Capturing the cynicism many feel around Christmas time, the comic musician Tom Lehrer once carolled, 'Angels we have heard on high / Tell us to go out and buy!' To that seasonal cynicism we could add a widespread cultural scepticism about the churches' efforts to get a bit of Christ back into Christmas; it's hard to see these days how God could help, even with Christmas. Between cynical belief and sceptical unbelief, many of us just don't find enough Christmas in Christmas.
Despite its promise, the season has a surprising capacity to take more than it gives. This is unexpected, as Christmas is the season of the gift, and a gift should add something to us. Yet though it promises gift, Christmas delivers obligation by reducing gift-giving to costly transactions. The capacity of Christmas to diminish us comes from confusion around gift-giving. Gift is at the centre of what it means to be truly human. If we get giving wrong, we get ourselves wrong. And Christmas typically gets giving wrong.
It's telling that we don't usually feel the obligation towards transaction-giving when a gift is received outside of the gifting season. We can accept an unexpected gift at other times without feeling obliged to reciprocate. This gift springs not from a calendar trigger but from someone's free initiative, and this touches us. A true gift surprises us, and the only appropriate response is thanksgiving.
Christmas, however, has come to be less about the life-enhancing gift than the life-sapping economy of exchange through calendarised giving. And so it is not the crass commercialisation of 'Go out and buy' which diminishes Christmas, but the corruption of gift.
For many years my Christmas Eve has included listening to Lauridsen's glorious rendering of the Latin chant O magnum mysterium, which reflects on St Luke's hint that Jesus was born in a stable. The magnum mysterium– the 'great mystery' – is the startling appearance of God in the wrong place and out of season. The form of this mystery – a young woman ripe before season, watched by animals which cannot even tell the time – is a fitting sign of what is proposed here: pure gift, determined not by an agreed schedule but by the giver.
This is a gift without expectation of return or exchange. It is simply gift. There is here no frustrating mismatch of promising season and failed gift, to give rise to cynicism. Cynicism in politics and relationships at every level arises from a failure to deliver. And scepticism that such a thing could happen is shown to be deeply pessimistic about the possibility of any true gift being given by anyone – the denial of freedom in human being, with or without God. The magnum mysterium admits neither cynicism nor scepticism, even as the cynic's disappointment and the sceptic's loathing see this story end in crucifixion.
True gift arrives from outside the times and seasons, and changes them with its startling newness. This is Christmas, rightly told. And it is mystery: a kind of resident contradiction in our midst, tempting us to a new thought. In a world of cynics and sceptics like us, such a new thought could only be a quiet rumour of freedom, peace, joy and gift, for such a rumour would contradict what we take for granted but is rarely true: that we are free, and able to give and receive true gifts, and so able to be truly and richly human. For we are not free in this way, perhaps especially in the binding season of the gift. And so the cynic and the sceptic are right to this extent: our times and seasons are not working, and will not work.
To rumour the great mystery of Christmas would be to wonder what the appearance of a true gift would mean for lives which cannot properly give or receive, and so would be to draw attention to unfreedom in our freedom-infatuated world. It would be to ponder whether the gift we need will be found somewhere other than where we usually look and will likely arrive out of season.
This would be a rumour worth hearing and spreading, a kind of holy gossip to be whispered among cynics and sceptics. It would pose the surprising possibility of beauty in the midst of unbeauty, of freedom in the midst of unfreedom, of free gift where only transaction is known: heaven in a manger, creation out of nothing.
It's not as if we couldn't use such a thought in a world bound by culture, history and season, by which at least as much is taken as given.
And where this rumour, whisper, prayer gives a glimpse of beauty, freedom, gift even for a fleeting moment, perhaps we could let the surprise find its way to thanksgiving.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
4 posts so far.