The Radicalism and Hope of Christmas

Michael Gerson writes:

People who have recently lost a parent — or a spouse, or a friend, or (God forbid) a child — are easily ambushed by sorrow at this time of year. Psychologists have a term for it: “holiday effects.” A smell, a taste, a quality of light can cause grief to come in little chilly blasts. Traditions and family celebrations can be cruel reminders of absence.

For me, the proper description is probably “poignancy.” My best Christmas memories are now tinged by loss — yellowed and aged at the edges. The image in my mind, probably from about age 7 or 8 — of snow outside the front window, of a green couch, of a tree with tinsel, of invincible protection and warmth — is so long ago and far away. There are now no Mom and Dad to come down the stairs to. The exile is permanent.

But Christmas is not about mere nostalgia and not without its comforts. The British author J.R.R. Tolkien — something of an expert on such things — argued that every great fairy story has a “turn” in which despair is suddenly and miraculously reversed and the heart’s desire is fulfilled. “It denies (in the face of much evidence if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” For Tolkien, this moment “rends . . . the very web of story” and allows us to see something real about the universe itself.

For Christians, the nativity story is the “turn” of human events. In a world that would not yield a bed to a pregnant woman, the miraculous reversal arrives in a manner no one expected. All involved are ambushed by hope.

EJ Dionne writes:

You don’t have to be Jewish to experience the liberating message of the Exodus story. And you don’t have to be a Christian to feel elation over the idea that a fallen world can be redeemed. The poor, the broken-hearted, the captives and the prisoners do not have to be left to their fate and their suffering. Every year at this time, we are called to renew our hope that cold indifference and smug complacency can be overcome by a humble and gentle love powerful enough to inspire wise men, shepherds and even angels.