Christmas is spring for the mind; it is all promise. In June our joys will burn brightly; the middle of the year will soon tilt to the other side. Beginnings are always more beautiful. Anyone who measures these long shadows now will know they will lengthen no further. At the point of Christmas the hesitant sun climbs a little higher every day; it is the great dawn, symbolized by a blaze of candles. Winter finds us incredulous. Just as a pilot looks into the distance and entrusts himself to broader rolls of the sea, we look above and know that we are saved from the night. All the songs of Christmas carry us forward, like a morning sound. Put it in any way you like, it is birth that is to be celebrated now. Not the hunter of April. For old knowledge, a young god.
I’ve sometimes laughed at those who say that religions were a long deception. I see them as no more mistaken than the movements we will soon notice, the green shoots, the buds and flowers. Prayer is as true as sap. But one has to be a peasant to feel this religion of the sun and seasons fully. City dwellers, who are only usurers and borrowers, count by payment dates and weeks. There was an occasion when Rome realised that it was about to celebrate Easter at harvest time. Julius Caesar is credited with making urban feast days submit to the rural religion. A warrior submits the flow of men to the flow of rivers; he works with the seasons. But, victory or not, it’s a gain for human beings if they regulate their thoughts according to the real pace of the world, doubting and hoping, commemorating and forgetting according to the season. Feast days mark this; and the relaxation on each feast-day is a preparation for exact and strong thoughts.
Why the Child-God in a stable, between an ox and an ass? I was explaining it; I was explaining it without fully realising it, when I recognised in Christmas the immemorial peasant religion, which forces our thoughts to fit our labours. The religion of the cow is very old. And why not also a religion of the hawk, the serpent, the dog, the wolf? The Egyptians drew man with the head of a wolf. These signs from the wild are like forgotten letters. But the most recent image sheds light on the others; the child was needed. This theology without words says a lot more than the Bible.
What is this more? A child. Not the elephant and the ox. Not Caesar, the bald god. Enough commemoration and regrets. As our labours stretch out before us, on a new earth, so the child has the mission of beginning everything anew; his grace says so. So, by virtue of Christmas, it is no longer old witches who come to paint wrinkles on a young face. On the contrary, old men and women, the magi and all the majesties bring a solemn prayer to the Child-God: “Not our will, but thine, be done.” This has a miraculous sense and resounds through the sky and into hell. It is to entrust oneself again to naked nature, to entrust oneself once more, like a peasant to the new spring. It is to remake the ancient alliance between man and the world. It is to adore hope itself. And it is also to adore the weakest being, one who has need of everything, of the ox, the ass, Hercules, Caesar. And finally it is an image of the mind or spirit, which, in fact, can do nothing; of the mind or spirit, which must be served, but will never be old enough to offer any reward. All these truths together, and plenty of others. How are they found? No doubt by union and communication with nature, which the people have always retained, and which legends describe. The arts are like a direct and universal language, in which the human form preserves and rediscovers itself. And the images of art are the real gods of the earth. For, according to an order that can be found everywhere, human beings adore the images that they first made, and the legends that they first told. Human beings have only meditated on their own poems; and all thought was first of all an enigma to be worked out. The feast of Christmas is also one of our enigmas, and perhaps the most beautiful. And, understand it as you can, the manger remains, with the ox and the ass, and the mother, and the child. Our thought can exercise itself on these unchanging features; but, away from these poignant models, it runs wild.
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram