Now We Must Dismantle the Tree

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.

So begins the somewhat bleak conclusion of W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being. Written in 1944, in the thick of what surely must have been difficult series Christmases for war-torn Europe and its American ally, Auden’s Christmas oratorio concludes the story of Christ’s birth with a final statement on the dissatisfaction of the Christmas season. Auden treats on our own failure to live into the vision of love witnessed at the feast, on our desire to distract ourselves from the present moment with tribulation or joy. But, here we are, after the Christmas season ends, with ordinary time, a upsetting juxtaposition with the rich liveliness of the season of the feast. Auden’s portrait of the harsh contrast between the Christmas season and “the time being,” conflicts sharply with most American Christians’ (author included) preferred pictures of the Christmas season, wrapped in the glow of comfort which ought to accompany eggnog and fireplaces lit in the dead cold of Midwestern winters, and even the deeper, more abiding tidings of comfort and joy which this season offers to us.

The feast of Christmas, however, incarnates itself in the lives of imperfect, sinful people. As Auden remarks, each Christmas season we attempt:

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.[1]

Incisively, Auden’s cutting lines slice through the fat and the trimmings to the heart of the problem of Christmas, a feast of eternal love, celebrated temporally, with an annual repetition to test our faculty of wonder. Each year, we are presented with an image of the child in the manger—God incarnate in our world. Rather than simply remaining a plaster figurine in a crèche scene on the altar, that child demands something from those who gaze on him. The story of Christmas is not only a script for the children of the parish to perform an adorable Christmas pageant; it is a bold invitation to love others with our whole hearts and souls. To recognize in each unwanted member of our society, our dinner party, or family the refugees Mary and Joseph. To recognize in each of beloved family member, friend, or estranged cousin the child Jesus. Yet, each year, while wanting the trimmings—the boughs of holly, and candles on the tree—we reject the meat of the feast. It is hard to love all our relatives—or any Other, really. We grossly overestimate our powers with regularity.

Christmas is quite literally a spectacular feast—a feast about this spectacle of divine love lying in (of all things) a manger, which we are commanded to come and adore, to behold. This manifests itself in lots of spectacles surrounding Christmas: Christmas has its own soundtrack, accompanying films and plays which demand ritual watching, foods, spices, clothing, colors, and household decorations that wholly overtake our imaginations from November 1st until December 25th. Christmas is a giant, looming monolith in our retail traditions, in our cultural traditions, in our liturgical traditions. And so it should be, the miracle of incarnation demands a time set apart to marvel at it.

In all of the holiday hoopla it is easy to miss “the actual Vision.” Indeed, a certain genre of Christmas literature and songs pick up on this irony, demanding that the this season exist in confluence with the rest of our lives. “Don’t save it all for Christmas day / find a way to give a little love everyday,” warbles Céline Dion in her meticulous Quebecois accent. After welcoming and honoring Christmas in his heart, post-conversion Scrooge vows to “try to keep it all the year.” In order for this feast to be worth celebrating, we sense, this feast cannot be hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives. What is the point of celebrating God incarnate in the human race, God’s liberal gift to all humanity, if it cannot even transform our own disposition towards them? This is the central problem with which Auden’s conclusion grapples.

To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all . . .
. . . Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

After even a cloudy vision of the Child, even after a brief stay in that stable which brings us all to our own humanity, able to encounter others as a You and not an It, to return to a world of regularity seems stifling, odd, impossible. How can we apply this encounter of love to this ordinary time? We have entertained the Vision of the Christ Child, God incarnate in humanity, as an agreeable possibility, and the feast of the vision of possibility offers us decked halls of holly and a truly consoling image of peace on earth, goodwill to all. But the uncomfortable call of letting the great miracle of possibility that is Incarnation practically transform our lives challenges our imaginations, hearts, and wills. It is more easy to beg forgiveness, promising to do better next year. Christmas demands a change in business as usual, a transformation of the time being. We cannot go back to our world of Euclidean geometry unchanged. To do so is to somehow miss the encounter which is the goal of this feast.

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

I find it comforting that, three times during the Christmas octave, this year, December 29, 30, and the Feast of the Holy Family on December 31, the Gospel of the Day is Luke’s account of Anna and Simeon’s encounters with the infant Christ. How curious that Anna and Simeon, icons of Advent, appear after our season of anticipation has already passed. Although we have spent the four short weeks of Advent attempting to train ourselves to look for the Christ child, we will inevitably, as Auden says fail to grasp the actual Vision, entertaining it only as an agreeable possibility. Our reception of the Christ child will fall short, never be completely whole-hearted, will remain somewhat dim and incredulous.

Although Christians often reach the Christmas feast day under-prepared to take to heart the feast of Incarnation, we are consoled by the image of two faithful Israelites who have remained faithful to their hope in Israel’s consolation. This preparation has allowed them to recognize the actual vision. Each of their lives of prayer allow themselves to see this vision in whatever form it arrives. Each has formed themselves into eager anticipation of the vision. Simeon, whose great trust in the promise that he would see the consolation of Israel (Lk 2:26), guides his steps to the temple. Anna, by her constant fasting and prayer (Lk 2:37), and presence in the temple, lives her life in a manner that facilitates an encounter with the infant, identified by Simeon.

The small child is not an obvious messiah. This messiah does not guarantee our recognition, does not ravage our wills, demanding we acknowledge him. This a God-child who, according to Auden, will “cheat no-one, not even the world, of its triumph.” This mysterious and humble God, who mildly lays his glory by, becomes apparent to those who have prepared themselves to receive the vision of the savior, and can recognize the one sent from the Father in the small infant being circumcised in the temple. Indeed, as we return to what Auden calls “the time being,” that in-between time, a time seemingly void of miracles, with certainly no glorious angelic host appearing to point us with painstaking clarity towards the savior’s resting-place in Bethlehem, the liturgy presents us with Simeon and Anna. These two figures offer us an image of how Christian faithful can fill the time being, and sanctify it with their restless preparation to receive the vision of the Christ Child. The time being, the ordinary time of “darning, the Eight-Fifteen,” can continue to hold for us the miraculous Vision of the Christmas feast, if we continue, like Anna and Simeon, to prepare ourselves for the Christ Child who will one day come again.

Featured Image: Parque Ibirapuera at Christmas [detail], 22 December 2007, taken by Silvio Tanaka; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

[1] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, ed. Alan Jacobs, Princeton University Press (2013). All subsequent quotes from pp 63-64.