I was listening to the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” today, as recorded by Emmylou Harris. There’s something about the way she sings it that perfectly preserves that sweet simplicity that I feel like it ought to have. There’s a great little story about the writing of the carol. A certain Mr. Philip Brooks, an Episcopal priest from the 19th century who was rector of a church in Philadelphia, wrote the words as a poem after visiting Bethlehem on a trip to the Holy Land. He asked his church organist, a Mr. Lewis Redner, to compose a tune for it. Mr. Redner recounts the story like this:
“As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”
But the song did live on; it’s now a staple of that great repertoire of Christmas carols that I grew up singing, and that my generation is responsible for passing on to the next – though I worry about how we’re going to do with that. Hearing that song in its sweet country simplicity today transported me in my imagination back decades to my grandparents’ house on Christmas eve night, alone in their darkened formal living room, furnished in 1960’s decor, and lit only by the multicolored strings of lights on the old wire and plastic Christmas tree. The tree and the lights turned that stuffy old room into a magical place, and as a kid, I was taught through simple music, ambience, and a handful of family traditions that Christmas was an exceedingly special time.
Of course, at the center of all that music, ambience, and tradition was the reason for the season — the Christ-child laying in a manger, surrounded by shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph. I was fortunate enough to have a family that actually kept Christ in Christmas, but so many people around us today weren’t and aren’t as fortunate. For so many people, as a recent Pew survey shows, Christmas is more of a cultural than a religious holiday.
But even if that holiday which they perceive to be merely cultural still includes some of those old traditions, some of that classic ambience, some of that sweet, simple music — and if at the center of those things still hides the reason for the season — there’s still an open door to the profundity of Christmas right in front of them. People all around us are coming surprisingly close to the central Christian mystery just by putting a star on the top of their Christmas tree, or by singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Silent Night”. It might sound strange to suggest those little things are doors to the profound, but if even we have forgotten that, it’s only because we’re not paying attention.
The reality of Christmas, what it is, what it celebrates, is such a profound mystery that twenty centuries of the deepest, most sincere and dedicated Christian reflection on it still ends in reverent silence. There is no better word for it than mystery. And the mysterious reality of Christmas is God becoming a man. Not just disguising himself like one, not just entering into a man that already was. It’s God, who is uncreated, self-existent, beyond space and time, the creator and ordering principle of all that is, joining his indescribable and unapproachable nature with our derivative, lowly, human nature, so that he became a little baby, 100% human, and yet still 100% God, retaining all that that entails. That’s the mystery that’s revealed at Christmas.
St. Athanasius said “The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far From it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us” (On the Incarnation).
St. Augustine said “He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father. The Word Who is God before all time became flesh at the appointed time. The maker of the sun was made under the sun. He Who fills the world lays in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness” (Sermon 1871.1).
Even the great Saints of the Church have had to use poetic and enigmatic language to describe the unimaginable self-emptying of God in his Incarnation, his putting on of flesh and soul. To paraphrase St. Paul writing to the Philippians, Christ, even though he was equal in power and glory to God the Father, didn’t consider his equality with the Father as something to be boastfully held onto, but instead emptied himself of all power and glory, becoming as low as he could – a helpless little baby, to be born among animals in a cave and placed in their feeding trough for a crib. And though he emptied himself of that powerful glory, because he did it out of love for us, to save us from hopelessness, the very act of losing his glory was itself glorious, in a different, but no less valuable way. This glory in the descent of God is put beautifully in a poem by G.K. Chesterton called Gloria in Profundis.
The central event in all of history is the Incarnation of God. The single greatest mystery in all creation is the God who created it and is outside of it entering into it. To explore that mystery, to enter into it and let it wash over and through you, you have to spend a lifetime experiencing it within the life of the Church, Christ’s body — learning the scriptures, the hymnology of the Church, the writings of the fathers and mothers of the Church, experiencing the ritual actions of the liturgies, the prayers, developing your own heart of prayer, reflection, receptivity, and creativity. And all this will only bring you to the beginning of the mystery. The farther in you go, the more you will become aware of the true depths (the profundum) of the mystery.
That’s where we’re called to go as Christians: into the depths of the mystery of God. We don’t have to be intellectuals or scholars to go there. Children can go there. We just have to pray to be taken there, and to use whatever faculties we do have in cooperation with God along the way. And one of the best places to start, I’ve found, is with those small, simple, almost sentimental little details that built up for us the magic of Christmas in the first place. Start with those things that first opened our eyes to the yawning depths of the profundity of Christmas – the smell of the fir tree in the corner that makes the inside feel a little more like the outside, like Christ’s makeshift nursery in nature; the twinkling strings of lights imitating the starry sky celebrating the night of Christ’s birth; the sense of coziness you feel from a decorated fireplace or a cup of hot cider as a dim foretaste of the divine and perfect peace Christ came to bring into the world. And embrace the sweetness and familiarity of those old Christmas carols — their mostly Victorian English, their quaint harmonies — and pay attention to the doors they open, often quite explicitly, to the marvelously profound mystery of the Incarnation of God.
Once we remember how all these things can goad us on our way to diving into that mystery, we can use them to help those around us to begin, one small step at a time, exploring the saving mystery of Immanuel, God-with-us. The temptation for almost everyone will be to get back to business as usual beginning December 26, but for us Christmas is a season lasting twelve days. Keep your decorations up! Keep singing carols! Keep watching Christmas movies and having parties. That alone will make us a witness to the world that Christmas is more than it may seem. And once the season of Christmas, or Christmastide, is over, it leads us into Epiphany, or Theophany, a feast day and season whose very meaning is to make the reality of Christmas known to the world.
Our opportunities as Christians to witness to the world are everywhere if we only learn how to look for them. We have to be looking for them. And our opportunities to grow closer to God, to let ourselves be drawn deeper and deeper into his mysteries are also everywhere if -again- we only learn to look for them.
Look for ways today to recover the magic of Christmas, so that it may awaken your soul to the central mystery of this day. And go on doing that tomorrow, and the next day, and so on. God condescended to our level in order to raise us up to his. Let us condescend in our hearts to the simple blessings and opportunities for communion all around us, so that Christ may lift our hearts to the divine contemplation of his love for us.