G.K. Chesterton wrote beautifully of Christmas, both in poetry, such as “The Christ-Child in Mary’s Lap,” and especially my favorite, his “Christmas Poem,” which gets to the heart of the paradox of Christmas:
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.”
But my favorite is his meditation on the Nativity, “The God in the Cave,” from The Everlasting Man. This is Chesterton at his best, inviting you into the scene, where “the hands that made the sun and the stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle,” and where, “The shepherds had found their Shepherd.”
And the thing they found was of a kind with the things they sought. The populace had been wrong in many things; but they had not been wrong in believing that holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space. And the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone, was nearer to the secret of the cave and knew more about the crisis of the world, than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalisations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras. The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic, it was not a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search.
If that does not stir your mind and heart, you’re dead. But as far as I know, Chesterton never wrote about Advent, which is a shame, because he would have had profound and beautiful things to say about it.
Yesterday (Sunday) was the first Sunday of Advent—the season of penance leading up to Christmas. Many Americans start the countdown to Christmas at Thanksgiving, but it does not really start, liturgically anyway, until the first Sunday of Advent. I love Advent. I love the anticipation, the expectation. I love the planning and the waiting. I love the hymns. I think “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel” is one of the most beautiful hymns ever written, so full of aching and deep longing:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
I never understood the tragedy of our exile until I read Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are rife of the theme of exile: the exile of the Edain from Númemor; the exile of the Noldor from the Blessed Realm, of whom it was spoken, “The Dispossessed they shall be forever…. shadows of regret before the younger race that cometh after.”
That was us, after the Fall: dispossessed. Sundered from the God who made us and sundered from the creation that was entrusted to us. Sundered from our very selves, flesh and spirit in unceasing war.
But out of the sundering also came the promise, the promise of a Redeemer. The Protoevangelium: “And the Lord God said to the serpent…. I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
Waiting for Christmas
It would be uncounted centuries between that first promise and the birth of the Christ child in the cave. Advent, on the other hand, is only four weeks and a few days. But it still is an opportunity to annually, however inadequately, immerse ourselves in that waiting, that longing, that hope. This is reflected in the O Antiphons, recited at Vespers in the Latin Church from 17 to 23 December:
O Wisdom, coming forth…
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel…
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign…
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel…
O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal…
O King of the nations, and their desire…
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver…
You, young or old, are waiting for Christmas, longing for it. Good. We can get lost in the preparations for the Feast: the tree, the decorations, buying presents, and so on. Rather than souring on the season, elevate your worries. First, remember the poor, who in a heartbeat would trade their stresses for yours—and respond accordingly, with alms and with anything else you can give, especially yourself.
And also remember that it is for the poor that Christ is coming, and for the weak, the downtrodden, the outcast, the sorrowful, the “poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” And take heart, for:
To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
A blessed Advent to you all.
(image wikimedia commons: public domain)