Lord Frost’s Enchanted Christmas
(Above, the choir of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, singing the annual Christmas Eve "Lessons And Carols" service.)
Here is a wonderful meditation on the enchantments of Christmas, written by Lord David Frost in the Telegraph. Alas, it seems to be paywalled, but if you don't subscribe, I urge you to try to find the whole thing somewhere online. It is a treasure. I will quote from parts of it:
Around the year 1400, a monk at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, possibly one John Bardwell, wrote down what is now the only surviving text of the Christmas carol, I sing of a maiden, that is matchless. The carol was seemingly well known in its day, but its memory was lost after the Reformation, and it was only rediscovered by Victorian antiquarians.
Or was it quite so lost? In 1933, the American composer John Jacob Niles was travelling in the Appalachians in search of folk tunes. Near Mayfield, Kentucky, he noted down, and later published, Sing we the Virgin Mary, now a carol in its own right. The resemblances to the 15th-century medieval text are too close to be coincidental: the one has clearly evolved from the other.
What power kept this fragmentary lyric alive unrecorded for 500 years, from East Anglia to the Appalachian upcountry?
In this “near-miraculous survival”, as the New Oxford Book of Carols calls it, we have in microcosm something important even in our modern secular world – a belief, maybe only half-expressed, that Christmas is more than just a day of festivity. It is a time of year when we preserve traditions that might otherwise be lost, give space to beliefs that we otherwise push to the back of our minds, and take actions that we might not at other times of year. It is our one remaining festival where we cannot avoid the religious element, and do not necessarily want to.
Click on the links and listen to both of the carols, and marvel. Lord Frost writes that in the five hundred years since the East Anglian carol was first sung, and its Appalachian successor was discovered by John Jacob Niles, the world into which I sing of a maiden appeared had lost its enchantment -- meaning that the late medieval world in which matter mediated divine grace, and we all knew that we lived and moved and had our being in a world charged with the spirit of God, had almost entirely disappeared. God did not leave us; thinking ourselves wise, we made ourselves blind and insensible. The book I'm working on now will attempt to restore our sight, so to speak. More Frost:
Most of us feel the need for something more. We turn to nature, to architectural beauty, to music, to fill the gap. And at this time of year, acknowledge it or not, we also have Christmas. We often speak of the “magic of Christmas” and I don’t think that is coincidental. I agree with those (like the Rev Daniel French, one of the “Irreverend” podcast trio) who argue that Christmas is the one remaining time of year when we still have a glimmer, through a glass darkly, of how the world was before it was disenchanted.
Christmas is still the last festival not to have been almost totally desacralised. For Christians, it is that moment when God steps into the world, as a character not just as the author. Others, too, surely identify with the core story of motherhood and vulnerability. But more: the familiar story, the lights, the tree, the carols, the candles, all have a power they do not have at other times of year. The angels, the shepherds, the animals, are all essential to the tale, even though “there is no proof”.
We are not the creators of this story, merely the custodians. That tradition matters. It’s not by chance that, even in our own families, we often have Christmas traditions, the “way we do things in our house”, whose only function is to create continuity and bring us together.
Amen. Amen and amen. Christmas is such that even unbelievers sense its enchanting powers. Modern Britain has become a de-Christianized land where a woman can be taken into custody for the simple act of silent prayer outside an abortion clinic. But it is also a land where, in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, choirboys can proclaim the Christmas story in the famous Festival of Lessons And Carols, which is broadcast live to the world on Christmas Eve (watch on YouTube this BBC documentary about the choir and Lessons And Carols). It is a land where, in Father Daniel French's Anglican parish in Salcombe, the Gospel is celebrated by a happy vicar who really believes it with all his heart. It is a land in which a Christian family is welcoming into their home and hearts two American men whose hearts have been battered, and who need to drink from the cup of Christmas cheer.
In the darkness of our endless civilizational winter, the light still shines. Last week in Rome, I observed my custom of visiting Caravaggio's "The Calling Of St. Matthew," which hangs in a side chapel at the church of St. Louis, King of France. Here it is:
It is not clear who Matthew is in this image. I've always thought that it is the beardless man at the far side of the painting, but some believe it's the man pointing to the beardless man, as if to say, "Surely not me -- you must mean him." I think it makes the most sense for Matthew to be the tax collector looking down at the earth, counting the day's take. In the next moment, he will lift up his head, receive the light of the sunbeam, and see the face of the Lord and His hand extending to him an invitation. If I'm right, then Matthew, in this painting, is all of us at some point. We become too caught up in the mundane affairs of this world. In Dante's Commedia, Virgil chastises humanity: “Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground."
It's true, isn't it? Even among we who are believers. Wordsworth said:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers
Christmas is a call like no other throughout the year to lift up our faces to receive the light. What if the story is true? What if God exists, and the Creator of the cosmos chose to incarnate as the son of a poor young Jewish maiden in Roman Palestine, and by his Incarnation, sanctify the flesh and the material world? And what if His life, death, and resurrection really did defeat death, and the powers of Hell? What if the medievals, for all their ignorance of the things of science, saw the realities of the spirit clearer than we do? And what if all that we need to do is to raise our eyes to the heavens, and with open hearts and open eyes, receive the light?
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Christmas is a glorious celebration of a potent myth -- but, as Tolkien explained to Lewis, it's a myth that is true. Here is an imaginative reconstruction of the conversation that the two friends had, and that proved a turning point for Lewis, out of materialism and into theism. From a transcript:
TOLKIEN: Myths are not lies! In fact, they are the very opposite of a lie. Myths convey the essential truths, the primary reality of life itself.
We have been duped into using the word “myth” as synonymous with a lie because we have been duped into accepting the first lie of materialism… – the hideous claim that there is no super natural order to the universe. The materialists have imprisoned us in a world of mere matter, of physical facts divorced from and devoid of metaphysical truth. I say that they are the ones who have come up with a false myth. Their world doesn’t exist. It is merely a figment of their imagination…. They have convinced us that it is true, that this is all there is – three dimensions, five senses, four walls….
The four walls of materialism are the four walls of a prison, and the materialists are our jailers…. They don’t want us to discover what there is outside of the four walls of their philosophy, and, worse than that, they think that any attempt to escape their four walls is an act of treason.
LEWIS: Wouldn’t it be an act of intellectual treason to think otherwise?
TOLKIEN: How can it be wrong for a prisoner to think of things that exist other than walls or jailers? Doesn’t the fact that the prisoner is able to think of things outside the walls suggest that, perhaps, things do exist outside the walls? After all, if the prison really is all there is, how are we able to picture things that exist beyond the prison?
This is where myths come in. Myths exist outside the prison. Myths allow us to escape from the prison. Or, if we are not allowed to escape, at the very least they allow us to catch a fleeting, but powerful glimpse of the beauty that lies beyond the walls….
Myths show us a fleeting glimpse of the truth itself.
LEWIS: “What is this truth?”
TOLKIEN: Are myths just arbitrary inventions of fiction? Do we pull them out of thin air?
We make things by the law by which we are made. We create because we are created. Creativity, imagination, is God’s image in us. We tell stories because God is a storyteller. In fact, He is The Storyteller.
We tell our stories with words. He tells His story with history. The facts of history are His words, and providence is His storyline.
LEWIS: Are you telling me that all of history is some kind of divine myth?
TOLKIEN: We are all part of His story. This very dialogue is part of His story. Christianity is not merely one story among other stories. It is not just a myth; it is the true myth. Christianity really happened. Jesus really existed…. It is the true story that makes sense of all the other stories. It is the archetype. It is the story in which all the other stories have their source, and the story to which all the other stories point. It has everything. It has catastrophe and its opposite – what we might call euchatastrophe. It has the joy of the happy ending, the sudden joyous turn in the story that is essential to all myths. It has to a sublime degree this joy of deliverance, this evangelium, this fleeting glimpse of the real joy to which all other joys are but an echo.
Christianity has the catastrophe of the fall and the euchatastrophe of the redemption. It has the catastrophe of the crucifixion and the euchatastrophe of the resurrection. It has everything man’s heart desires because it is being told by the one Who is the fulfillment of desire itself. It is a story that begins and ends in joy.
LEWIS: Just because a story brings joy doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s true. They are many joyful stories. They all seem rather flimsy to me, and rather false.
TOLKIEN: And yet this story has the inner consistency of reality. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
LEWIS: Perhaps, it’s just a very well-written artifice.
TOLKIEN: This story has the supremely convincing tone of primary art, not fiction, but of creation, and to reject this is either to darkness or wrath. And, in my own life, it has led me from darkness to light.
In my life too. You can watch this fictionalized exchange here -- it's wonderful! I'll leave you by observing that two of the greatest Christians of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, came from Britain. I imagine that on this day and every day, they are praying for her re-conversion. In the meantime, there will be some of you whose faith is dead, or near-death, or who never had faith to begin with, who will, on this Christmas, catch the glimmer of the Light, feel the thrill of hope, and begin to believe. That will be the greatest gift you will ever receive -- and it is there for those humble and brave enough to take it.