The Christmas When Everybody Was There

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 16 December 2021

The soldiers were scattered across Europe with the loneliness of war. The world was caught up in a total struggle. Women had gone to the factories; children were collecting scrap metal. The “war effort” was universal. In many places, food was rationed. The madhouse of consumption belonged only to the war; everything else could wait. And there was Christmas. Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley were part of the effort as well, cranking out songs that have never gone away. The mood was one of deep sentimentality and hope. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” the radios played, and soldiers wept.

Being born in the early 50’s, I grew up in the cultural aftermath of the Second World War. The adults had not recovered from the experience and continued to remember it actively, even passionately. When rationing ended in Britain in 1954, there were those who felt that something important had been lost. At one point, the Labour Party had argued for indefinite rationing. The commonality of shared suffering, it seemed, was a stronger bond than the commonality of shared prosperity. Interesting that.

No one was nostalgic for the war itself. The fighting, bombing and the certainty of death and injury were gladly left behind. But the bond of a common effort remained a lively part of a generation’s memory. The stories only ended when they were laid to rest. The nostalgia, I think, was for the commonality, an experience that banished loneliness and gave meaning to even the smallest actions. The prosperity that followed was hollow. For what purpose do we now shop?

Commonality is a fundamental part of life in a healthy world. It is akin to love itself and an extension of self-sacrifice. It is a world in which we receive far more than we give. It is also something that lies at the heart of the classical Christian account of salvation. We are saved within an act of inexhaustible and all-encompassing commonality in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Unless those events are seen through the lens of commonality, they cannot be understood.

St. Paul describes Christ as the “Second Adam.” He does not mean by this that Christ is merely a “do-over,” a second start for humanity. Rather, as an Adam, He is a summary and “re-capitulation” of the whole of humanity. The name “Adam,” in Hebrew, also means “man.” It is the term for our collective humanity as well as the man, Adam. As Second Adam, Christ is the new Man, but also a collective new Man. It is this that is referenced by St. Paul when he says that we should put off the old man and put on the new (Col. 3:9-10).

The Virgin is more than the one who carries the Christ Child in her womb; she is also the source of His humanity. He “took flesh” of the Virgin Mary (σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου), the Creed tells us. That “flesh” should not be seen as an isolated reference to biological meat. It is everything that constitutes our humanity: “and was made man” (ἐνανθρωπήσαντα). The reality of our humanity, whether of the First Adam or the Second, is collective.

In the Orthodox tradition, the two Sundays before Christmas are set aside to commemorate the Holy Forefathers, and the Holy Ancestors. It is a recognition that in the flesh of Mary is the flesh of many generations, indeed, the gathering of all flesh. It is a recognition that in the faith of Mary is the faith of the generations that have gone before as well. Christ has come for us, in us, that with us in Him, He might live, die and live again and we as well. This is the true fullness of Christmas.

Sadly, our common experience in our present distress is largely one of division. The enemy lives next door (or so it feels). We hate the yard signs from the last election that never seem to have disappeared. Though we find ourselves bound in a common suffering (in a variety of forms) the pain pushes outwards, building walls that will remain long after the suffering has wanes. Our experience of the whole Adam is fragmented, even nudging its way into the life and family of the parish. This does nothing to diminish the reality of Christ as the whole Adam. Rather, it serves to underline ever more boldly our need for salvation.

The commonality during a time of war was always somewhat artificial. It required relentless propaganda and an enemy so well-defined that no sentiment of mercy arose to shake the united purpose of his destruction. Hatred and anger were marshalled and directed to a common end. Love was reserved for our own.

The wonder of Christ, the true story of Christmas, is the birth of the Second Adam into the heart of a broken and fragmented world. This year, as in every day and year, Christ gathers His fragmented children, together with their anger, their hatred, their suspicions and their certainties. That our Christmas songs and celebrations contain even the tiniest echo of His comforting assurance, the abiding sound of the first words in the resurrection (“Peace be with you!”), are a miracle. It is a miracle that transcends our merely human commonality and gives expression to the final rest that awaits us all: peace in the bosom of the Whole Adam, strife swallowed up in a victory that is pure gift.

The wonder of that victory is bound up in its giftedness. Every human being is the gift of God, the Adam you have yet to meet, but who can only be truly met as gift. “My brother is my life,” said St. Silouan. He wrote profoundly of the Whole Adam and sought Him out in every encounter.

God give us the grace of that greeting. May paradise consume us! May we all come home for Christmas!

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