PARIS — If our society is so largely secularized today, why bother with Christmas? By now Christmas has become, for most, a vast commercial enterprise, exploiting symbols wrenched from their setting, gutted and sentimentalized, turned to profit and entertainment. One might reasonably think it better to go back to the pure paganism of celebrating the winter solstice with bonfires than this blasphemous parody of the Christian feast.
And yet . . . the Christmas celebrations of the present pay dumb but significant tribute to the origins of our civilization. Secular though the West may be, the best, and sometimes the worst, in its values, expectations, view of history and life and behavior, derive from the religion of its origins. The ideas of progressive and redemptive development in individual lives, and in history as well, of individual destiny and individual responsibility, are derived from Christianity and Judaism. These differ fundamentally from the ideas of the major Asian religions, that existence is a burden to be submitted to, or to be escaped.
The essential theological meaning of Christmas is that God became man. This, in religious history, is a radical notion. The Greek gods mingled familiarly with men and women, and themselves experienced passion and weakness, but they remained immortal. The God of the Old Testament was not only immortal but omnipotent, while majestically intervening in the affairs of the unruly humans he had created. In Christianity, God becomes fully a human being, subjected to the violence, suffering, injustice and mortality of human life. This is not something gods were supposed to do.
Christmas celebrates this mortality of God, the central event in the history of Western civilization--since even if this event did not really occur, if Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds and kings, Mary and Joseph and Jesus, were all invention, nothing, nonetheless, was ever the same again in Western civilization.
But what then is implied when a large majority no longer accept religion or no longer practice it? Religion offers reason to deal with the world with a certain reserve, since the existence of an immortality makes it possible to hold historical events as less than ultimately serious. If a just God exists, things will be sorted out beyond historical time. This idea is both consoling for the poor, the sick and halt, the persecuted and intimidating for the powerful and successful. For them there are always those troubling texts about the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon, the camel that must go through the needle's eye, the rich man and Lazarus.
Secular man, though, has no reason to think that justice is going to be sorted out after the curtain of time falls. What is he to do? What significance can Christmas have to him? It is an aspect of the fundamental ethical question posed a non-religious society: Why live by any standard other than pure self-interest and self-aggrandizement, if life is isolated, without larger significance, extinguished at the end?
Answers exist, of course. Some are empirical (altruism pays, cooperation provides its own justifications); others involve a form of stoicism, an existential ethic, that one behaves well because that is what one chooses to do.
But then, a religious man or woman today makes much the same choice. In the contemporary world, Pascal's wager that God exists demands a bigger stake than perhaps ever before. One simply has to argue that however absurd the idea may be of an omnipotent God, it is less absurd than the alternatives. It is, to make the teleological argument, a less absurd idea than to think that the physical universe as we know it--in its infinity of space and multiplication of solar systems, born in unthinkable explosion and vanishing into anti-matter, and the intimacy and intensity of botanical and geological symmetries, not to speak of self-conscious man himself--could be the product of hazard. Or so this writer says.
In either case, the winter feast, pagan or Christian, offers justification to we stoics, existential or Christian, that life waxes as well as wanes, like the winter light, and that there are possibilities of redemption, of a life or the collectivity of lives, in how we conduct ourselves.