This Advent, “Christmassy” feelings only want to appear very hesitantly.
The signs are not pointing to the good news of peace, but rather to confrontation, worldwide (as the articles in this issue of Current Concerns show once again) and within our Western societies. And then there is the increasingly excessive Christmas hype ... Especially here in Switzerland, it seems these days as if we all absolutely have to hunt down quickly the delights, we missed last year (because of Corona) before the next pandemic peak puts a spoke in our wheel.
Nevertheless, we receive many a Christmas card in which friends or relatives wish us a peaceful and contemplative pre-Christmas period. A pious hope? Rather an expression of a real need. For Christmas remains for many a time when we are receptive to deeper dimensions of our being, more so than any other time of the year. This includes the question of meaning.
A poster invites contemplation
These days, my gaze falls on Advent posters near our churches, modestly designed and for that very reason powerful, which draw attention to the meaning of the main festival of the Christian world. With the words “Why?Nachten” they create concernment in the viewer, they invite him to take a little breath in the midst of the hustle and bustle. Why Christmas? What are we actually celebrating? It can’t be that the sometimes merciless hunt for ultimate gifts and culinary extravagances is all that drives us humans at this time of year. Or does the unrestrained Christmas rush that breaks out in many places have something to do with the fact that we seek in the purchased object (i.e., in an outward appearance) what we are lacking inwardly? More human compassion, more connectedness?
If this is the case, we should not wonder about our hustle and bustle. Because we can’t address this lack with hoarding purchases and extravagances. They are then what psychology calls substitute objects. Seen in this light, it is often not so much the brand watch or the hype perfume or the hottest smartphone of the moment that makes us so stressed. It is probably something quite different: the hope that one of the gift packages carefully piled up under the Christmas tree will trigger a grateful smile in the recipient, a sign of his or her emotional connection with the giver: a piece of certainty of experiencing more of what every child long for, and not only the child, for human solidarity, yes, let’s say it: for emotional security in all this hustle and bustle.
Creating this feeling of security in their children was the undisputed ideal of the family in earlier times. It was precisely for this reason that Christmas could become a classic family celebration in our latitudes. If this succeeded, and the decisive factor was the mood in the family, not the exclusive gift, then the annually recurring miracle of Christmas was able to genuinely enchant children’s hearts, even if the family lived in great material modesty. – If you don’t believe it, read Peter Rosegger’s autobiographical novel “Als ich noch der Waldbauernbub war” (When I was still the forest farmer’s boy).
The commercialisation of our life
is flattening Christmas
Today, the term “mindfulness” is widely used. Many testify that they lack it in interpersonal contact. It is what we used to call respect for the other person, especially the weaker one, also caring. This natural concern for one’s fellow human beings used to be stronger. I remember that on Christmas Eve, my parents, who were hardly very “socially minded” throughout the year, invited the reclusive widow on the top floor of our block of flats into our living room for the distribution of presents.
Something of this Christmas spirit of natural neighbourly participation must have even reached World War soldiers in the last century, of whom there are several testimonies that trench and position fighting ceased on the fronts in many places at Christmas. It is said that “enemy” soldiers on both sides of the trenches even gave each other gifts and communicated with each other, either in bumpy German or French or Russian. Under these conditions, sign language was also sufficient, for example the exchange of photos of one’s own children. This feeling that in the soldier in front of me I suddenly see the father, in the enemy the person who understands and shares my homesickness, is something we owe to a primal ability firmly given to the human species, no matter what we call it: concern, sense of community, sensitivity, compassion or empathy. Without care and then also solicitude, no child could survive; without it, humanity would have died out long ago, among other things from its own fomented aversions and wars.
The hope that people can (and should) meet in a spirit of brotherhood, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 after the end of the last great world war and recognised by its member states through their membership of the United Nations (the USA was one of the founding states), is as old as the human race itself. This hope for peace in the world becomes a promise in the Christmas event, as it appears in the pictorial words of the Christmas story. In these times, it is again being read and recited in various languages all over the world, for many the only consolation in threatening times.
The biblical promise of peace is not a gift
to mankind but a mandate to all of us
The most popular of these Christmas readings is the Christmas story according to Luke. It has “everything in it” that we “knew” from childhood: the crowded inn, the stable, the child bedded on straw. Then the shepherds; their fear when suddenly the sky lights up as bright as day and the choirs of angels appear, sounding the meaningful words: “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth to men of good will”, in the version of the Latin Vulgate: “Gloria in aeternis Deo et pax in terra hominibus bonae voluntatis”. Luther and Zwingli, who also wanted to translate the original Greek text completely from it into German, introduced variants: “... peace on earth among men of his good pleasure” (Luther) and “peace on earth among men in whom God is well pleased” (Zwingli). I was always struck in this passage by the grandeur of the image that emerged: the sudden radiance of the stars in the middle of the night, then the heavens opening up, the heavenly hosts with their jubilant song, and the power in the simplicity and simultaneous mysteriousness of their message. As a young person and a saucy critic of all that exists, I could not help noticing in this passage each time the great discrepancy between the promised peace in the world and the numerous wars in our reality that still haunt it. It also seemed to me that the Bible was promising us humans too much here.
With my meagre knowledge of Latin, however, the passage “pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” never quite left my mind. What did it mean, this “bonae voluntatis”, to people of good will? In view of the promise of peace in the “heavenly choirs”, as it became clear to me many years later, this addition could only have one meaning: It had to mean: willing to stand up for peace with all one’s strength. Seen in this way, the variants also confirm the basic idea: peace in the world is not simply a gift from God, a Christmas gift, so to speak, and that is that. People must do something for peace in the world: they must have the honest will to live in a way that is pleasing to God, i. e., peacefully among themselves, or in such a way that God can be pleased with them (by keeping the commandments, especially “Thou shalt not kill”, as well as the “new commandments”, as Christ lived them and immortalised them in the Sermon on the Mount). Thus, if and to the extent that they conduct themselves peacefully, they will also find more pleasing before God, before themselves and before their fellow human beings. They thus become more peaceful and thus more apt to come closer to the great goal of humanity.
In contrast, the biblical Christmas story becomes for me a highly modern trend-setting text. (Will it also soon be turned merely into a so-called “narrative”?) The promise of peace, however, at least if one reads it in the way suggested here, is already linked to a condition in the Christmas story. Do we belong to the people of “bonae voluntatis”, are we of “good will”, that is, willing to do good? Then we must also work for the good. In view of a world still torn apart by wars and in view of the birth of the “Prince of Peace”, it is not difficult to define this good more precisely. It is all that we contribute so that this world and the people who inhabit it can live in peace. The Christmas story confronts us all with the inescapable question: where is your contribution to more peace in the world?
Man was not created for war but for peace
With this “remembrance work” in the direction of one of the roots of our culture, the question then also finds an answer as to why our Christmas celebration is still and every year anew characterised by the brightly lit Christmas tree and why gifts are so indispensably part of it (not only expensive ones!). The Christmas story according to Matthew tells us about the three kings or wise men from the East and the gifts they bring to the newly born “King of Kings” to pay homage to him. Though bassly astonished at his poor camp, they lay them at his feet: Frankincense, gold and myrrh. In this way they testify to their recognition of the “new” ruler, whom they misunderstand as a worldly ruler. They too follow the star and thus the light that came into the world with the birth of Christ. So much for the now very worldly symbolism around Christmas.
The redemption it promises does not fall from heaven. Redemption is man’s work, as well as the evil in the world. Today, we see how far we are still at a distance from turning it into lasting good. In view of the world’s ongoing wars, redemption of humanity from “evil” is essentially redemption from the scourge of war. Redemption from evil, however, cannot be achieved by one state alone, quite contrary to what the warmongering forces trumpet to the world. In the individual-moral area of good and evil, the state or the great power, especially if it pursues a policy of world supremacy, is quite in the wrong place. According to Hans Köchler, a state is primarily responsible to its people, it is bound by the bonum commune, the common good (cf. Köchler, Hans “Common good or reason of state? Thoughts on peace in the global age”, Current Concerns No. 21 of 29 September 2021). Every state must take the common good of its peoples as its guideline. Dragging a nation into a war of aggression can never mean promoting the welfare of its people. Every war causes deaths and destruction, in the wars of our time even mainly civilians. Friedrich Schiller is right. In his immortal Ode to Joy, set to music in Beethoven’s 9th symphony, he puts friendship first. Mankind is and remains a social being, and friendship is the link between them. That also states, even great powers, should meet in friendship is something there would have been plenty of opportunities after the promise of Bethlehem 2021 years ago. It still exists. Problems like war, hunger or COVID can most likely only be solved “permanently” when we have understood that. It doesn’t have to take another 2000 years. •
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