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Reflections on the Meaning of Christmas by Lewis, Bonhoeffer and Chesterton: a Spiritual Gift Reflections on the Meaning of Christmas by Lewis, Bonhoeffer and Chesterton: a Spiritual Gift
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-12-21 09:31:27
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C.S. Lewis (1898 - 1963), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 - 1945) and G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) are three of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. They were all big fans of Christmas and all had something to say relevant to the joyous season. In this season of Advent, or the four weeks when we wait and prepare for Christmas, I’d like to share a few nuggets of their reflections on Christmas. It may help us to better prepare by remembering the reason for the season.

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 C.S. Lewis                 Dietrich Bonhoeffer                G.K. Chesterton

In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when Narnia was under the curse of the evil white witch, the kingdom was described as the land where it was “always winter, but never Christmas.”  It appears that C.S. Lewis was not very pleased with the way many who bear Christ’s name celebrate Christ’s birth. This is what he had to say about such a strange phenomenon:

Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn't go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business too have a 'view' on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone's business.

I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds”:

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to 'keep' it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out -- physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself -- gaudy and useless gadgets, 'novelties' because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

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We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance. For ( From “What Christmas Means to Me” )

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On the other hand, one might expect that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, particularly later in his life, had little to rejoice about on Christmas. He was living under the authority of one of the most evil, unjust, racist regimes since the beginning of time. How was any German citizen to interpret the “good tidings of great joy” which had supposedly arrived with the birth of Christ? Yet, Bonhoeffer saw Christmas in the opposite light: not a confusing contradiction in a word of evil but encouragement for those living under oppression. He wrote:

For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged. (From God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. )

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And finally, here is what Christmas meant for Chesterton by way of a poem:

The House of Christmas
by G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honor and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the Yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

I trust that those Christmas reflection will motivate their readers to think a bit more deeply about the true meaning of Christmas which literally means “the birth of Christ.” The question arises: Do we really wish to reduce it to the above described materialistic racket of which C.S. Lewis speaks? Be that as it may, I wish all a

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