The emotional value of Christmas may be said to be universally felt. Something happens at Christmas that, if only for a day or two, does the whole world good. What that something is remains for many a mystery. A number of persons who feel the renewing impulse are like Faust when the notes of the Easter song arrest his suicidal intent; they take and enjoy the moment’s deliverance and continue to regard the source of the boon as nothing more than mythology made potent through human associations.. Others are moved through superstitious fears; they approach the great season with consciences crowded with uncomfortable memories; Marley’s Ghost is after them, but, unlike Scrooge, their new heart is only for Christmas week. Another group simply fall in with an ancient custom, and are surprised, and indeed pleased, when the dry bones of their unbelieving minds come together, take on flesh, and begin to live. A vast multitude meet the great day with buoyant expectation, take with thanks its new happiness, return to their work in this exalted mood, and ask no questions about cause and effect. A few philosophize on the phenomenon, and they are willing to stake their lives on the substantial truth of their insight. In behalf of this elect company I venture to write, not without considerable experience of the risk run by the prophet when he assumes to be representative.
Once more, let us say, we are under the spell of Christmas. We cannot be sour or irritable or pessimistic, do our utmost. We have been subjected to a shower-bath of gladness; kind thoughts are circulating with fullness and vigor through all the avenues of the mind; we are elated, even jubilant, ready for laughter and tears, sympathetic with the children in their glee, tender toward the poor and forlorn, strangely accessible to life’s best memories, reverent toward religious faith, and almost willing to go to church. All this may seem to our pagan mind as foolish as a revival of religion, something inconsistent with proper economic austerity, a senseless revel of humanity at the expense of the moods, habits, and rules of solid business. Nevertheless here we are, pounded into submission and sympathy, overcome for a few hours or days by the tides of an ideal existence.
What does this strange recurring experience mean? Is there anything in it substantial and reasonable, or is it merely a sweet and expensive delusion? Is it cloud or solid land? Perhaps it may prove to be both. Often one will see the cloud on the mountain take the shape of the summit it conceals; the Matterhorn in cloud is moulded by the Matterhorn in adamant.
It would seem that something of this kind might be true of the Christmas emotion; it may be that it is shaped by a hidden everlasting reality; when the emotion passes into understanding we may be able to see the sublime source of our enchantment.
In the intellectual life of the race, the true order would seem to be reality, feeling, reason. The infinite thing is the universal reality. We touch this reality first of all in feeling. The feeling is indeed penetrated with intelligence; still it remains feeling. It rises in the forms of interest, curiosity, surprise, desire, expectation, confidence, and the spirit of prophecy. From this psychic confusion of great riches, issue clear conceptions, valid insight, sure knowledge. Reason is the latest born in the psychic family, and it remains forever overshadowed in life by its elder brothers—feeling, and the reality of which feeling is the witness.
That we are in a real universe is an assumption upon which we live; that we feel this real universe before we are able to think it, is an obvious fact in our experience; that we think, even at our best, something not only immeasurably smaller than the total reality, but also something that is nothing more than a fraction of the content of feeling, is a statement too plain to call for argument about it. When one sees a child playing on the lawn in front of tis home in the sunshine, as the days lengthen into its second summer in the world, three things are clear. There is the enfolding sunshine; there is the sense of life heightened by the sunshine; there is some dim consciousness of the relation of cause and effect between the sunshine and the experience of exhilaration. We have here, one may presume, a hint of man’s life as a spiritual being. There is the divine reality; there is its effect upon feeling; there is the account of the connection between these two. The contention is that the divine environment is the ultimate and infinite wonder; close to this stands feeling truly inexhaustible in its content; last of all comes reason, inevitable in the mature human being, and inevitably behind in its work.
Originality would seem to begin in feeling. Copernicus has a feeling that the Ptolemaic system is all wrong; Newton that there must be some bond of union among all worlds; Berkeley that Locke’s idea of matter is an absurdity; Kant that a true psychology should consider the action of the mind upon its object no less than the action of the object upon the mind; Darwin that life must have a history, that it must be an ascent. Feeling is the first sign of genius; to feeling in men of great genius we are indebted for the beginnings of the achievements that have made their names illustrious. The feeling for nature has given us our greatest scientists; the feeling for man our supreme poets; the feeling for God several of our weightiest philosophers and all our highest prophets.
When Jonathan Edwards contended that genuine religion consists largely in the affections, he did not mean to confine religion to a mere subjective circle. For him, as for every other wise man, the heart is not a possession out of all relation to universal Being; it is the organ of closest contact with universal Being; of intuitive intercourse with it or him; of response to immediate impact; it is the organ of a storehouse of intimations, appeals, and gifts. The subtlest forms of ind work here, and they bring into the spirit of man experiences, assurances, and hopes of a transcendent character. From this world of religious feeling, reason elaborates its world of meanings, concepts, beliefs; still the primary world of religious feeling remains unsearchable in its richness, unfathomable in its depth.
Christmas has its chief meaning here. It is one of the Christian forms of appeal for the benignity of the universe. The encompassing Infinite is austere; all religions recognize that fact. The ultimate reality, whatever it may be, is hard upon human beings; no wise man can avoid that conclusion. Sometimes we are almost driven to the bitter belief that the universe is against us; that our lives are a pitiful and foredoomed failure in the heart of infinite unconcern, perhaps of infinite disdain. The pessimism in books is first of all written with the pen of fateful experience on the tablets of the heart. There are many points at which the black antipathies of the universe toward human beings father and pour in upon us in floods. Here is the birth and cradle of vital pessimism.
There are other points at which we become conscious of the supporting sympathy of the encasing Mystery. There are times and seasons when we cannot doubt that the stars in their courses are fighting our battles. There are in our inmost soul at such times assurances of the benignity of the Eternal. For this benignity there are many forms of appeal in our family, social, and political life; we come to the greater forms in the higher religions of the world. In one way or another all these carry to the weary and heavy-laden a benediction from the Soul of the universe. Commotions follow in man’s heart; high moods of moral conquest and peace, the play and interplay of relieving human sympathies; these, however, are but effects, the supreme cause is out beyond in the benignity toward men at the centre of all being.
Christmas is, as I have said, one of the forms in the Christian religion for this benignity. Love, marriage, parenthood, childhood, friendship, and all the greater forms of humanity, are strangely affected and exalted at the Christmas season. What means this overflow of human kindness and hope? The birth of Jesus has seemed to the wisest men the most significant token of sympathy for man, at the centre of all reality. When the flood-tide of CHristmas is upon us it is hard to remain unbelievers. We rejoice; we do more than rejoice; we know that we are glad, and why. Life is enfolded in the universal sympathy, and on this account we are justified not only in our momentary exaltation but also in our permanent working faith.
Christmas comes burdened with a profound and cheering philosophy of history. The philosophic background of the advent of Jesus is in these words: ‘And a man shall be as a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest … as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.’ The meagre character takes refuge in the ampler; the child hides in the greatness of the parent’s life; the pupil in the shadow of the teacher’s strength; the average man in the community in the commanding nature of his leader. Thus we rise till we come to those few highest minds which are, in Burke’s fine words, ‘the refuge of afflicted nations.’ History is changed not by ideas alone, but by ideas as expressed in the supreme personality. The world we live in has been made for us; the source of this world-making power is the idea in action; the idea in action is the mind of the great man at work. We are everlasting debtors to the great men who have preceded us; they have become our refuge and strength and without them we should be homeless and impotent.
Thus the idyl of the advent of Jesus becomes the epic of the ideal human career. The Apostle to the nations knew the meaning of the manger in Bethlehem, and the emotions that Bethlehem and its manger have always stirred, when he said, ‘We have the mind of Christ.’ That mind has been a world-home for countless human beings; and this world-home has been built upon the Infinite benignity of the universe. Thus the Christian philosophy of history breaks in upon us at Christmas and carries us away like a flood. Then it is easy to chant with Milton, ‘Till one greater man restore us’; to sing with Tennyson, ‘On God and Godlike men we build our trust’; and to give thanks with the Evangelist for the ‘Life that was the Light of men.’
Our human world has gone wrong. A shallow evolutionism constructs a theory of progress that goes in straight lines; a profounder evolutionism question the fact and reads an advance of another sort. We are impatient to-day with legends of the fall; the impatience is not without excuse, and yet it is by no means wise. Legends often carry in imaginative form the wisdom and sorrow of a race; those who have an eye for the wisdom, and a heart for the sorrow, will ponder the legend; they will not laugh it to scorn.
When we refrain in the first instance from generalizations and confine attention to individuals, the grounds of dispute vanish. It is not difficult to se, indeed it is impossible to avoid seeing, that multitudes of men and women go wrong. For them existence has become bitter and almost hopeless. They have sinned; they have been sinned against; they are suffering Ishmaelites whose hand is against every man, against whom is the hand of society. Now let us generalize from those who have gone wrong under our eyes to the millions that have gone wrong under the eyes of God. Then imagine what Christmas brings to many of them; what it is capable of bringing to all of them. On them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death a great light has shined. Christmas proclaims the mighty Gospel that human beings live in a redemptive universe. Comfortable persons who live on the moral income of an heroic past may sneer at this; the multitudes whose work keeps the world alive and who are noble enough to know that they have gone wrong will greet this Gospel, as of old, with a Gloria in Excelsis.
Custom may harden or it may renew and deepen human nature. Upon a hollow-hearted scoundrel playing the rôle of a pious man custom acts as time acts on a cooling planet; it makes the crust harder and deepens it till it is dust and ashes to the core. The action of custom upon a sincere mind that would pay all its dues is of a different order. In this case custom brightens to the infinite heights the sky overhead; it brings morning up out of night; it renews the power of the ideal; on each recurrence it initiates a profounder movement of spirit in the presence of life’s best hopes.
Periodicity in sin is a tragic fact; it is the succession of snares set for the foolish man who on each recoil from his shameful act just committed thinks of himself as cured of his passion. The rhythm of passion returns; the intervals are like the lulls between the great breakers when the tide is rolling in; they are delusive. Vivid as the bitter fact are Shakespeare’s words, ‘That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat.’ Periodicity in dishonor lies upon men with the weight of the world; indeed it wears down and out the moral purpose and swamps multitudes in cynicism.
There is a periodicity that runs counter to this work of the devil. Custom here renews the mind in the possession of its best judgments; supports these judgements with freshened feelings; recovers to the faded resolution its native hue. Custom in this case is like a man standing on firm ground pulling his friend out of a bog: every return is another pull, another emancipation, another prophecy that ultimate freedom is sure. Periodicity in religion is the law of the spirit of life in an imperfect world; it is a kind of Santa Scala whose steps lead to ever happier reconciliations between the actual and ideal in man.
Here is part of the Christmas magic. The world is on the whole sincere, and when the Christmas sunburst of benignity strikes it, this Memnon’s statue sings again. The Christmas season is an indefinable compound of thoughts and feelings; hints and suggestions local and universal; richest memories and sincerest hopes; movements of heart confined to the family circle and again going forth over the whole diameter of humanity. Instincts and sympathies are here that concern man in his fortune in this world and that reach to the Eternal and rest there. Utterly beyond exhaustive analysis is the heart of a representative human being under the Christmas enchantment. What does it all mean? As I have said, there are in fact many answers; to the writer the only answer with sure reason in it is that which sees in the Christmas gladness a fresh invasion of the Infinite benignity, a new assurance through a recurrent form of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
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