The rural parish where I live has no weekly printed bulletin. There is an announcement board in front of the church and we have a website for news, but a printed magazine is produced only three or four times a year. The editors are volunteers who put a lot of devotion into their work, and when they asked me some years ago if I could contribute a text, I could not say no. Since then I get regular requests for “something theological or philosophical as usual” with a limit of 2,000 characters. The next issue will be published in Advent, and here is an English translation of what I wrote:
The two most important Christian festivals are nocturnal events. Easter celebrates the triumph of life over death. The exact time remains unknown; it is not revealed until the morning hour (Luke 24:1—12). Christmas celebrates the birth of God’s son as a human among humans: another event which takes place in the night (Luke 2:8). In this motif the New Testament links to the Old Testament, since Israel’s people are liberated from slavery in Egypt during the night (Exodus 14). The same is told of several divine revelations.
There is another aspect to consider when it comes to Christmas: When this festival was introduced in the 4th century, quite soon December 25 became the established date, starting with the previous night (until eventually December 24 became the more popular of those two days). Tradition at that time regarded this day as the shortest of the year. Even if we do not know the exact date of Christ’s birth, December 25 was not chosen by accident: It is “the night par excellence”, the deepest depth from which something new can begin and grow.
In the Christian religion natural processes have great symbolic meanings. Christmas gives us the opportunity to experience the night in an intense manner. Not by turning night into day and drowning it out, but by consciously experiencing the night, enduring the darkness, and learning to wait. Christianity is no religion of “making it on your own,” but a religion of receiving. Christ’s birth is not our merit, the dignifying of humankind by the coming of God’s son is not our merit. All of this is given to us as a present, and the night with its darkness and silence is where we can feel and experience that God’s grace is not under our control, but is given to us without our own intervention. In this way the Holy Night—if we really involve ourselves in it—becomes a school of gratitude.