The Longest Night

Our favorite Christianity correspondent, Dan Walden, on the meaning of Christmas.

To reflect on the peculiarities and difficulties of this year, I had thought that I might begin by talking about what Christmas is like for me in a more ordinary one. But a closer look suggests that “ordinary years” are a kind of collective fiction that we make up for ourselves—a way to hypothesize a time when everything could be less difficult, less stressful, less alienating. I think this gives too little credit to the hardships that beset so many of us around the Christmas holidays every year. Personal and family catastrophes have forced sudden changes in my family’s holiday plans before; millions of people in this country had no realistic prospect of seeing their families in this year or any other, because their employers will not allow them time off. Christmas is not an easy time, and I am not sure that it ever was.

For Christians, Christmas is an ancient feast, though not one of the most ancient observances of the church. It comes at the darkest time of the year: its original placement on December 25th was a deliberate overlap with the Roman calendar’s winter solstice. It is the time when families and friends huddle together in the darkness of the year’s longest night, when work slows down and when staying outside for too long is dangerous. The dead of winter is when the privations of the year begin to show themselves: those who have little are suffering, and those with much are locked behind closed doors where, absent a Dickensian visitation of spirits, they will pass the season without giving a thought to those whose suffering they might allay. Either we find the means to endure the cold and darkness of winter, or we succumb to them.

But the longest night means something. When we make it through the longest night, it means that we have turned the corner, that each day brings more light than the last. Those of us with seasonal mood disorders feel this viscerally, but I don’t think anyone can fail to notice it: as the days brighten, something about them becomes less difficult. Colder weather and darker nights make it a natural time at which to stop and listen and take notice of things, and its origin as a feast, a day when both work and fasting are suspended, reflects this. It is a time for dwelling in darkness, in the depths of our great ignorance, and learning not to be ashamed of it. Something happened on Christmas for which we do not have adequate words: there is a silence at the heart of the feast, in which the only ones who know what happened are not now in a position to tell us. But this silence is a turning point, a movement against reason as we know it and toward reason as it ought to be. In something we cannot express, the wordless consolation of hope emerges.

The observance of Christmas, as I have said, is not one of the ancient feasts of Christianity. Those are Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian church. The celebration of Christ’s birth was introduced only later by St. John Chrysostom, while he was Patriarch of Constantinople. His Christmas homily is both the earliest expression of the season’s mystery and one of the most profound:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

What Chrysostom expresses here is his wonder and astonishment that, by some power he does not know and cannot explain, the logic of the world, by which the mighty hold dominion over the weak, has been overthrown. The season of Christmas remembers a night when a young woman, socially despised for becoming pregnant before her marriage, surrounded by dirt and shit and animal stink because her husband’s family had no room to receive her, gave birth in the darkness and fed her child and laid him in a feeding trough. Read through the eyes of Christian faith, it is the story of God’s choice to become human, an act of love so profound that all our solidarity can only be the palest imitation of it. We can speak about what the results of this night were. But the night itself remains mysterious to us, a secret held by a young woman, by the husband who would not live to see his son’s fate, and by the child they raised, on whom rested the hope of the world.

Not everyone views the story this way. But I tell it through Christian eyes both because it is the only telling that feels honest to me and because I think that the way Christians read this story tells us something about hope, and about how hope upsets the logic of the world. There can, of course, be reasonable hope: with the approval of two different COVID-19 vaccinations, we now have reasonable hope of being able to safely be with other people in public by summer. This kind of hope is easy—it demands only that we follow what we see. But we do not always have the support of what we see. Indeed, a full assessment of the task that lies before us—of the depth of human despair created by the pandemic, of the power of capital shoring itself up through the diabolical manufacture of ever-greater levels of misery, of the vast numbers of workers in essential stores and hospitals brought to their physical and psychological limits with no real relief in sight—may plunge our reasoning minds into desolation, and no one would think us foolish for it. Our hope in these circumstances is not born of reason, or of anything else we can readily grasp. It comes to us, small and strange, out of a darkness that sense and reason cannot penetrate. Its birth is a mystery that we do not and cannot know.

For Christians, hope is classed with faith and with the self-giving love called charity: the three are called the theological virtues, because they are not habits but gifts, and their ultimate object is not people but God. They look beyond ourselves and beyond the people we immediately know and care about, toward something that lends meaning and direction and goodness to what we do. In hope we still see the logic of history—but we also know that this logic can be broken. Hope is not courage or certainty: indeed, its natural home is the darkness of our ignorance. We cannot see outside history; our eyes do not pierce the darkness of the longest night. But we know that night is not all there is—we will not be in the cold and the dark forever. Those of us who are committed to building a better society do not clearly know what it will look like, but we know that the way we live now is not the way things must be.

Countless television specials and Hallmark movies try to remind us that the “real meaning” of Christmas is giving, or family, or something else that they oppose to material acquisition. I don’t think that’s entirely correct. We give in order to celebrate what we’ve been given; we see family to affirm life amid the cold and the dark. Many of these ways of celebrating are not now available to us, and it can seem as if the cold and the dark are closing in. But the gift that we celebrate remains: the life that we did not give ourselves but received, the life whose ember still glows, though dim and pale now for lack of the immediate, face-to-face giving and getting that sustains its fire. Our giving of life this year is remote, its consequences unseen, and this is difficult for people who live in a sensory world and prize the vivid reality of what we can see and hear and touch. We want to see the joy we can bring. The heart of the season, however, has always been the unseen hope, birthed in darkness and housed in ignorance. We don’t know what the coming year will bring. But on the longest night we can curl up alone and sing a little song to ourselves, knowing that countless others are doing the same, and celebrate the turn in the world that will lead us out of the dark.

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