“Christmas Always Begins at Midnight”
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
Whenever we feel pessimistic concerning the future of humanity upon this troubled planet, we can always remember this: that with all his fears and failings, man has yet somehow managed to put the brightest of his festivals in the darkest part of the year. Not at midsummer but at mid-winter, he celebrates most universally his hope and joy.
The hardihood of this festival, continuing, as it has, through many thousands of years, and rising, stage by stage, from primitive frenzy to pagan jubilation and finally to the symbolism of Christian observance, gives us true cause for confidence and reassurance. When it is darkest, man celebrates the light. When the earth is most desolate, he carols his joy. When the harshest and bleakest of the seasons is upon him, he can turn to gentleness, kindness and forbearance. His courage can rise superior to his circumstances.
Perhaps this is the thought above all others that Christmas can cheer us with this year. It is the inner significance, the spiritual essence of Christmas that can mean most to us, for once. For certainly we shall not find it easy to be spontaneously happy in a world so full of miseries. Nor should we. Anyone who could be truly carefree this Christmas would need to be either inhumanly callous or verging on the imbecilic. If we are to celebrate the ancient festival of light overcoming darkness, it must be in the full knowledge of how dense is the darkness against which the light must shine.
The Yuletide observance goes back, of course, to the festival of joy that primitive man inaugurated to celebrate the passing of the winter solstice; the sun’s regaining of his powers, the turning-point after which there would be no more shortening of days. Probably, if we of the modern world could enter into the groping mind of that primitive man, we would come back with an appreciation of the cost of human progress that would astonish us.
That earliest man had no assurance – nothing that he knew for certain – of the coming back of life to the earth; of spring and summer; of the sureness of the strengthening sun. He had watched the sun grow weaker and the days grow shorter almost with bated breath, and gradually had adopted customs and devices – thousands of them in the end – where by he hoped to arrest the threat of total darkness and help the lifeñreturning cycle to succeed.
Early Man’s Christmas Eve
He rolled wheels of fire down the mountainsides at midnight on what we now call Christmas eve. This was to encourage the sun by example. He kept the yule log burning. containing the life of the sacred tree consumed in the sacred element, fire, from which the sun might be rekindled. He burnt his torches; precursors of our Christmas candles. These and a myriad other things, many of which, in a disguised and softened fashion, still survive as Christmas customs. But in all of them man flung his own desperate courage against the precariousness of his circumstances. Presently. out of the vindication of his faith came his joy, and upon it he built his winter festival.
It would be a mistake to write this off as merely folklore. It is something still living as well as something in the past. Just as in our bodies we inherit all the ages of physical evolution, so in our social heritage we inherit all the ages of spiritual evolution. No one can measure the effort it must have taken to carry these primitive superstitions towards a higher level of belief. Yet it happened. Long before Christianity, it began to happen; and it became, in one religion after another, the struggle of light with darkness, of good with evil, of Ahura Mazda with Ahriman; of God, the Holy Spirit, with the powers of chaos.
And of course it was this, together with a great deal else that belongs to Yuletide, that Christianity gradually took over. Some people feel shocked when they discover that Christmas stories and Christmas customs are so much older than Christianity; but they ought to feel encouraged and enheartened. For means that these stories and usages are deeply rooted – thousands of years more deeply rooted – in human experience.
They are part of what mankind dreamed into being out of the most desolate and despairing of seasons, not only seasons of the year but seasons of the human spirit. It was from this same source that prophecy came; the prophecy of a highway in the wilderness and of the desert made glad: of “preparing the way of the Lord.” This has all been mixed and mingled together nowñin the Christian Christmas.
Light in the Darkest Hour
And it is interesting to notice that in legend upon legend, and story after story, Christmas always begins, not with daybreak and the coming of the morning – but at midnight. It was at midnight that the primitive observances began – or as near it as their reckoning could bring them. It was in the darkest hour of the night – not in the glow of morning – that the shepherds of the legend heard the angels sing. And of course, the Three Wise Men were guided, not by the sun, but by a star.
The legends have grown both beautiful and fanciful. Yet they have never drifted out of the darkness into a premature daylight. They have stayed quite close to the inner truth from which they draw their substance: the truth that man must find his faith, not in the daylight but in the dark. If he is ever to come to the light of morning, he must carry his own light with him through the night. Yes, and not only so, but he must make his songs in the darkness, too, and sing them first at midnight. He must proclaim in the desert a highway when there is no way at all – not even a path or a trail. He must – and evidently he can.
That is the ground of hope: that he can. Not as a gesture of empty defiance – that would be only pathetic – but as an act of assurance; a trumpeting of the soul’s final certainty. Here is something goes right back to the beginning, farther than thought can reach, back into the primitive from which we come. Here is something that journeys through the centuries, borne by the faith and courage of the race. Here is something that beckons to us also from the future, that belongs to the very nature of the human spirit, be cause it belongs to the nature of life itself.
It kindles a light, and no matter how little a light it is, the darkness cannot put it out. It says, Be not afraid, the good and the true are stronger than anything that stands against them, and sooner or later, will prevail. It you doubt it, look backward and trace the path by which we have come; and look around you: in spite of everything, we are still on our way. The darkness is vast truly, but across it there is a path of light – a path of moving light.
It tells a story, a thousand stories gathered up now into the Christmas story. Of an empire that was disdainful and arrogant. Of the privileged and mighty who had sold their souls for the tinsel of a moment’s pomp Of priests and temples where God was a commodity and truth a joke grown stale. They did not see that the very ground beneath their feet was slipping; so much of it was moving, and so fast. It was like the turning of the earth unnoticed. They saw only what they looked for; things they could measure in the scales of power, and with the reckoning of gain and loss.
But there was something that humbler people could have told them; both of the old that was dying, and of the new that was newly born. For something had sung it at midnight. Something had shone in the darkest hour. A dream had been told and the hearts of men were kindling. Gentleness and brotherhood were waiting for the morning, and already in the nighttime were up and on their way.
And so the empire vanished as the empires of today will also disappear. The thrones of the mighty crumbled and their palaces went up in smoke. The temples fell in ruins and the weeds grew up, covering the sepulchres of apostate priests. While the song swelled into a heavenly chorus, and again and again the darkness shone; and the dream of Jesus won the hearts of men.
Hope is Eternal
Yes, in the darkest hour, the brightest hope; and at midnight the sound of caroling! It is because in the goodness of God, we have this at our best that we shall never be altogether overtaken by what we are at our worst.
Brotherhood – we betray it, but we cannot forsake it. Love – we disown it, but we cannot renounce it. And the dream? – even in the hour of treason, it reclaims us. For we know that sometime there shall be a world in which man’s inhumanity to man is ended. A world of gladness from which all cruelty, is gone, in which the joy of each is the joy of everyone, the sorrow of each the sorrow of all. There shall be such a world because there is a song that sings it at midnight, and because in the darkest hour, there comes a light to those who sit in the darkness, and new hope to those who, in the wilderness, must walk beneath the shadow of death.
Because this is so, let us open our hearts to Christmas. Open them to all the hope that stands against a world that wastes with evil things; open them wide enough for gentleness in a world that is bitter and harsh; for loveliness in a world that is desolate; for faith and its joy and the song of its joy, that sings in the presence of God.
and the song of its joy, that sings in the presence of God.