"Editor's Note: During the Holiday Season, the Traveler is inviting students to share stories about their seasonal or religious observances. This is a personal letter, from a student, explaining the history and significance of Christmas as celebrated by many in the student body. If you would like to submit a contribution about a holiday, its history, or how it is meaningful to you, please write firstname.lastname@example.org."
Could Hamlet ever meet Shakespeare? It’s an unlikely Christmas question, and I am an unlikely student to pose it. Christmas messages come from preachers and spiritual leaders; I am an aspiring lawyer. It’s like opposites day here at the Traveler.
Strange as it seems, the question approaches the core of a Christian holiday that emphasizes a personal, knowable God. Not knowable in a Zen-like spiritual sense, where we feel deity as if it was a musical vibration or a gust of wind. Not intellectually knowable as an ultimate value or cosmic force. Hellenistic religions had plenty of that to offer 2,000 years ago, but no one in Rome ever spoke to Zeus or met Aphrodite. Christianity celebrates Christmas because it was the collision of eternal God and temporal man.
Veni veni, Emmanuel, captivum solve Israel
“O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” we sing passively. To western Christians, every element of the story is rooted in a foreign language and an unknown culture. But to the Jewish people of the first century, living under Roman captivity, the inexorable idea of Emmanuel—God with us—was real. The New Testament first introduces us to Mary and Joseph after the assassination of Julius Caeser. His son Octavian battled his way to the throne, assuming the name Augustus Caeser, son of the divine Julius, thus “son of god.” Caeser would never relinquish power to another deity, he declared himself pontifex maximus—chief priest. But Augustus was not God with us.
Qui gemit in exsilio
“Who mourns in lowly exile here.” The iconic carol mimics the most recognizable passage of Christmas, a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah, part of the Jewish Tanakh, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Seven centuries before Christ, prior to the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’s day, the Jewish people were held in lowly Babylonian exile. Israel knew that Yahweh God had revealed himself through Moses and the prophets, that he was with them through the temple and priests, but their faith was in the promise of deliverance. God would be with them, among them, a part of them. He would appear.
Sixty years after the first Christmas day, a New Testament writer reflected on the change that Christmas brought. It was the fulcrum of human history, when Bethlehem tipped the scale of time into anno domini, and the Father spoke clearly to his people. The book of Hebrews opens, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Now, seeing the nature of God imprinted upon man, we return to Shakespeare. In his memoirs, an agnostic C.S. Lewis lampooned the absurdity of God entering the world of Man as though it were Shakespeare meeting one of his characters. But then he realized something. If that acquaintance, in some sense, ever should happen, it certainly wouldn’t be any of Hamlet’s doing. The author must take the initiative.
Privatus Dei Filio
“Until the Son of God appears.” I wonder if we can see Christmas as the author writing himself into his own story. For the agnostic hypothetical, Shakespeare would have to make himself incarnate in the world of Hamlet. He would weave his name, his person, an imprint of his likeness into the tapestry of his story. He would reveal his character at the time he chose in the way befitting to his story. Because, ultimately, it is indeed his tale to tell.
What does that mean for us? If it were true that the Yahweh of Moses, preached in the Torah and revered in the Quran; the author not only of a dramatic play, but of galaxies and constellation; the source of natural law and moral order; the one who spoke through Ezekiel and Isaiah; the Lord of apostles John and Paul; what if he wrote himself into our story through a blue-collar family one summer night in Judea. Then humanity would come face-to-face with its redeemer.
Can that be confined to the annual holiday season? Certainly the rest of the narrative is not. If the author of life is our standard of beauty, then every sunrise and art masterpiece is a reflection of his character. If Christ was the exact imprint of his nature, every man and women, friend and foe, has been fashioned imago dei in his likeness. If we can find joy with a short life in an imperfect world, it is only a glimpse of pure satisfaction in a perfect Messiah.
We could never see the whole picture until it was delivered to us, so that redemption became a part of our story. God is not the deceptive producer of The Truman Show, he is the clarifying Savior who set about renewing the world. When Pontius Pilot stood face-to-face with Jesus Christ, with Immanuel, he could finally ask him why the whole Christmas stunt was necessary. Why he was now a part of our story. Christ answered that he came, “to testify to the truth.” What is that truth? He had already told the Pharisees: “that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.” That life only comes when God is with us. It only comes with Immanuel. Merry Christmas.
Will Simpson is a senior majoring in economics and finance.