The persistent survival of Christmas as a special season of joy and social festivity—"a season," as Washington Irving so aptly expresses it, "of regenerated feeling"—is largely significant and suggests many lessons, of which a few may profitably engage our thoughts now that the time of its observance is drawing nigh. "A happy Christmas! A merry Christmas!" So runs the salutation as friend meets friend with outstretched hand and genial smile. Christmas is essentially a festival of loving, of giving and forgiving, of bearing and forbearing. Feelings of generosity are awakened which, during the past year, have been stifled by the stress and worry of business cares, and now for one day at least the coldest and hardest heart softens in the genial glow of affection, and opens itself to the influx of warmth like the flower to the sunshine. Our better self comes out of its shell and reveals its true character. Old differences are forgotten, old quarrels are made up, old scores blotted out. And as the resplendence of some rich oriel is enhanced by its dark setting of encircling gloom, so the effectiveness of this picture is heightened by its physical environment. Coming, as it does, in the dead of winter, the surrounding coldness of the elements, the leafless trees, and the apparent lifelessness of nature, lend additional contrast to the life and warmth within the heart; and so, although the birds have ceased to sing, yet through the silence man's heart is touched with a still more heavenly music, for the listening soul hears that multitude of the heavenly host transcending all human music—that speech of the angels which might without irreverence be called the speech of God himself, for Music and Heaven are one; and while the gladsome bells ring out their joyous peal, and Christmas Carols fill the air with sweetness, those who have no skill or voice can yet sing that supernal music of the heart which no ear can hear but only the human soul when awakened by the Holy Spirit.
What is the meaning of this general, if transient, manifestation of goodness, this yearly outburst of feeling, this periodic tidal wave of universal love? To what root shall we trace its growth, to what spring its outflow from the human heart? Although we commonly attribute the first dynamic impulse to that wonderful Life Drama which, conceived without place or time in the womb of Eternity, was outwardly and visibly enacted in human history nineteen hundred years ago, may we not regard it rather as the realization of an ideal inherent not only in human nature but in all life as the basic element of all things that exist? Thus considered, Christmas has a two-fold basis, one in religion, the other in science, for "it is not only a religious but a scientific necessity, that from the law of its nature Divinity seeks expressive instruments." And therefore we must study both sides, the religious or spiritual, as well as the scientific or intellectual and physical, to appreciate the full beauty of the idea conveyed in Christmas. Premising that the Divine Image exists in the human heart in an embryonic condition from the moment that man becomes a reasonable being, it must be the manifestation of that Image—that "Holy Thing" born within us—that constitutes "Love in a bodily shape," that perfect condition of existence which we call Heaven, and which begins here in this present life.
Many are the books and many the theories about the knowable and the unknowable, but only the wisest among men know how much there is that is not essential for man to know, and the wiser they are the more they appreciate the truth of that saying, "Whosoever will not receive the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child shall not enter into it." Of all the sublime object-lessons presented to us in the personal life of Christ, perhaps the most touching and beautiful is that wonderful opening scene representing the Christ-Child in His Mother's arms. In those two words, "Mother and Child," lies the mystery of mysteries, the secret of Life—an all-comprehensive symbol of birth, incarnation, regeneration, reincarnation, dying that we may live again. Here is the outline and suggestion, as it were, of the whole philosophy of Religion, the ascent of man and the descent of God—of Involution and Evolution. When science shall explain to us the mystery of those two familiar words, "Mother and Child," it will be time enough to discuss those more or less barren metaphysical questions as to the nature of God. In the person of Christ we have the Divine Love and Wisdom manifested in bodily form, and in His teaching a parable, a poem, an outward presentment of The Truth, almost every word referring to outward things being symbolical of some spiritual verity—a parallelism and correspondence which, because of its depth, could not be comprehended by His disciples, and has since given rise to an endless diversity of interpretation. And this applies not only to the teaching but also to the life. The whole transaction, life and teaching, was presented to the world in the form of parables, because His disciples were not prepared to receive the Truth in its entirety. "Ye cannot bear it now," was the explanation given by Him, who was the personification of Wisdom and Love and Pity. But, as the result of nineteen centuries of vigorous and searching criticism, it is now easy to realize many of the parallelisms involved, and perhaps most easily of all that between the birth of Christ and the inception of the Christ-Spirit in the individual heart of man. Again, in "the inn," mentioned in the story of the Nativity, we have a symbol of the external worldly or "natural" mind which finds "no room" for spiritual things, an idea which is beautifully worked out in that Fine hymn of Angelus Silerius:—
In Bethlehem be born,
If He's not born in thee,
Thy soul is still forlorn.
And, passing on for a moment from the opening of the great tragedy to its last scene, we learn how human nature is made perfect through suffering. The Son of Man was lifted up, not by the raising of His body on the cross simply, but by the life-long uplifting of the Human Nature to perfect union with the Divine—thus opening for us a new and living way of access to God.
Christmas suggests to us, and embalms in our hearts as a sacred memory, not an isolated event of the past, but "an event without time, always happening, never old; the summing up, as it were, of all the love and delight and wonder which have come to be associated with it since it took its place in the making of the world." Even if there were no commemoration of the festival, no outward observance of the day, still the spiritual fact would remain as an experience of the heart testifying to the existence of "God with us." This idea has been happily dramatized in a Nativity Play in which the characters rehearse, as have done for centuries the peasants of Oberammergau, the event which already fills the mind not so much as a matter of history as a spiritual truth. In the words of the author of this remarkable play, Laurence Housman, "Love comes to earth, is recognized and worshiped by the humble and pure-hearted, is driven away by the hatred of the proud. The world apparently resumes its way, the manger is empty, the heavenly signs remove themselves. What remains? The speaker of the epilogue turns from the empty stage and puts to the audience statement and question: Love is gone out into the world to win the hearts of men. Where has He found a place?"
The Prince of Peace is yet to set up a Nativity in the common heart and life of the human family.