When it came to playing the part of a curmudgeon, George Bernard Shaw seemed to enjoy the role, and there are few better examples of this than an invective against Christmas that he wrote in 1893, five days before the feast:
I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralising subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.
But as Shaw was a dramatist, he was also the kind of bad actor we can call a poseur. His naughty diatribe against Christmas was something like WC Fields kicking a child: rehearsed so that it was shocking only for its incongruity.
GK Chesterton was not one to let any snobbery about Christmas go unremarked. His pen flew in his biography of Shaw in 1909: “If a man called Christmas Day a mere hypocritical excuse for drunkeness and gluttony, that would be false, but it would have a fact hidden in it somewhere. But when Bernard Shaw says that Christmas Day is only a conspiracy kept up by poulterers and wine merchants from strictly business motives, then he says something which is not so much false as startling and arrestingly foolish. He might as well say that the two sexes were invented by jewellers who wanted to sell wedding rings.”
Chesterton considered Shaw his “friendly enemy” and Shaw recognised in GKC “a colossal genius”. But Shaw was attracted to his friend by more than that, and I suspect it was in part that “mirth” of which Chesterton wrote but could not conceal himself (though he thought it was one thing Christ kept hidden). As Chesterton believed that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, so Shaw may have sensed that too, while wishing he were not so censorious and serious.
Shaw boasted that he was proud to be an atheist, but he boasted too much to be totally convincing. I do not think that he would have written so much about Jesus and the Scriptures, in his lengthy preface to Androcles and the Lion, if he had thought that Christianity was implausible. In fact, from his perspective as a playwright, he was fascinated, if not obsessed, by the emotive power of the Gospels precisely because of the art of their artlessness, telling the world’s greatest drama with a starkness that does not strive for effect.
Shaw is frustrating in the way he strikes down straw men and faults the narratives for what they do not claim, but when it comes to Christmas, he unwittingly admits two facts that many Christians themselves may not understand.
The first fact is that the birth of Christ was not peaceful. Those pure spirits and immeasurable intelligences we call angels sang of peace, but that was only because the souls of men were stirred up. Theirs was a peace that traumatised the shepherds who “were struck with great fear” (Luke 2:9). This first Christmas peace was “not as the world gives peace” (John 14:27). The child in the manger had always been and would be always of the eternal peace from which he had uttered light and life into existence.
As a child, I was fascinated by an old RCA His Master’s Voice recording, which my grandmother would play on a wind-up Victrola, of Ernestine Schumann-Heink singing Brahms’s Cradle Song or Lullaby. Her Wagnerian voice was not meant for a nursery, and it could blast any baby out of the crib. Perhaps the Holy Child was the only one at peace when the angels sang in decibels not of this world.
Shaw wrote: “Jesus, meek and mild, is a snivelling modern invention, with no warrant in the Gospels.” The words “Jesus, meek and mild” are from a hymn of Charles Wesley, and in fairness to that sturdiest of hymn writers, he is trying to reduce a sentiment to the voice of a child. But whatever else Shaw might have made of Christ the Man, he took seriously the strength and sobriety of the Word in whom was life that was the light of men. That should engender fear which can move by grace from servility to awe.
The second fact misunderstood about Christ is that the Infant was not homeless. There was no room in the inn, but there was a warm home in the arms of Mary and Joseph. As an adult, he enjoyed the hospitality of Peter in Capernaum and what must have been the richer house of Zacchaeus. His favourite spot in Bethany was by the hearth of friends. But wanderer that he was, without nests as birds have them or dens proper to foxes, he knew of that House of the Father, ever distant yet ever near for those who love him, and large enough for all who do his will.
When Christ called the Temple in Jerusalem his Father’s house, Joseph understood and in his humility he was not offended. Christ lying as a corpse in a temporary space was an act of mute respect for his passport from eternity.
Just before Christmas a few years ago, the New York Times displayed its talent for picking and choosing pontifical comments curious or convenient, by inaccurately announcing on its front page that Pope Francis had said that dogs may be in heaven. As one who wept at the death of his terrier, I shall not stretch systematic theology to respond to that. But there were animals in the stable of Bethlehem, and they had the privilege promised to the saints themselves, of gazing on the Infant “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature … And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (1 Colossians 15:17).
Fr George Rutler is the parish priest of St Michael’s Church in New York City. His latest book is Calm in Chaos: Essays for Anxious Times (Ignatius Press)
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