Since Christmas in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere occurs just after the Winter solstice, it is difficult to imaging a Christmas in Australia or Chile where the weather is summer, not winter.
Actually, Christmas in California, where I live, is closer to summer climates than to the winter ones of the higher mountains or of the weather farther north. Many of the sentimental Christmas songs recall winter scenes or moods. I believe there are Aussie versions of many songs like “Jingle Bells”. Actually, the average temperature at Bethlehem on Christmas is about that of Lake City, Florida, about 43 degrees (6 degrees Celsius), chilly, but not the Canadian Rockies. When my brother lived in Santa Cruz, California, we often took a long walk on a warm beach on Christmas Day.
We do not really know the actual date of Christ’s birth. The Gospels only indicate that He was born, where, under what circumstances, both locally, in a manger, and internationally, the decree of Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. December 25 is celebrated exactly nine months after the Feast of Christ’s Annunciation to Mary, on March 25. But the date in December probably had something to do with Christianizing Roman celebrations of winter.
Does it matter that Christ was not born in the Outback of Australia or the southern Island of New Zealand or near Beijing or Calcutta? In one sense, we can probably say no. But that “no” would require a whole other narrative of divine intervention into this world whereby this event would be explicable.
Indeed, none of these countries is today, in the way it is, if the Nativity of Christ had not taken place where and when it did. If anything is clear, it is that the Incarnation and Birth of Christ involved Jewish, not Chinese, Hindu, or other backgrounds. The relation of Christianity to Greece and Rome is, of course, also intimately bound up with these events in the Palestine of Christ’s birth. Both Alexander the Great and the Romans had the idea of world empire, of one language, one law, and one brotherhood. Christianity, when it sorted itself out, found room for the Jewish, Roman, and Greek traditions within its overall coherent understanding of reality. It is with this background that it initially faced the world.
Christmas is the quintessential feast of the home. At its best, it needs children, older and younger, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. We live in a world dangerously close to eliminating co-lateral lines of family. Much of the growing secular intolerance of Christmas is a rejection of human life as such. We can say that, when Christianity is in trouble, the home is in trouble, and vice versa.
Chesterton, whose Christmas memories are full of Dickens’ Christmases, remarked that, at Christmas, we should finally shut the doors of our home and be there with our family. Each of the Christmas Masses, the Midnight Mass, the Dawn Mass, and the Daytime Mass has a different mood, recalls a different side of the Christmas event.
Christ was not actually born in the home of Joseph and Mary, but in the Town of David, not even in the Inn, a good distance from Nazareth. He is thus known as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem. He was a small-town boy.
In the town of His birth today and the areas surrounding it, we find fewer and fewer Christians. Christians now compose only a third of Bethlehem’s population. Muslim discrimination and threats are very much evident to them. So they migrate to the Americas or wherever they can enter. Plus they too, like other Catholics in Italy and Spain, have very low birth-rates. They are aware that the Jihadists and their sympathizers strive to eliminate all Christians from Muslim lands, lands that were once mostly Christian.
There is probably something providential going on here, though one would be loath to speculate on what it is. In general, the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Chinese, and the Hindus have been impervious to the impact of Christ’s birth. At various periods in post-biblical history, significant efforts have been made to convert China, India, Japan, and the Muslim lands. There are said to be many covert Christians in China today, but the only “Catholic” country in the Far East is the Philippines, while Australia and New Zealand certainly have a strong Christian presence, as do Korea and Vietnam. What is striking about these lands today is their ability to learn modern technology and economic methods without significantly changing their belief structure.
The question is often asked about why Muslim lands, China, India, Africa and some other lands did not themselves first develop what we know as science today. There are not a few who hold that the reason is theological, but there is no doubt that ideologies from communism to philosophical religions like the Hindu can absorb the technical side of modern science.
The philosophy of Christmas
From the human side, Christmas, literally the “Mass of Christ”, was not first an idea. It was first an event, even though an event with origins in the Godhead itself. The Christmas Mass is the memorial each year of this event. Or, perhaps better, the Mass is the memorial of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, the sacrifice, in other words, of the Child who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born in Bethlehem.
The event of Christ, no doubt, has been often seen as only the birth of another man. Indeed, almost every conceivable effort has been made to show either (1) that Christ never existed or (2) that He was not God. It is instructive to recognize that atheism, disbelief in God, is far less prevalent and significant than the denial both of the humanity and divinity of Christ. Belief or proof of God’s existence is not nearly so much doubted as the coming of God into the world as also man.
The reasons for this difference are instructive. No doubt, an atheist is not likely to affirm the divinity of a Christ. He is not really much concerned about Christ except indirectly in so far as He is said to be God. But historically, even many “Christians” denied and still deny His divinity or humanity in one form or another. It is to be noted that Christ must be treated as a whole person, as one person. He is not a God and a man in a kind of dualistic being. It is the joining together of the divine and human natures in one person that is the fact and the problem. Yet, the very existence of Christ means that God is concerned with humanity and that man is related to God both as created and as redeemed. If Christ is God but not man, we need not much concern ourselves with Him in particular. If He is man but not God, well, He is just another dubious historical character who claimed to be what he could not have been. If He is both God and man that makes all the difference.
It took several centuries for the Church, thinking back on the event in Bethlehem, on the Cross and Resurrection that happened to this Child later, to figure out a coherent, plausible way to explain it so that it would be intelligible and not contradictory to the human mind. Today, to deny this relation of man and God in Christ, one has to embrace a philosophy that does not allow for a relation between matter and spirit in a real world. In this sense, the Incarnation and Nativity of this Christ was directed to the human mind at its best, to its thinking when its thinking is most in tune with what is.
Nothing is wrong with maintaining that revelation was directed to everybody, to the simple, the ordinary, and the common folks of this world, for that is what it was. But it was also directed, at the same time, to the depths of human soul with its thinking and willing. It was not something designed to confound man’s thinking or to confuse his head, but to enhance them, to make them more what they were intended to be.
We should not be too surprised at this. Whenever a new mother or father looks at a child begotten and born of them, they see there what is of them and their parents and grandparents. But they also see there something more than could be attributed just to themselves. After all, they did not and could not “plan” that this particular child they see before them would come about. They understand that some transcendent aspect of reality is also present in what is obviously also like them.
Why Christ’s nativity was different, as Mary and Joseph no doubt sensed, was that the child before them was rooted in the origin of all things, including themselves. So when we wonder whether Christ might have been born in Siberia or in Bali, we cannot forget that whoever is born, at any time or place, is born in the Word. This Word is before the foundation of the world in which, ultimately, originate all things, including ourselves.
So if we really wish to find the origin of ourselves and of our own particular destiny, we cannot avoid this event that took place in the city of David, when the whole world was at peace, His parents were told at His birth that He was to be called “Emmanuel” or “God with us.” In the end, this presence in this world of its creator and its destiny is what Christmas is about. “Let us rejoice and be glad.”
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.