Reflections on the Christmas paradox

by John Wijngaards, THE TIMES,  Monday December 23, 1991
CHRISTMAS carries traits of its pagan as well as its Christian origins. Though the Gospel suggests that Christ was bom in the winter season, it does not record a precise date. December 25 was clearly chosen because for ancient Europeans that day coincided with the Roman feast of the Invincible Sun and the Nordic, Celtic, Ger¬manic and Saxon festivals of midwinter.
Our pagan ancestors dreaded winter. The days became shorter, the nights colder. Trees and plants dropped their leaves and stopped producing fruit. Animals withdrew to warmer regions or disappeared underground. Then, at the winter solstice, the reversal of nature was celebrated in hallowed rituals. The chief Druid cut the mistletoe from the sacred oak. Homes were decorated with holly, ivy and green branches of box and fir. The yule log was lit. As Bede tells us, yule means wheel: the wheel of nature had turned.
To capture the mood, one should visit the neolithic burial mound at New Grange in County Meath, Ireland. This artificial hill, as wide as Trafalgar Square, covered funeral chambers built of huge slabs of stone. A central lobby was reached through a 27ft long corridor. This passageway was oriented to face the sun in such a way that at the winter solstice the rays of the rising sun entered through a slot between two lintels of the outer stone gate, travelled throughout the length of the corridor and lit up the central lobby. The images are overwhelming: the triumphant sun defeating darkness; the seed of new growth penetrating the womb; life being bom in the midst of death.
Such paradoxes lie at the heart of religion. For religion springs from mystery, and mystery relates to our ability to question and to wonder. And though our scale of perception may have changed, life is not less mysterious for us than it was for Saxons and Celts.
Why do the highest forms of matter, like our minds, flourish on the skin of a luke-warm planet rather than in the blaze of the sun? If the universe, is driven by blind physical forces, who invented planning and a sense of purpose? How did creatures like ourselves who puzzle and dream and hanker after love turn up in a swirl of protons and neutrons? It is what astronomers call the anthropological riddle: how an explosion like the Big Bang could end up producing thinking people like us.
A Christian Christmas fits well within this context of paradox. Imagine a Creator does exist and he or she wants to establish a personal relationship, how would he or she go about it? Inspiring prophets to utter messages, yes: but the ultimate gesture could be living among us, somehow or other, in human form. To put the paradox in crude terms: God being bom as a child; the Creator of heaven and earth lying in a manger, gazed at by shepherds, and an ox and an ass. Impossible? But then remember the remark attributed to Niels Bohr in the context of nuclear physics: “Imagine the impossible. It may be the truth.”
The other paradox of Christmas is even more startling. Since we are dealing with relationships, and not nuclear physics, it is incarnation in us that matters. What the ox and the ass could not see, the shepherds did. Christmas is not about God becoming human but about us becoming a little like God, being able to see things that he or she sees. The Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck made an interesting observation about this “Christmas” in us.
“The heavenly Father wants us to be people who can see for he is the Father of Light,” he wrote in 1375 AD. “Therefore he speaks eternally and without ceasing a single revealing Word in the intimacy of our inner spirit. In this Word he expresses himself and everything else. The Word is simple; it tells us ‘See!’. This is the revelation and the birth of his Son who is limitless Light. In him we recognise and see our origin and destiny.”
Whether we are pagan. Christian or whatever, celebrating Christmas without its religious dimensions means missing its real point. For what is it we are celebrating? That in the midst of a mysterious cold world there is love, warmth and hope. Our joy will be genuine if we come to see that our hope is no illusion.
The writer is a theologian and director of the Catholic spiritual resources centre. Housetop