Jesus: The Warmth that Saves
In the southern hemisphere we may lose a bit of the “feeling” of Christmas, which falls in the middle of the exuberance of year-end holidays.
Long summer days and warm nights invite us to seek out the company of friends over a braai, drinks by the pool, hiking, holidays at the beach, and so on.
In this time of joy and fun, Christmas runs the danger of becoming just another activity in an already packed season. We lose the deep sense of wonder and spiritual restoration that the birth of Jesus brings.
What a contrast this is from the European or North American experience. Days are short and cold. People retreat indoors, drawn by the warmth of the hearth. Outside, the earth is silent, the ground is either frozen or transformed into a cold, wet, muddy slush. The weather is inclement.
Before electric lights and indoor heating, the weeks and days leading up to Christmas must have been a dreary time of bone-aching cold and seemingly endless darkness — a time of endurance and gritting of teeth.
It is into this starkness that Christ is born. The cry of the newborn babe pierces the stillness of the dark night, lifting cold hearts and bodies. It is a cry that brings life and joy to the dead earth. It is the cry that holds the promise of springtime, the lengthening of days and new life.
The arrival of the Christ-child draws out those who have barricaded themselves in their houses, trying to preserve what little warmth can be derived from within. The gathering of the people around the crib curbs the coldness of solitude.
An image that really depicts the birth of Christ for me in such a cold place is the winter solstice at Newgrange in Ireland.
Three years ago, I wrote about my visit to this place, which is believed to be an ancient burial mound that predates the Celts, the Romans, and Christianity.
What fascinated me most about Newgrange is that the people of this ancient culture knew the pattern of the seasons and the sun so well that they built a long passage into the burial mound.
All year round, the chamber lies in darkness — except for a few days around the winter solstice. The dawn sun strikes the entrance of the tunnel at such an angle that it lights up the interior of the chamber inside the mound for a few short minutes.
We don’t know the significance of this event for the ancient peoples of Ireland, but think that was part of a ritual associated with the cycle of life.
Every year, crowds of people come to watch this phenomenon. It has become so popular that the tourism centre at Newgrange runs a lottery system to determine who will be fortunate enough to be inside the chamber as the light comes pouring in.
The sun is cold (and it might not even appear at all if the day is cloudy or rainy). But it draws the crowds, simply because of the promise it holds: that the light might break through the dark. It is the promise that bone-chilling winter days will come to an end. It is the promise that spring will come again.
It is little wonder that the Western Christian tradition draws from the pagan festivals around the winter solstice.
The Christ-child becomes the “light that shines in the darkness,” a Child whose life “was the light of all mankind”.
The light of the winter solstice will fade and the chamber will become dark again, but “darkness has not overcome” the light that the Baby Jesus brings into the world (cf Jn 1:4-5).
Nothing grows in the frozen, wintry earth, and anything that survives does so only with great endurance. But in Christ is the promise not only of springtime but also of eternal life
The Nativity story makes so much sense in this wintry context. It is much harder for us in the global south to picture, externally at least.
But internally, how many hearts have become like frozen landscapes? Perhaps there is not much difference between a European winter and our own hearts.
The cares of this life — with its burdens, disappointment, sorrow, suffering, betrayals, and loss — often leave us incapable of cultivating any warmth in our hearts. Instead, we lock ourselves away in the cold solitude of our bricked-up hearts that jealously guard what little warmth of human kindness remains.
Or perhaps fear, anxiety and distrust have stolen our joy? Without a deep interior joy, Christmas becomes just a ritual. The magic of those seemingly perfect childhood Christmasses is but a distant memory.
Can the Baby Jesus, that eternally new light, light up the chamber of hearts that know only darkness?
Our hearts need that eruption of joy that startles us out of our mind-numbing routines and empty rituals and invite us once again to contemplate the God-Man, the child who came among as us a “Son of Man” (cf Mt 18:11) to endure our suffering and take on our condition, so that we might find the peace, joy, hope, and love of the eternal springtime.
In his latest apostolic letter, Pope Francis reflects on the Nativity scene:
“Why does the Christmas crèche arouse such wonder and move us so deeply? First, because it shows God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. The gift of life, in all its mystery, becomes all the more wondrous as we realise that the Son of Mary is the source and sustenance of all life.
“In Jesus, the Father has given us a brother who comes to seek us out whenever we are confused or lost, a loyal friend ever at our side. He gave us his Son who forgives us and frees us from our sins.”
The eternal springtime we all seek is the unconditional, limitless love of God the Father, who sent us Jesus to share in our human condition and, through his death and resurrection, he redeemed and freed us from our sin.
The Christ-child, the Babe of Bethlehem invites us to give him our imperfect love in return. We can only do this when we acknowledge the coldness of our interior poverty, allowing our incomplete love to be overshadowed by eternal love.