Maybe Christmas at Rockefeller Center and Saks Fifth Avenue has been magical for decades and I just didn’t know about it. I happened upon the spot because I was in the city for another reason. The crowds were awesome. Everyone was friendly. There were families everywhere. There was the little girl being pushed in a stroller while wearing a Mrs. Claus outfit. There were new immigrants there to see all that America has to offer. There were the oohs and ahhs at the windows in the shops. Above all, there was the mighty and magnificent tree, lit up from the lowest to the highest branch, that seemed to embody everything we think of as Christmas.
If there was a “war on Christmas,” Christmas won. For sure. Here I was at the heart of the world’s most wonderful city, the financial and arguably cultural center of the planet Earth, a city whose wonders never stop revealing themselves, with a complexity and majesty that defies human comprehension, with seemingly no limit to the upward reach of buildings and the number of buildings seeking to be more awesome than the last, and yet everything in that space at Rockefeller Center let out a mighty roar about the birth of a child who became Jesus and changed the world.
As I stood there in awe, I wondered – as have so many – about the core of Christianity that caused it to achieve such cultural heights and eventually become such a ubiquitous and inescapable cultural presence in our lives.
The question took me back to my own religious explorations of my youth. I suppose that everyone has gone through them. Do I believe in God? If so, which among the millions of religious extant gets God right? If it’s Christianity, which version of it should I call my own? On what basis am I making this decision? Probably there are no final answers to these questions, else we would all quit asking them, much less continue to fight over what is right.
This much stood out to me about Christianity from my reading. Religions usually have a prophet. He or she is wise, perhaps with a unique channel to God himself. He sees what others do not see. He inspires in a way others do not. But which religion makes the claim that God himself became man? Not just a god-like man but God himself became a man? Christianity is unique in this respect, so far as I know. It claims what Christians call the Incarnation – God himself deigned to take on human form, not as a degradation of the office, so to speak, but as a means of signaling the nobility of the flesh and enable the human person to obtain eternal life.
All of which is to say that the idea of the Incarnation blesses this world as potentially holy. If you believe that, you can come to believe in things like progress, material abundance, the good life, human rights, and human flourishing as a goal. Not for Christianity was the Manichean split between the good world of the spirit and the disgusting and evil world of the flesh. If God becomes human, in every way, humanity itself is lifted up.
The old medieval poets spoke of the “admirabile commercium” — the admirable exchange between heaven and earth. Time and eternity made a mutually beneficial trade. Eternity entered time with the birth of Jesus. Time gave back through suffering and death in order that eternity could be the reward for all of us, through which man can be rejoined to God. Commercium is the Latin root of commerce – the exchange of gifts in which everyone comes out better off than before.
You worry about the commercialization of Christmas? Christmas began in commerce – a mysterious and transcendent exchange in which eternity gave to time the greatest gift. It was the pearl of great price that is worth giving up all in order to obtain, in exchange for which time gave back in the form of salvation from death itself. This is also why so many of Jesus’ parables were about commerce: the pearl, the treasure in the field, the houses built on sand and stone, the investing of talents, the vineyard with workers, the prodigal son, and even the story of the merchant with excellent local credit who saved the poor man who had been beaten and robbed.
That we still celebrate with vast abundance, lights, meals, exchanges, even something approaching material decadence, is wholly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas. Just as the prophets from the East brought the new king the most elaborate possible gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so too do we seek for our loved ones the best we have to offer. This is why there are wrapped presents under trees; it is our homage to the gift that heaven gave humanity in the form of the Incarnation.
There is another distinct aspect of Christianity. It was widely assumed that Jesus came from Royal Birth to become the King of Israel. Hosanna filio David, Rex Israel. That is what the masses sang as Jesus rode into Jerusalem from the desert. But notice what is sung on Christmas Day: Not Rex Israel but Rex Caelestis. He came not as a king of earth but a king of heaven. He did not wield a sword of power but the gentle persuasive power of compelling stories and an invitation to conversion.
Here is another aspect of commercium: it is a choice. A voluntary choice, not compelled by power but adopted out of love. My kingdom is not of this world, he said. God sought no proxy in the state but a man who loved and healed. What a transformation from the culture and meaning of old-world religions.
But, you say, it took three centuries before Christianity itself fully recognized the Incarnation and centuries more before it came to be represented in art and music. True enough. Perhaps the realization was too difficult. It was too revolutionary to be comprehended in real time. That’s fine. Whatever the historiographic unfolding, the point is that it finally came.
Christianity eventually came to celebrate the marvelous exchange of time and eternity and to exalt individual choice over the power of the sword. That spirit survives and thrives more than ever today, especially in a “capitalist” commercial culture in which gift giving, material abundance, and beauty can be on display in all their glory in celebration of the glory of the ultimate gift of God to man.