Rediscovering the meaning of Christmas

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The Article

Christians, or at least the Catholic ones, are supposed to do something through Advent—the season that immediately precedes Christmas. Prepare, in some way.

The “Christmas season” comes in with the Midnight Mass, announcing the birth of Jesus, whom we take to be the Messiah; in Bethlehem, of all places. That would be the signal for feasting. There are, traditionally, 12 days of Christmas, ending in Twelfth Night through which we transit into the “season of the Epiphany.” That is plenty of time to party, and happily it corresponds, for some mysterious reason, with the secular “winter holidays.”

A lot of people who are not Christian take the days off between Christmas and its “Octave,” which by a further coincidence happens to be the secular New Year’s Day. So luckily we can sometimes join them.

But that is next week, and I am getting ahead of myself. We are not there yet. This week marks the culmination of Advent, a season not of feasting but of fasting. It is not a season of fasting like Lent, for Christmas is not as important as Easter, upon which everything that is Christian hangs. In other ways, the liturgical flavour is different.

The point I’m making here, as I’ve made before, is the need for restraint and constraint; in purely material and secular terms, an almost physiological need for fasting as well as feasting. Likewise there are things we can be doing in a quiet season—in, as it were, the calm before the storm.

Through Advent this year, when not doing what I must to keep the wolf from the door, and fulfilling the other obligations of my religion, I have been, mostly, reading. I am not a learned man, but I am a curious one, and it struck me recently that I know far too little about the second Christian century. And in the event, I thought I knew a lot more than I did know.

This, incidentally, is one of the purposes of reading: to find out how little you know. And with deeper reading, to find, further, how little you can know.

Modesty and humility are by no means disagreeable qualities in anyone; and they are at their most attractive when they are unaffected. There are certain rogue charms, too; but when you come to your deathbed, which eventually you must do, modesty and humility will be about the only charms left. And character is the last thing to go.

The second century A.D. is the one that comes after the first. There is more in that than first meets the eye: It is the century in which the explosive events at the foundation of Christianity are, at least historically, complete.

And now the questions arise of “doctrine”—of what we do and do not believe.

Practically, the second is the first century in which Christians are desperately struggling with a tide of gnostic heresies that threaten to overwhelm everything that was clear in Christ’s teaching, and every extraordinary and even counter-intuitive fact about His Person, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension. And they are doing this amid terrible, though perhaps useful, persecutions.

There is no well-established Christian doctrine in this age; it is still being assembled. Or rather, it is already there, but it has yet to be fully articulated, and is therefore very hard to defend.

The Church Father on whom I’m focused is Irenaeus, about whose life little is known, and whose writings survive only in fragmentary form. But in what remains we can certainly discern a very great and wise mind, sorting wheat from chaff both intellectually and spiritually. The outlines of Orthodox Christian theology are being drawn, as if in pencil; erased and corrected as we go along.

What emerges to my sight, in trying to make sense of him, and of the myriad heresies he is writing against, is the reality of what we call “Christian doctrine.” It is not something that is being invented, but rather something that is being discovered.

It is thus like the moral law, written in our hearts, that is fleshed out by trial and error in objective human laws; or like every other “science” that emerges through the principle of non-contradiction.

Newton didn’t “invent” gravity, but discovered it, by following hard premises to their conclusions. Gravity having been discovered, we have in turn more confidence in those premises. We’re more certain they are true because they got us somewhere.

Likewise with the “revealed” premises of religion. If “God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten son,” and so on, then some things follow, and some things don’t. Gradually we discover what must be included, and what excluded, from this picture of the world. Gradually, we realize that the world makes more sense in light of what we have discovered.

This, to me, is the “meaning of Christmas” as I find myself rediscovering it this year. It is the way in which Irenaeus, and the other early Fathers of the Church, are finding their way to the manger—by “following the star,” like the three kings.

David Warren
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