting until a few days before Christmas to put up our tree, and until Epiphany (or thereabouts, depending on what else is going on) to take it down. Few Christmas seasons pass without some acquaintance twitting me about what appears to them as laziness or procrastination. I don’t mind this from non-Catholics, but to hear it from Catholics, which is not unusual, is pretty annoying.
So here we are again, two weeks after Christmas, our house one of the last in the neighborhood still showing Christmas lights. In the eyes of others these probably combine with our nondescript house and our yard in need of a good deal of work to give an impression of sloth. Well, so be it.
A few Christmases ago I mentioned to one of my then-teenaged daughters that I get more pleasure out of giving presents to my children than getting them myself. At first she didn’t believe me. In fact I’m not sure she ever did. I managed to stop myself from giving her the patronizing response that she wouldn’t understand until she had children of her own, but she probably won’t. The love of a normal parent for his or her children is for most of us the closest we will ever come to a truly unselfish love, in this life at any rate. And in it we get a hint of the love God bears to us. And we also get a hint of why God doesn’t always answer our prayers. We don’t give our children everything they want, and would be guilty of neglect if we did.
I always hate to take the tree down. Right now the living room seems empty and bare, and I think I would like for it to be Christmas all year ‘round. But of course I wouldn’t. I would soon tire of it; I would cease to notice or appreciate it, and it would be assumed into the normal drab background of everyday life. God knows this, and if this is a case where I can understand his will, it’s a good thing to think about while I get used to the passing of another Christmas.
ContinuingThe child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder…
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree…
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience….
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
—T. S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”
I was a child in 1954 when Eliot wrote those lines, and I can’t say that I experience the Christmas tree as I did then. But neither must I say that my pleasure in it has disappeared, and I certainly have not forgotten my childhood experience. There is a great mystery in the fact that no one would recognize that six-year-old as me, and yet the consciousness that beheld the tree in 1954 is the same one that beholds another tree in 2005. To sit quietly looking at the tree remains one of the deeper pleasures of Christmas for me, one for which there are often more opportunities in the days of Christmas following Christmas Day itself, which is to say during Christmas proper. In other words, this is only the beginning.
Just Your Luck
My job as director of administrative systems at a small college is very much a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none affair that involves a lot of direct support of the people who use the administrative information system. Over the years I think almost every one of them has asserted confidently that he or she has been unfairly singled out by fate to experience an inordinate number of computer-related problems. I often hear personalized versions of Murphy’s Law such as “If it can happen, it will happen to me.” Phone calls frequently begin with remarks that may be apologetic (“I’m sorry I’m always bringing you a problem”), irritated (“I just did this yesterday and now today it doesn’t work”), self-deprecating (“I broke it again”), or anthropomorphically paranoid (“My computer hates me”).
I never know whether it’s a comfort or otherwise when I feel obliged to tell them the truth, which is that their problems are nothing special, and that every single one of their co-workers feels equally put-upon. Today’s computer systems don’t really work that well, all in all (compared, say, to your car) in spite of the fact that they have a quantity of memory and horsepower that the artificial intelligence researchers of thirty or forty years ago would have deemed sufficient to support reasoning on the level of HAL, the conscientiously homicidal computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Systems do far, far more than they did when I first got into the business in the late 1970s, but I don’t know that they do it any more reliably.
I think we all suffer from this impulse to believe that we are specially chosen for bad luck, but obviously it can’t be true that everyone has more bad luck than everyone else. Twice in the past few weeks or so I’ve heard my wife use the phrase “with my luck” or “just my luck” in expectation of some inconvenience, and I daresay most of us use it from time to time. Most often we say these things half-humorously, because most of the things we complain about most of the time—those of us in affluent societies, at any rate—are fairly minor. We don’t generally speak this way when something truly terrible happens, such as the sudden death which overtook a friend of mine two days before Christmas; the idea that such a blow was delivered with conscious malevolence is too dreadful to be trifled with.
So either we all suffer from the same persecution complex or we are all being persecuted, and as I have no doubt at all that a statistical analysis of problems encountered on any given day ranging from minor annoyance to death would show a pretty even distribution, it must be the latter. “Persecuted” may not be the right word; there may be no intention behind the general tendency of things to go wrong. But our impulse to feel persecuted is evidence of something—of two things, actually. In the first place, we feel that we have some right to expect that things go well rather than badly, and in the second place, we feel that there is something personal in the way we are treated by the universe.
If the Christian faith is true, then both these impulses—these emotional beliefs—are in fact correct. The world was meant to be a better place, and each of us is the object of particular consideration on the part of the ruler of the universe. In a way that is not mere illusion, that is accurate at least in relation to perspective, each of us is the center of a universe, the pole around which all else revolves. The fact that the earth is in motion relative to the sun and to the other planets, and all of these in motion relative to the rest of the galaxy, does not alter the functional relationship of the sun to the earth. By rights the interlocking movements of these worlds should be harmonious, blessing all equally. Instead, the worlds depart from their orbits frequently, disturbing, abrading, and colliding, with consequences ranging from comic to tragic.
But that of course is not the end of the story. We may or may not be individually persecuted—I’m not about to venture into speculation about the details of the interplay among our own sins and errors, the malicious schemes of evil spirits, and the permissive will and providence of God. But salvation, escape from misfortune both trivial and great into a world of never-interrupted, never-even-diminished perfection, is specifically offered to each of us, at the cost of nothing and everything. Just our luck.