This column originally appeared in the December 1941 issue of the Cresset.
Tonight at dusk the first snow of the new winter fell on my town… Driven almost horizontally by a wind from the north, it whirled through the cone of light thrown by the lamp across the street, from darkness to darkness… On the edge of town, where the road crosses the railroad tracks, the shocks of corn which I had seen brown in October were now white on the side toward the wind… At this hour every day as night falls over my town, the air is alive with the moan of our mainline trains rushing toward New York… These are the last romantic sounds of our clattering age, the only sounds which still remind us of time and distance… All day my town has gone about its work… Later it will sleep… Just now, in this hour between day and night, it is joined for a moment to the city eight hundred miles toward the rising sun and beyond it to Europe, where soon it will be dawn, to the world beyond the end of the rails and the beginning of the sea, where men do not like snow this year, because it makes shooting and bombing more difficult… But here now, the wind and the trains make a solemn concert and the hills are reverent in silence… If I stand close to this tree and raise my collar against the wind, I can think for a while about Christmas…
The Christmas of childhood… I remember that we were very happy then because, for all we knew, there was nothing in the world but happiness… There was kindness everywhere, as far as we could see, and the snow and lighted trees and the bright ribbons and the piles of oranges and candies in the shop windows were the natural accompaniment of our joy… We had a crib under the Christmas tree and there, every year, forever young, forever fair, the Child lay in the manger, the shepherds knelt adoring, and the Kings were coming over the canvas hill from the East… It was natural that they should come every year… We knew as only children can know that they had never been very far away… They were very real, these shepherds and Kings in clay, far more real than the strange, mad world which began to loom before us in the headlines we were beginning to read… We did not know that beyond the carols, the lights, and the snow there were many to whom these things meant only a new loneliness—the loneliness of being shut out from a brightly lighted house… We did not know that the full measure of the world’s unhappiness can be seen clearly only in the light of Christmas… Bethlehem, the manger, the Mother, the Child under our tree… Bedlam, hate fear, hunger under the stars… Year by year the world stood more solidly against the light of Christmas and cast deeper shadows… Long ago we knew that the Kings would bring gifts and that the tree would stand until they arrived at the feast of Epiphany…Today we know too that the world’s only gifts at Epiphany, 1942, will be hunger and fear and loneliness… We come to the manger with less than we ever had before…
The sound of the wind in the telephone wires rises to a higher note… Now, as dusk falls over my town, I know that all the lights of my brave world are impermanent swamplights… I have no room and no sympathy for easy optimism now at Christmas, 1941… We were and are alone, children of the dust, visitors in time and strangers in eternity, lost in the far places of sin … If this were not true, there would have been no need for a first Christmas or 1,900 since then… There were soldiers then and wars we have forgotten and fear and pain… The world was what it is, men were what we are, and it was for a world like this and men like us that Christ was born in Bethlehem… So, as night comes down, the darkness drives away the years, and Bethlehem and 1941 become parts of the same divine plan, point and counterpoint, strophe and antistrophe…One momentary, the other eternal… Also in 1941 our lighted trees will be our bonfires in the dark, the answer of our loneliness to the star that came and stood over the place where the young Child lay…A prayer for the night, to the Child on Christmas Eve:
Be close. Be with me. Hush the day’s
That echo in my ear.
Put out the light that glitters in my
The Night is here.
Quiet my hands restless and quivering,
Quench the last tear I weep,
Dismiss my voice, blow out my
Breath, and sing
My heart to sleep.
Bethlehem and 1941… Out here in the night I remember, beyond the noise and hate, that our first Christmas was marked by simplicity and grace, by quiet and stillness… In one respect it was of course an exciting and topsy-turvy night… God was a Child, angels spoke to shepherds, a proud king in his palace was vaguely troubled… But over it all was this divine tranquility, all things in quiet silence, and the night at midnight… We need this now more than ever…
Quiet are the meadows
Where the Christ is born,
And quiet are the shadows
Of the early morn.
Not a word is spoken
As the moment comes; Not a star broken
Into silver crumbs.
Here the world’s comfort is,
Here the world’s wonder
A Virgin gives her Babe a kiss—
Who treads the serpent under.
Though Herod in Jerusalem
Heed not Rachel’s weeping,
Blest has been Bethlehem
With a Child sleeping.
And on our sad hearts sere with care
Glad breaks the morn.
“Hosannah,” peals the frosty air,
“A Son is born.”
Bethlehem 1,900 years later… H.V. Morton in his book, In the Steps of the Master, tells us what men have done to the place which God chose to come into time and space… There is a cave there… “Fifty-three silver lamps hardly lighten the gloom of the underground cavern. It is a small cave about fourteen yards long and four yards wide. Its walls are covered with tapestry that reeks of stale incense. If you draw this tapestry aside, you see that the walls are the rough, smoke-blackened walls of a cave. Gold, silver, and tinsel ornaments gleam in the pale glow of the fifty-three lamps.
“I thought I was alone in the cavern until someone moved in
the darkness, and I noticed the policeman who is always on duty to prevent
disputes between the Greek and the Armenian priests. This church, like the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, suffers from divided ownership. It is in the
hands of the Latins, the Greeks, and the Armenians.
“So jealous are the various churches of their rights that even the sweeping of the dust is sometimes a dangerous task, and there is a column in which are three nails, one on which the Latins may hang a picture, one on which the Greeks may do so, and a neutral nail on which no sect may hang anything.
“In the floor there is a star, and round it a Latin inscription which says: ‘Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.’ The removal of this star years ago led to a quarrel between France and Russia which blazed into the Crimean War.
“Such truths may seem terrible; but this, alas, is an imperfect world. It is therefore necessary, as you stand in the Church of the Nativity, or in the Holy Sepulchre, to try and forget the frailties of men and to look beyond them to the truth and the beauty which they seem to obscure.
“As I stood in this dark, pungent cavern I forgot, I am afraid, all the clever and learned things written about the Nativity by German professors, and I seemed to hear voices singing under a frosty sky:
O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
“How different is this dark little cave under a church from the manger and the stable of one’s imagination! As a child, I thought of it as a thatched English barn with wooden troughs for oats and hay, and a great pile of fodder on which the Wise Men knelt to adore ‘the new-born Child.’ Down the long avenues of memory I seemed to hear the waifs singing in the white hush of Christmas night:
“While Shepherds watched their
flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.”
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God”… A year ago Fitzpatrick, the famous cartoonist of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a picture of a mother and her child in arms fleeing from a host of bombers in a darkening sky… The title of the picture was a glimpse of our depths: “Hark, the herald angels sing”… And yet, now in 1941, beyond the Stukas and Hurricanes and Aerocobras, the angels sing to shepherd hearts all over the world… We, now so late and so far away, may forget that the angelic choir is part of the unchanging nature of eternity…Were there, that night at Bethlehem, in the chorus of the fields and heavens, angels who remembered other tasks?... The angel who had stood at the gates of Paradise Lost with the flaming sword—the angel who visited Abraham in his tent—the angel who was with Daniel in the lions’ den—were they not in that great company at Bethlehem?... Their task had changed now and their work had come to its eternal climax… Now, a song which would never die, in a few years a visit to a garden by one of them on the night when their legions would not be called to sing but only to stand silent… This was their shining hour… And did they not know too that it would never end?... Their song was of glory and of peace… Men would again be gripped by hate and despair… They would fight and kill and lie and deny… But their song, they knew, would be an everlasting antiphony… It would move down the centuries, above, beneath, and in the earth, from Christmas to Christmas… In it alone would be hope before death and after death…Their song would live to the 2000th Christmas, to the 3000th, and at length to the last Christmas the world will see… And on that final December 25, as on the first, the angels will know, as we must know in 1941, that the heart which began to beat in Bethlehem still beats in the world and for the world… And for us…
O. P. Kretzmann was the founding editor of the Cresset. He was president of Valparaiso University from 1940 to 1968.