One would be hard-pressed to invent a scene more beautiful than that of the Christmas nativity. The newborn child, his young mother and her betrothed, the shepherds, the wise men, the ox and the donkey, all with the Star of Bethlehem beaming gaily — this, no doubt, is the stuff of poetry. But poetry aside, the nativity scene represents a story of hardships and terrible difficulties. Mary must bear the shame and unbridled gossip that accompany premarital pregnancy; Joseph must decide either to part with Mary or to raise a child who is not his own. Even the wise men, to quote a poem by T. S. Eliot, have “a hard time” of it, traveling through “the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly.”
But of course the utmost hardship in the story is that of the little baby lying in the manger. In the form of this baby, God himself — according to Christian teaching — has stepped down from heaven, put on flesh, adopted the lowly nature and the vulnerabilities of the humans he created. The infinite and almighty has assumed finitude and dependence. Throughout the Christmas narrative, we find as a recurring motif the idea that adversity must be met with self-sacrifice: Mary’s sacrifice for her child, Joseph’s sacrifice for Mary and her child, and above all Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.
More than nine out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, including many who do not profess the Christian religion. The Christmas narrative has exerted an immeasurable force on our societal conscience and consciousness. And yet we have achieved the remarkable feat of coupling that narrative with another, quite different narrative: that of the commercial.
The commercial tells us that a successful and fulfilling Christmas is one in which we receive the newest iPod, the latest gaming system, the highest-definition television screen and (to make it a December to remember) a brand-new Lexus. The meaning of Christmas is twofold: Celebrate the birth of Christ, and get a lot of sweet new stuff — and not necessarily in that order. On the same day we pay homage to self-sacrifice and self-indulgence, difficulty and ease, suffering and convenience. We will bow to the manger, but only on the condition that some gold, frankincense and myrrh be tossed in there with the child.
This is an exaggeration, of course. Most Americans would survive a Christmas in which they failed to receive the most expensive new gadget, and many, it is true, deem themselves more blessed in giving than in receiving. Nevertheless, the distinctly American ability to pair the spirit of the nativity scene with the spirit of the commercial points to a tension lying deep within our national heritage and identity.
Our dominant political philosophy has told us that we have an inalienable right to pursue happiness; our dominant religion has told us to carry a cross. Our prevailing economic system is premised on self-interest; our most prevalent religion is premised on the commandment to serve the interests of others. The characteristically American attitude towards money says more is better; the characteristically Christian attitude towards money says, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, that “to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.”
But somehow we manage, during the Christmas season, to hold together these two contraries — what we might call the “will to ease” and “receptivity to hardship.” Less than a month after Christmas Day, however — on Jan. 22, to be precise — the tension erupts into bitter discord. On this day, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, hundreds of thousands of protestors meet in Washington to march on the Supreme Court in protest of what is perhaps the gravest manifestation of our nation’s will to ease. Others celebrate the occasion in commemoration of what they perceive to be a liberation from unfair hardship.
Arguments over abortion continue to rage, as they must. But perhaps we would do well, on occasion, to set aside dialectical jousts and consider both sides with respect to their aesthetic appeal.
Which is more beautiful, more noble, more admirable: the vociferous American woman demanding the right to preserve her body from the intrusion of a baby, or the young Jewish girl in the Christmas story who sacrifices her plans and her reputation in a gesture of openness to the gift of new life? What is more worthwhile: the life that seeks convenience, or the life that accepts the call to sacrifice? Sincere contemplation of the nativity scene yields an unambiguous answer.
Bryce Taylor is a Junior in Silliman College, Yale University.