WRIGHT: On the Road Home, Keep Christmas and Lose the Self

If you are like me, at this season of the year especially, you get homesick for somewhere you’ve never been. Your home, even if it is quite pleasant, does not content you. The feeling haunts you that there is something more to life than merely life.

At other times of the year, perhaps you have a daily routine. You look around the nation where you live, and hear the speech of men, tap your feet to their music, tend to your work and to the chores imposed on you, and after relax with a good book or a cold beer, a warm fire or a flickering screen.  And, at least from time to time, the nation seems strange, the music not as good as once it was. The book is dull or the beer is flat. The fire is sullen ashes in the grate you will have to clean up later, and you wonder why you did not tune the television to the fireplace channel.

Your home here on earth does not slake this peculiar homesickness. This is a homesickness for elsewhere.

This time of year, at least in me, that homesickness grows acute. Then snow falls and days grow short and dark, and the town puts festive lights from pole to pole, and stripe the lampposts like candy-canes. The shops put snowmen and Father Christmas in their windows, and the bolder put nativity scenes. And in those few, overlooked, happy places were the malign powers of the ACLU as yet have reached no dark tentacle, a giant Christmas tree might be decorated in the town square. Elfland comes to earth.

It is as if the town square and the shops become pictures into elsewhere, magical pictures you can step into.

But it is still just a picture. You listen for sleigh bells in the snow, and peer up into the night sky, half hoping to glimpse a flying reindeer. Few and far between are horse-drawn sleighs these days, and the sound of such bells fell silent long ago. Flying reindeer there are none, and never were.

Pictures are always just pictures. Even a picture you might step into is never the real place pictured. No shop and no quaint town square can be the elsewhere for which your heart longs.

Christmas displays and decorations are meant to recall to our hearts a place we know. But how might we step through the magic picture to the real place?

Where do we look for the meaning of Christmas? Perhaps in stories. If you are like me, and you are my age, at this season of the year, you watch shows both childish and serious about how Santa grew a beard or why Frosty the Snowman came to life or how a reindeer’s nose saved Christmas. You watch at least three different versions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, one animated by Ken Harris, one starring Alastair Sims, and one starring muppets; and you see how Ebenezer Scrooge is wealthy and selfish and content with his life, but the spirit of Christmas touches him, shows him his life in past, present, and future, and he changes. Then you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and you see how George Bailey is poor and selfless and suicidal, but the spirit of Christmas touches him, shows him the world where he had no past, no present, and no future, and he changes.

And perhaps you wonder, how Linus Van Pelt happens to know Luke 2: 8-14 by heart to recite to Charlie Brown; until (if you are me) your young child explains that these are the lines in the Christmas play Lucy had to threaten Linus into memorizing. Unlike George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge, who do not hear the name of Christ mentioned once, Charlie Brown gets a direct answer as to what Christmas is all about.

Hearing the word is not enough, of course. The rest of the Peanuts gang are not touched by the spirit until they give their love to a spindly, small, and worthless tree, and this magically makes it beautiful. Charles Schultz was not only an insightful comedian, his theological instincts were sound.

All Christmas stories, perhaps with the exception of Die Hard, are love stories. Love stories by their nature must be a little indirect, for the same reason none but eagles may stare at the naked sun unblinded. Love is a divine thing, therefore dangerous. We weak-eyed humans must approach these matters indirectly. It is perhaps for these reasons that Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey meet the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come or Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, and not the Virgin Mary. It is why there is no mention of Christ in these famous Christmas stories. Perhaps their faith, or the faith of the muses whispering to the authors who wrote them, is insufficient to portray truly heavenly persons faithfully. Not every muse is as strong-eyed as she who inspired C.S. Lewis to write of Aslan.

And so it is indirectly, not bluntly, that these stories tells us how to find the elsewhere for which we are secretly homesick. They tell us how we, each one of us a little Scrooge, can learn how to be discontented with our comfortable, selfish life. Likewise they tell us how we, each one of us a little George Bailey, can learn how to be contented with the gift of our unrewarding, chore-filled, duty-bound life. They tell us, little failure-prone and neurotic Charlie Browns that we are, the true meaning of Christmas.

Love saves Charlie Brown’s wretched, thin, needle-shedding tree. Love saves the wretched George Bailey from suicide. Even Scrooge, that squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner, can learn how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

These shows are trying to tell us the crucial information: how to reach the place for which our homesickness longs, that very place the living picture of decorated towns, a place of beautiful lights, and candles, and bells.  The writers may or may not know what their messages mean, but their muses surely do, or else these tales would not have been retold countless times. The way home is obvious, and well marked.  

But the obvious is easy to forget, which is why we are given rituals and stories to remind us. It is why we set aside certain days of the year, why we dress our towns as if in masquerade, why we gather and sing carols, why we feast on Christmas goose and hang our stockings by the fireplace, even those of us who have no fireplaces. It is why the third candle in the Advent wreathe is pink, and the others purple.

In modern culture, Christmas ends on Christmas day, albeit most people get the days up until New Year as vacation. Of old, the twelve days after Christmas were the feast days, starting with the Feast of Stephen (whose name you might have heard in the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas), and running through the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and ending with Epiphany. We are feasting and keeping Christmas just when the modern world forgets it.

Of old, the days before Christmas were not frenzied days of shopping, Christmas parties, or school plays, but a time of fasting and repentance lasting forty days, called Advent. Even now, some of us who are particularly old fashioned surrender some habitual treat or favored sweet, some item of our self-indulgent diet for these four weeks.

Giving up some favorite food or pastime as spiritual exercise strikes the modern mind as odd and strange. Some see it as an offense against our beloved self-esteem. This is because the modern mind is strange to itself, and forgets what our fathers knew in generations past. The moderns think it unexceptional to starve ourselves for a diet, or to give up caffeine to cure anxiety, or alcohol when in training.

Self-centered reasons we understand. Spiritual reasons, no matter how obvious, the modern mind finds hard to see. Our eyes have lost their sharpness in the smog and fog of blithering nonsense and distraction that characterizes the modern world.

Yet the point of self-surrender is clear enough. Ask any youth yearning for his beloved, and indulging the impulse to make extravagant protestations of true love to her, and eternal fidelity. Ask any mother with a babe in her arms. Read any of those old, strong, love sonnets, heady as wine, from Shakespeare’s day, or Shelly’s. Read about the lives of saints.

What you see in all types of love, from the ecstasy of romantic love to the solidity of true friendship, is the act of the self turning away from the self, the lover surrendering, the lover dying to himself, and living for another.

In a world where the sin of pride is praised as self-esteem, and rank selfishness called prudence, this concept is deliberately misunderstood, deliberately ignored, and dishonestly slandered. But even in the healthier, saner time of times gone by, it was still a mystery difficult to speak about, and impossible to speak clearly about.  When we try too directly to speak of it, words too weak to hold up the deep truth fall out of our mouths. We screw up our eyes and cannot stare at the sun.

But perhaps the mystery can be made clear if we take a large example. If you are like me, and I hope in this case you are not, we are addicted to outrage. Wrathful denunciations are rich as strong wine, and cruel and mocking wit as sweet as opium.

This is particularly true for political pundits. When commentary is streaming in real time, the numbers show the audience is attentive at denunciations, accusations, outrages, and complaints. We love hearing our side whine, complain, and kvetch. When we give compliments, the numbers drop. The peacemakers are surely blessed, but they do not get the Neilson ratings.

But surrendering the opium pipe of anger is hard. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, it is damn well impossible. You have to give up the delicious thrill of drinking your enemy’s tears. You have to surrender your sense of justice and self-esteem in the name of mercy. You have to turn the other cheek and let your filthy and unfit foe slap you again, even when you are in the right.

Did you think mercy is a soft virtue? It is as hard and sharp as flint. It is harder than diamond.

It feels like dying. In a very real sense, it is dying. The flesh wars against the spirit. The ego, that relentless despot, wars against the better angels of our nature. The pride, that little devil each of us enthrones in our heart, bites the heal of humility, that virginal maiden, sent to trample his head.

But the result is bliss. If you surrender your sense of outrage, your foes become brothers, you see things in their true light, you realize the wretched enemies destroying this nation and offending everything you hold dear are themselves deceived victims and useful idiots enslaved to the Great Enemy who seeks to offend and destroy all mankind, all of us made in the image and likeness of God.

You can still fight them. Who does not fight with his brother from time to time? But a warrior freed from the blindfold and fetters of hate has all his powers ready for the fight, and he has the most potent weapon of all, which is forgiveness. The sense of relief when the soul is no longer burdened with wrath cannot be described. Carrying a heavy, soggy, wild bear on your back as you wade through a river of mud, and the beast claws and gnaws you, would not weigh you down as much as carrying wrath.

But dumping the dank animal off your shoulders is difficult, because we love our sins, or, to be precise, we fear the withdrawal symptoms of quitting them cold turkey. It feels like dying, dying to one’s self, because sins are parasites who thrive by making us believe they and we are one.

Dying to oneself is not really death, of course, but life. You do not give up anything but your fetters and chains. This is because your self, your real self, is not your ego, not your self-centered passions and sins and self-indulgences. Those are the besieging armies surrounding and smothering your real self.

We are homesick for elsewhere because our real selves are not in the here and now of daily routine. Ceremonies and songs remind us of where our real souls lie, because they remember where our real home is.

The elsewhere our homesickness recalls is in a stinking little crazy stable in Bethlehem, where a newborn king of an unearthly kingdom sleeps in the cattle’s hay, beneath a magical star, and only the penniless and unwashed shepherds, the humblest of the low, are told where to go, and the most wise of mages and sages. The kings of this world, hearing any rumor of the babe, seek his death.

But he is safe, for his hour, in the arms of his virginal mother, for she holds her own creator in her gentle, overworked hands.

Nativity scenes, and songs about a reindeer’s nose, and all the rest: All the cumbersome apparatus of ritual, celebration, and caroling, the colored lights and soaring psalms, are merely the wedding dress and bridal veil meant to garb an invisible and spiritual reality. All these things are pictures meant to remind the homesick heart of home.  

That filthy stable in a cave is our home. Toward it our souls long. There the wandering and homeless holy family have been thrown, because there is no room in our worldly, narrow hearts for them. Nowhere else is found the answer to life’s pain. The answer only comes from the small, divine child.

 

John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman and editor, who was only once on the lam and forced to hide from the police. He is an acclaimed science fiction novelist, winner of the prestigious Dragon Award for Best Novel, and holds the record for the most Hugo Award nominations for a single year. He presently works as a writer in Virginia, where he lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children: Pingping, Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright.

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