I’ve never paid much heed to the religious right’s zeal for ‘keeping Christ in Christmas.’ The holiday’s very date derives from the Early Christians’ more or less arbitrary decision to celebrate the birth of Jesus concurrently with the festival of the Unconquered Sun. Perhaps this doesn’t diminish the theological implications of the Nativity; it does, however, betray a certain amount of cultural contingency from the get-go.
But if I may, I would like to take a moment to lionize the self-sacrifical impulse of which I feel orthodox Christology is a prominent manifestation. I’ve a bit of a reputation for bemoaning the typical college student’s disavowal of piss and vinegar as the inimitable pillars of daily existence. Notwithstanding such cynicism, it is worthwhile to consider the Form of Loyalty as it is reflected in the words and actions contained within the volumes of History and Literature.
The ‘veracity’ of these anecdotes is moot. They give rise to the noblest aspirations of humanity, and are therefore true enough for our purposes. Gaius Mucius, who, when the tyrant Porsena ordered him to divulge the secrets of an assassination plot lest he be burned alive, thrust his hand into the kindling and exhorted his audience to ‘See how cheap men hold their lives when they think only of honour.’ Martin Luther, who, having been asked to recant at the Diet of Worms, addressed the papal nuncio thus: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. Amen.’
The men who fell under Pickett and Longstreet at Gettysburg, the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and Cato the Younger after the Battle of Pharsalus. Atticus Finch in front of a courthouse door. The Marylanders on Jamaica Heights, whose refusal to join the Continental Army’s retreat from Brooklyn prompted General Washington to remark upon the ‘Quality of men he must this day lose.’ Helen Burns in Brocklehurst cemetery and an epitaph that reads, ‘Resurgam.’
Bob Cratchit, who, not dismayed by indigence or illness, kept alive the good old humour and the good old cheer of his island race, lest some want of spirit afflict his family. Monseigneur Bienvenu, who forfeited his candleware to the ravenous thief of his cutlery, asking if ‘It was ever his in the first place.’ Samwise Gamgee, who could not carry his friend’s burden and so carried his friend instead.
We’ve all become so epistemologically conceited. We’ve convinced ourselves that ‘sophisticated’ readers will never find satisfaction in anything other than an antihero, an individual as flawed and concupiscent as themselves. The Sermon on the Mount and Aeneas’ speech on the shores of Carthage are for the crude and illiterate. Nietzsche is for the man of learning and science.
In so doing we cede what remained the last vestige of our divinity: that capacity to subsume our own desires, our own needs, and our own well-being under those of another person. This is the cornerstone of all relationships, Platonic and romantic. This is the cornerstone of civil society. Above all else, strive to keep that truly Christian spark alive this holiday season.
I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Play a straight bat, drink your whisky neat, and keep buggering on.