It should be easy to wax eloquent about Christmas. Every writer and poet worth his or her salt has something to bring to this worldwide feast. Think of the scene painted by the evangelist Luke in chapter two of his Gospel. He alone among the Gospel writers created the inn, the star, the manger, the shepherds, the angel of the Lord bearing good news and the host of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest.” Who cannot be touched by the tenderness of such a scene?
In the secular world there are comparable popular themes that occasion verbosity and even sentimentality. One of them is the three little words, “We the people.” What do those words conjure in the popular American mind? “We the people” speaks volumes about democracy, America, freedom, honesty, openness, dignity, independence, a voice, a vote, a vindication from oppression or subjugation in politics and religion. The connection may appear remote, but we, the people, have a lot to do with Christmas, as we shall see.
Indeed, what is the bond that ties Christmas to our human effort at freedom and a positive, comprehensive victory for humankind? I’m referring to perhaps the most clichéd yet timeless Christmas theme of them all: namely, peace on earth. Everybody can affirm the worth of that dream. The general populace is not exclusively focused on the birth of a savior during the Christmas season, because that may be too specifically religious for the “unchurched” among us. However, peace on earth is nonsectarian, universally affirmed, and yet at the same time unrealistic. But everybody dreams of it and enjoys the warm feeling of living in hope, which is the virtue that keeps us going even under the most trying circumstances.
The secular side of Christmas eliminates much of the potential fallout of a savior-inspired peace on earth. A Christmas card bearing the theme of peace might be considered to border on the religious. That would be a no-no for some people, especially if the depiction features a dove. Better to stick with “Happy Holidays,” tying in New Year’s Eve and Day. Even “Merry Christmas” smacks of Christianity, so many people avoid that greeting completely.
But let us look at the brighter side of a godless Christmas. The secular holiday is not a bad one at all, because built into the entire Christmas season is a moral sense that opens up to good deeds and random acts of kindness. After all, it’s Christmastime! Even agnostics and atheists are touched, perhaps unawares, by the more profound Christian themes of Christmas. It is the season of giving. It is closer to heart than head, closer to “us” than simply “me” in isolation.
Is this another example of “groupthink”? This phenomenon, as I noted in an article in the November edition of TAC, happens when people don’t act on principles or personal conviction but instead go along with the crowd for the sake of conformity—to fit in, be accepted, or simply because they have been indoctrinated into a popular belief or practice. The Christmas season makes groupthink a good thing in this instance. We name it the “Christmas spirit.” Christmastime can work miracles in the human psyche and its emotions, proving that a secular Christmas does have its positive aspects.
An example of the psychological and emotional transformation of Christmas is a rather well-known historical event that took place on Christmas Eve in 1914. The main event was World War I. The side event—and yet the more powerful one, speaking from a humanitarian point of view—was what became known as the Christmas Truce. British and German troops climbed out of their trenches and met each other in a warm greeting of “Merry Christmas” and “Fröhliche Weihnachten,” and even exchanged gifts and souvenirs. Me ceded to us. The troops shook hands; some may even have hugged. Imagine German and British soldiers, continents and cultures apart, living and loving the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, a starry, starry night, a peaceful pastoral picture of sheep and shepherds. “I bring you tidings of great joy . . .” They came out of their trenches, arms extended in gestures of peace. The drama, the soul, the heart of humanity was laid bare, and it is encapsulated in those soul-imprinted, elementary, God-given three little words, peace on earth. The power of a myth, the story of Christmas, held in common, shared in spite of distance, culture, or even circumstances, can indeed turn swords into plowshares.
Do you think that all the Germans and all the Britons in those trenches felt the same way about peace on earth and good will toward all? I don’t think so. But groupthink is not always a bad thing. It can be destructive in the case of an ISIS, a Taliban, or an Al-Qaeda, but it can also be a positive and great incentive to building community. Heart can speak to heart in a social setting. It can spread like fire. The spirit is caught, not bought or taught. Could such a thing happen in our day and age, or have we become too sophisticated and individuated? The human psyche has not changed or evolved that much since 1914. The herd instinct or groupthink for good or evil is alive and well in 2019. We can see it in the daily news and in the election campaigning, ad nauseam.
In a sense, it may be to our advantage that, as a species, we humans are not very individuated. We can be blessed as well as victimized and intimidated by the general psychological pushing and shoving of the crowd. This is why despots are rarely in favor of higher education for their subjects. Education would lead to individuation, which invariably leads to rabblerousing and discontent among those who think for themselves. Look at what is happening all over the world, in Hong Kong, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, to name a few hotspots. A more educated and enlightened populace is waking up and grasping a new relationship to power.
Setting aside our growing individuation, education, and the ongoing evolutionary process of our universe of which we are a part, can we Catholic Christians have that kind of soulful conviction about living out the faith in our time? My answer is yes, but with conditions. We have much more conviction in matters of the heart than with doctrines and dogmas, rules and regulations. In matters of the head, like the Nicene Creed that Catholics recite at every Sunday Mass, it is a different story entirely. We are touched by aspects of our humanity that dwell in the deepest part of who we are rather than the words that we mouth just to try and be of one mind as Catholics manifesting a united front.
The historian Yuval Noah Harari has a pithy sentence that is packed with insight: “If you fail to believe in something it falls apart.” There is a lot to think about in that compact phrase. Already some of the outmoded and outdated doctrines of our faith have fallen apart. Granted, if we don’t verbalize our doctrines and believe what we are saying we are liable to fall apart too. We would become splintered—no longer one, holy, catholic and apostolic church but several, perhaps holy, but definitely not catholic and apostolic churches. Thus we are compelled to recite words that don’t touch our hearts to prevent being riddled with schism.
The cerebral contents of our faith do not express what is deepest and best in our humanity. Matters of the heart are the things that inspired Jesus to do and say what he said and did. It is written all over the Gospels. Jesus was impetuous, on a mission, moved by convictions which came from his heart and soul, not from his intellect. Matters of doctrine are aspects of our faith, creedal statements that inform us but do not inspire us to live a certain way.
America is an experiment in placing us, the people, before any other power that can diminish humans’ worth as conscientious stewards of the universe. We are at a crossroads as we live out Christmas 2019 with a positive theme of good will toward all. With nationalistic tendencies and inclinations toward isolationism, nations that are the movers and shakers in our world need a change of heart that will drive us out of our trenches and foxholes. Will the future be about me or even about America first, or will it be about us? If we are to have a future that will impact not only our own people but also the world at large, it had better be about us.
Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication.