It was gratifying to learn that my favourite delicacy as a child, caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack, is still being sold. Each box had a prize at the bottom: miniature animals, whistles and the like. As a somewhat precocious child, and therefore I suppose not altogether likeable, I quickly figured out the art of opening the box at the nether end for immediate access to the surprise. However, times change, and instead of a prize at the bottom, from now on there will be a sticker with each box, meant to be scanned. The senior director of marketing for the company that makes Cracker Jack has announced that by downloading an app and scanning the sticker, one can “enjoy baseball-inspired mobile digital experiences”. No more plastic toy animals and tin whistles.
I submit this image as a poor, but not irreverent, metaphor for the complementary emphases in the Church’s Western and Eastern approaches to Christmas. In a linear liturgical approach the Latin way, Christmas is the start and then you work your way to Easter. In the luminous Byzantine sensibility, the Paschal Mystery is the end at which you start first in order to make sense of the Incarnation and all other mysteries of Faith. As Mary, Queen of Scots embroidered, “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement” (“In my end is my beginning.”)
The Nativity is easily understood on a familiar level, for nothing is more domestic than a birth, and all of us have been born.
It is, if you will, the sacrament of domestication. The Resurrection is far more perplexing, for to come out of a tomb alive is as uncommon as coming out of a womb alive is common. Perhaps this is why there is an unseemly fidget to “rush” Christmas, when there is no equivalent impatience for Easter. The prospect of the Resurrection ultimately defeats attempts to make Christmas cute.
There is a fugitive intuition of this in the modern distortion of Christmas as something “for children and family” when it denies any deeper dimension. But in the shade of the cave in Bethlehem is the spectre of the cave in Jerusalem, and there is a benign propinquity between both. It is less taxing to ignore that, just as there is immediate gratification in the kind of transient happiness that hesitates to enter into a deeper joy that ”no one will take away” (John 16:22). For simple gratification, happy hours are more seductive than an eternity.
While we do not know how Mary and Joseph would have tried to explain it, they knew that there was more to the Holy Infant than infancy. St Paul wrote no birth narrative, and he first encountered Christ on the Damascus road and not in Bethlehem, but from the perspective of the Resurrection he could say that in the Babe of Bethlehem was the same Saviour who changed him from a curmudgeon to an Apostle, and the cradled child is the same as the crucified man who “is before all, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:17).
While treading carefully to avoid conflating the physical and things metaphysical, there is a resonance between St Paul’s cosmic hymn and the “holy grail” of theoretical physics, commonly called a “unified field theory” or “theory of everything”. That postulate would combine general relativity and quantum theory in a way that could explain all the physical aspects of the universe. Einstein spent the day before his death in 1955 working on this. A close associate of his, John Archibald Wheeler of Johns Hopkins and Princeton, said shortly before his own death in 2008 that if such a theory were discovered to be true, the most astonishing thing about it would be its simplicity. As simple as a baby. And just as complex. When that child is grown, he will say: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-14).
Recently, a group of Johns Hopkins cosmology theorists have been theorising about a form of matter they call “early dark energy” to resolve the “Hubble Tension”, which refers to the unresolved rate at which the universe is expanding. In this “tension”, new laws of physics may be required to account for the discrepancy in the techniques for calculating the rate of expansion. Such pondering stretches the human brain, which itself is the most complex organism in the universe. But those with the most active brains will be humbled by their limitations. And if they think hard enough, they will not be surprised that the tension of mysteries beyond measure are hidden in the Holy Infant who is the Eternal Logos that “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7).
Rather like the boy who looks first into the bottom of the box to find the prize, St Gregory Nazianzen starts at the glory of the Resurrection to explain the wonder of the Incarnation (Oratio 45):
The very Son of God, older than the ages, in the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable sea, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like.
St John Henry Newman makes a point of the fact that Gregory and his friend Basil spent a couple of years in Athens studying along with the future emperor Julian. While two became Doctors of the Church, Julian “the Apostate” became “her scoffing and relentless foe” (Discourse 8, Idea of a University). Newman pulls no punches in analysing the role of pride in the psychology of faith (“The Patristical Idea of Antichrist”, Lecture 1):
The history of the apostate emperor Julian, who lived between 300 and 400 years after Christ, furnishes us with another approximation to the predicted Antichrist, and an additional reason for thinking he will be one person, not a kingdom, power, or the like.
Tradition has Julian’s dying words: “Vicisti, Galilaee” (“Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!”). Newman’s contemporary, Algernon Swinburne, chose Julian as a tragic hero over Basil and Gregory. Little more than five feet tall and quite pale himself, he wrote in his sour poem “Hymn to Proserpine” a lame lament from the lips of Julian: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…”
Perhaps if feline Algernon, or pompous Julian for that matter, had humbly seen in the shivering baby the same eyes of the Risen Lord, they might have found the prize of eternal life, of which earthly surprises are poor plastic tokens.
So let there be Christmas parties and cheerful days, all 12 of them, and be simple enough to be childlike so as not to be like the cynics who are childish for refusing to be like children. “Beloved, now we are the children of God, and it has not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that, when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him just as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Fr George Rutler is the parish priest of St Michael’s Church in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen” district. His latest book is Grace and Truth (Sophia Institute Press)