I’ve always been fascinated by symbolism. There’s a kind of poetry to the symbols in our lives, beginning with the obvious and often superficial like a corporate logo, national flag, or coat of arms, but progressively deepening as we learn to speak their language.
We see meaning everywhere in the universe, and symbolic meaning is the most delightful of all.
In his book Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict XVI wrote about the symbolism of Christmas occurring as it does at the darkest, coldest peak of winter.
Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere symbolises (among other things) the light entering a cold, dark world.
To his immense credit, Pope Benedict went on to wonder what that means for we poor unfortunates in the Southern Hemisphere, for whom Christmas is a time of often intense heat, flies, and cognitive dissonance at wintry traditional carols and accoutrements.
I drew a line at being asked to sing “In the bleak midwinter”, knowing that Christmas is typically in the mid-30s Celsius.
“In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;”
…sang the choir, sweat pouring from their faces in the sweltering loft, as the congregation dropped like flies.
Benedict demurred at the idea of shifting the Southern calendar to put Christmas in the winter down here, arguing, essentially, that the Northern symbolism is a reflection of the meaning inherent in Christmas, not the other way around.
In short, it’s up to sweaty Southerners to find meaning for themselves.
In theory this shouldn’t be too hard. We’re all primed for making meaning anyway, and we’re great at finding new meanings as we discover new facts about the world and new perspectives on our place in it.
For example, people used to think that the sun, the moon and all the stars sat in a kind of heavenly dome surrounding the earth.
In the geocentric model, everything existed for the benefit of humanity. The sun and the moon were there for us, to bring light to the world. It made perfect sense and the religious symbolism spoke of all that God had done for us, putting us in this wonderful place with everything we might ever want or need.
Geocentrism was false, but that doesn’t invalidate the symbolism, nor should it stop us from seeing the symbolic meaning that came with our growing knowledge of the universe.
A child’s knowledge of his or her parents evolves over time, but new knowledge gained doesn’t simply invalidate what was known before.
Heliocentrism slowly replaced geocentrism, putting the sun at the centre of all the planets, earth included. We learned that earth was not the centre of everything; the sun was.
Furthermore it’s not the sun that moves around the earth but the earth that moves around the sun. The sun is fixed, the central point. We are the ones that turn away from it each night and return to it each day.
And the other planets are like Earth – not terrestrial satellites but whole other worlds in their own orbits around the sun.
So even though this contradicts the geocentric model, the religious symbolism evolves with the scientific development.
The heliocentric system suggests that God is at the centre, not us. God is fixed, eternal, and unchanging. It is we who turn away and return again. What seemed like God’s absence in our personal darkness is in fact our own turning our back on the eternal light.
But just when everything might have seemed settled we find that the sun, our solar system, is not the centre of the universe. In fact our sun is just one of countless stars, our solar system and whole galaxy but one among many.
Yet even this scientific discovery is just another evolution in our knowledge. It doesn’t invalidate the symbolism of heliocentrism or geocentrism, rather it builds upon it.
Our new understanding of the universe overwhelms us with awe at the magnitude of creation and its sheer gratuity, liberality, and munificence.
There is so much of the universe beyond us and our experience. So much of creation that goes far beyond what we could ever have considered useful or purposeful by our own standards.
So much that, from a human perspective, would seem pointless, unnecessary, perhaps an unavoidable by-product of the things we consider truly important.
Which symbolises, I think, the unimaginable joy and delight of creation – something of which we could all afford to be reminded.
Pope Benedict didn’t provide an answer to the problem of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. But as someone who impatiently endures the December heat, I think we can find our own symbolism.
Nor need it be tied directly to the seasons or to nature. Symbolism is poetic, not systematic.
To me the deeper meaning of a hot, sweltering Christmas in the South is that it obviously doesn’t fit. It’s not reflected in the season or the weather or the temperature or the shortening and lengthening of days.
Christmas in the South doesn’t match the Northern cycles of nature, but in this it does reflect precisely what Benedict is saying:
“the historical does not serve the cosmic; no, the cosmic serves the historical. Only in history is the cosmos given its center and goal…here is the guarantee that we are not chasing myths.”
To celebrate Christmas in the over-heated South amidst constant reminders that it does not belong is a reminder that Christmas itself does not belong, is not natural but supernatural.
It may have been part of the plan from the beginning, but it stands at the foundation of Christianity as an event of eternal, metaphysical significance transcending the created order.
Christmas signifies the entry of the divine directly into creation, but it also points to our true home with the divine – our ultimate destination beyond this life.
To celebrate Christmas in the heat is ridiculous unless you remember that we are, in a sense, as far from our true home as the reindeer and fur-decked Santa and fake snow-capped evergreens and images of roaring fireplaces and renditions of “White Christmas” and all the other Christmassy accretions that survive way down here in the God-forsaken antipodes.
Christmas in the North may blend seamlessly into the natural order, symbolising the incarnational aspect of all creation awaiting the birth of Christ. But Christmas in the South transcends the natural order, symbolising the supernatural, transcendent aspect of the incarnation itself.
Christmas doesn’t fit in the Southern Hemisphere, and that’s what makes it special.
I think that’s how we can cheerfully celebrate a Christmas that is not as it should be, because that is as much a reminder of the light that shone in the darkness as the Northern seasons could ever proclaim.