What Child is This?

Once again we come to that season of wonder. Yes, it has been hijacked and co-opted by the market like everything else, but at least most thoughtful people realize that. It’s interesting that a common complaint and critique running as a theme through essays, articles, movies, and television stories involving Christmas (each year) is the need to go back to its original meaning and the realization that what we celebrate is not about materialism and “getting” stuff. Most people get that underneath all the flashing lights and materialism there is a story that remains. No serious person believes that Christmas is about buying stuff and materialism. Such is the power of the original event.

What can one say about the underlying event? A birth. Such a small thing. People are born every second. But this birth is different. Every time we write the date, 2010, we recognize an event that somehow caused time to be reconfigured. Most of us woke up this morning in a world we didn’t have too much to do with as far as producing. We live in a culture and a civilization built by others and one that would make no sense whatsoever without taking into consideration the birth we will celebrate on the 25th.

If we even did a cursory, surface, inventory of how that birth impacted our world, we might be surprised. Here is just a short list:

Literacy: After the fall of Rome it was Christian missionaries, intent on sharing their faith, which led to the translating of the Bible into other languages. Even more striking is the fact that some people groups at that time didn’t have writing at all. In some cases alphabets had to be created from the ground up. Wherever the Christian narrative has taken hold, reading and writing follow, which always raises the quality of life for any culture (to say the least).

The Arts: It was the attempt of the early church to capture, in physical images, the person of Christ and the spiritual realm that led to the proliferation of art in churches and eventually in public. When we think of Renaissance artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo, it was the Christian narrative that inspired their work and it was their intent to capture that narrative in their work. It was the Christian teaching of the inherent spirituality of nature during the Renaissance that led to the pursuit of “realism” or the attempt to present people and things as or in “themselves” which became a key feature of art ever since. Wherever the Christian narrative took hold in the ancient world, the arts proliferated as “art” and not simply as propaganda or as a tool of communication—a sensibility that we cherish and still try to cultivate.

Music: As the Christian liturgy grew more complex, its hymn (something it took from its Jewish heritage) singing also grew more complex. It was during the Middle Ages that Gregorian chant (Pope Gregory I) took hold and where the basis of modern written music was created. As the music became more complex, one could not simply remember what was coming next so a written language was created for each to read. If you can read music, you can thank those early worship leaders of the Christian liturgy. The basis for choral singing, in the classical sense, was also developed in the church. It was from a 8th Century Latin hymn to John the Baptist, which began with, “Ut queant laxis, Resonare fibris, Mira gestorum, Famuli tuorum, Solve polluti, Labii reaturn,” that we get the naming or language for the six tones of the octave. An Italian monk took the first syllables of each of the song’s lines—Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, from which we get our modern scale. Later on Ut became Do, and Ti was added to the end.

The list could go on and on. There is not a single significant area of western knowledge or endeavor, whether science, law, education, literature, political philosophy, or philosophy in general, that has escaped this story and its influence. Further, the modern idea of hospitals, orphanages, and the elevation of the weak to a place of protection rather than forgetfulness or exploitation flows from this story.

Whether believer, atheist, or the ignorant, we live out and breathe in a culture and civilization that is inconceivable and would make no sense at all but for a narrative flowing from a single birth, in a small town, in an unremarkable part of the world in an even more unremarkable setting, a stable. Indeed, “what child is this…”

Merry Christmas to all.

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