To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
–W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being” (1942)
Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. This is a quantifiable fact, and it holds true for religious and non-religious people alike. The month of December accounts for 30% of all charitable giving in the United States. We think more of other people, spend more time with our families, and express good wishes more during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year. And Christmas has been established, in rigorous peer-reviewed studies, to be the happiest day of the year.
These aspects of Christmas are at the heart of W.H.Auden’s majestic Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being” (1942). Written in the dark time of World War II, this 1500 line poem tells the Christmas story through a series of dramatic monologues by its main figures—Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, Herod, and so on. The central theme of the story, unsurprisingly if you know anything about Auden, is love—by which he means an enduring and overwhelming concern with the happiness of other people. This, for Auden, is the meaning of Christmas.
When the oratorio is over, Auden concludes with perhaps the saddest Christmas reflection I have ever read. The narrator of the story breaks in to tell us that it is all over and it is time to go back to our regularly scheduled lives. After the powerful oratorio that we have just seen or read, these lines strike us as an unimaginable tragedy:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
For all of its hyper-commercialized, consumerist kitschiness, the holiday season gives us a glimpse of true religion. It encourages us to think of each other a little more often and treat each other a little bit better than we do at other times of the year. With rare spiritual sensitivity, Auden describes what most of us see as the commercially induced euphoria of the holiday season–and our hopelessly inadequate attempts to love people and give them stuff–as a the briefest of glimpses into the Kingdom of God.
The great tragedy is not that we live the vision badly at Christmas time. Given the scope and power of the vision, living it (however badly) is no mean task. We benefit spiritually by thinking about other people a little bit more–and ourselves a little bit less–even when it is wrapped up in guilt, anxiety, high expectations, and complete exhaustion. It is better to live in a flawed Zion than to create a perfect Babylon.
The real tragedy is that we can’t seem to sustain this level of other-centerdness without the props. We can’t make the transition from a seasonal affectation to a genuine commitment. The Christmas season summons what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “better angels of our nature.” But when the season is over, our better angels end up in the same box as the Christmas ornaments and the Johnny Mathis CDs.
But Auden cautions us not to discount the miracle entirely. If we are doing it right, the Christmas season gives us a fleeting glimpse of a world that works according to a different set of principles than the one we live in most other times. This is “the actual Vision.” We can see it at other times during the year, too, but it is never easy to recognize. Any vision that we humans get of the Kingdom of God is going to be incomplete, inadequate, and in the company of stuff that it’s easy to be cynical about.
These sideways glances at the Kingdom are just enough to show us the possibility of something radically different than the world we know. They are moments of grace for disobedient and unprofitable servants begging to remain a short time more at the feet of our Master. And our lives will change forever on the day that we see and refuse to forget.