Secularism accepts Christianity but only on its own terms, and so it has tried to tame Christmas. That is how I imagine the transformation of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus, or the holy night into a holiday. One simplistic element of Christmas is touched upon by this light and breezy treatment, but other, more profound, elements are lost. Chesterton recaptured one of those elements in his description of Christmas in The Everlasting Man.
“Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama.” What kind of drama? Chesterton uses the image of the Christmas cave to make his point.
“By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw’s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.”
At Christmas, God establishes an outpost in the world which banished him. “Royalty can only return to its own by a sort of rebellion,” concludes Chesterton.
“That is perhaps the mightiest of the mysteries of the cave. It is already apparent that though men are said to have looked for hell under the earth, in this case it is rather heaven that is under the earth. And there follows in this strange story the idea of an upheaval of heaven. That is the paradox of the whole position; that henceforth the highest thing can only work from below.”
In order to lift mankind to heaven, God must get his shoulder under mankind. Christ stooped into position in the Christmas cave, which was only the first footing of a journey which will go even deeper, into Sheol.
Herod’s reaction to the news of Christmas was violent. He ordered violence in Bethlehem to protect his power. This first Christmas was a real cloak-and-dagger affair, made all the more literal by the daggers the soldiers hid beneath their cloaks as they entered Bethlehem. Christ’s coming was a threat because it corrected and re-ordered power and authority. It brought a new hierarchy, and no one knew that better than the king whose power was threatened. Christmas was a revolution.
“There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace.”
It has put the Christian Church on a collision course with all usurpers. Herod was a menace to the Church Militant, born in the dug-out. The Roman Empire felt the early Church a menace, as well.
“It was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven and earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it. It dared to look right through it as though the gold and marble had been glass. Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.”
Do we, the Church Militant today, pose any threat to idolatry anymore? The earthquake begun in that underground cave should sway not only Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, but other halls of power, from board rooms on Wall Street to back hallways in Washington. Chesterton presents Christmas as if the Creator had to be smuggled into his own creation, like a true King in a fairytale might have to be smuggled under a cart load of fish into the very city that banished him. It is an undignified position for the high king, but he seems only too willing if that is how he must enter enemy territory. Alas, all too often the enemy territory is our own heart. Wishing you a Not-so-Merry Christmas.