Guest Post by Prof. John Haldane: Theology in a Christmas Card

By his very kind permission, my friend Professor John Haldane of the University of St. Andrews and Consultor to the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture, has allowed me to reproduce the following as a guest post on the blog. It originally appeared in the December 24th issue of “The Catholic Herald”, the largest Catholic newspaper in Britain. As New Year’s Eve arrives and we have the rapid approach of Epiphany, as well as the taking down all of those Christmas cards we may have on display, I thought this was a good piece for us to reflect upon.

My best to all of you for a blessed and healthy New Year.

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Theology in a Christmas card

The economic downturn may have had an impact on the number of Christmas cards sent this year, though it may simply have encouraged people to buy cheaper products. A more likely, and ongoing threat to the greetings card industry is the shift from paper and pen, to screen and keyboard. Written letters have all but become a thing of the past, like many of the domestic details of Victorian and Edwardian novels; and where stationary has gone, can the tradition of choosing, writing and posting cards be far behind?

Whatever about the general trend, however, it is clear that Christmas cards carrying genuine Christian greetings are now in a diminishing minority. Yet those who take trouble in choosing between different designs often favour ones showing medieval and renaissance religious paintings. This is easy enough to explain in terms of taste. Amidst increasingly bland, bawdy or twee contemporary styles, cards reproducing fine art paintings typically combine intense colour, radiant illumination, exquisite detailing and graceful composition.

Beyond good taste, however, there is also an element of nostalgia, remembering or imagining Christmases past with carols and cribs, with open fires gathered round or glimpsed through windows filled with real trees; and families drawn together for a festival without compare in any other part of the year.

Again, it is easy to sympathise with the wish to escape the vulgarity and commercialism of contemporary culture, yet aesthetics and nostalgia do not a living religion make. Though hallowed and made familiar by time and art, the religious meaning of Christmas is something that the ancient world found ridiculous or scandalous, and which today is near to being forgotten even among educated people.

When St Paul visited Athens he was invited by the philosophers to deliver his teaching about what the Athenians took to be another regional deity; but when his talk of ‘anastasis’ turned out not to refer to a goddess (‘Anastasia’), but to the resurrection of Jesus he was laughed out of town. Similarly, no Greek could take seriously the idea that the divine cause of the cosmos, the source of existence and order, entered into the world as a human being.

Of course they were familiar with the idea that deities might take on human form; but the deities in question were not God in the sense of being the very foundation of all that is and ever can be. Rather they were super-beings and the forms they adopted were those of full-grown adults. According to the Christian Gospel, however, the very cause of existence entered fully and unconditionally into humanity, beginning as a tiny embryo, moving amidst the wet warmth of a human womb, growing there and passing out into the dark and cold of the world.

The Greeks had a name for the cause and explanation of the world. It was a philosophical term for a philosophical idea: Logos – the governing principle of the cosmos, otherwise known as Nous or ‘Mind’. Deriving from this they also used the term Logos to refer to an explanation or ultimate account of the nature of reality. We can get some idea of this if we recall today’s search by physicists and cosmologists for a ‘theory of everything’. The difference, though, is that the contemporary interest is not really in everything, just in everything physical; whereas the Greeks and Romans were truly searching for an explanation of the totality: of what is seen and unseen, material and spiritual, passing and eternal.

It is with this centuries old search in mind that we should read slowly and repeatedly the prologue of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The same [Logos] was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”.

This is the central teaching of Christianity: that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. John writes of this for a highly educated Greek-speaking readership putting the point in abstract terms. But Luke and Matthew follow through the implications of the incarnation taking it from the abstract to the concrete, from talk of entering the world to that of being born in Bethlehem. The life that is the light of men first illuminates a small group in a manger on a hill in Palestine.

This is the sort of thing of which the philosophers and the learned could make nothing. Worse than unintelligible it was a kind of intellectual offence, as if today someone were to suggest that the fundamental structure of the universe had come to manifest itself in a baby in a village in Albania. Nothing serious could be made of this piece of superstitious nonsense.

And yet it this rather than the abstract formula of John that set in motion the imagination of the great medieval and renaissance artists whose nativity scenes continue to be chosen for the most exquisite cards. That said, however, some of the finest works, manage to combine simple manger narrative wit the high theology of incarnation.

One such is Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity painted in 1500 and on view in the National Gallery in London. At its heart are the figures of Mary Jesus and Joseph: mother adoring and reverential before her saviour son, Joseph asleep worn out from the travels and confusion of the preceding period. To either side are angels and shepherds looking in on a scene both natural and extraordinary. But then in the foreground are more angels, embracing human figures representing the virtuous who have endured the temptation and terrors of the world. And above it all is a circle of twelve more angels suspended like synchronised swimmers but now ready to dance back to heaven assured that the saviour has been safely delivered on earth.

There is much mystical symbolism in this but we do not need to decode its details to recognise that Botticelli has grasped the essential truth that in the incarnation humanity and divinity were united. Or to put the point less abstractly, in Bethlehem when God became man he became a particular individual of a given race and nation, of a particular appearance and manner, subject to the same physical, social, economic, and cultural forces as anyone else in that time and place.

This is the message of the Gospels, and it provided one of the most central and enduring themes of religious art, repeated today in cards sent to and fro across the world. There is much talk, rightly, of the lack of religious observance and of the shunning of religious themes in public institutions. But with a good quality reproduction of a fine nativity scene one has something like an illuminated page from a medieval work of devotion; and this like the latter can provide an focus for prayer and reflection on the mystery and joy of the incarnation. And when the times comes to take down the tree and cards it would be worth buying an inexpensive frame to keep one such card for periodic viewing throughout the year – since Jesus isn’t just for Christmas.

Professor John Haldane, FRSE,
Professor of Philosophy, and
Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs
Department of Moral Philosophy,
University of St Andrews

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