Christmas has surely seen its share of “secularization,” from the cliché consumerism to the countless sub-genre rom-coms to the increasing dilution of holiday music to the exultation of any number of other pet nostalgias. Yet even in its most humanistic manifestations, we continue to encounter a range of peculiar odes to “peace” and “love” and the ever ambiguous “Christmas spirit.”
Indeed, amid the syrupy platitudes and mere sentimentalism, we see routine recognitions that a spiritual void may actually exist. Among the front-yard displays crammed with cultural kitsch, we spy manger scenes of the God-Man. In airwaves dominated by Frosty and Friends, we still, somehow, encounter those haunting, weighty words. “O come, O come, Emmanuel. And ransom captive Israel.”
There’s a spiritual strangeness to the Christmas story that manages to survive even the coarsest of cultural contexts, hearkening us back to a mystery that many in our post-Christian age have nearly forgotten.
In one of his lesser known essays, “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” C.S. Lewis explores this phenomenon, wondering aloud about the enduring promise of Christmastime mysticism, particularly in a time when the “profoundly spiritual” is more typically misconstrued as the Self.
Originally published in The Strand Magazine in 1946, and only recently rediscovered and republished in the VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center (available here), the essay begins by challenging our common misuse of the terms “pagan” and “heathen” in our current context. “To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man,” Lewis writes.
Whereas the true pagan is overtly religious and reverent—fearful of nature and nature’s gods, observant of a sacred world teeming with life—the post-Christian holds to a more self-indulgent spiritual ambivalence. Whereas the true pagan believes in right and wrong—“a distinction between pious and impious acts,” as Lewis describes it—the post-Christian casually browses the spectrum of human opinion, shrugging at its quaint variations and selecting whatever satisfies is immediate pleasures.
“According to [the post-Christian view], Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit,” Lewis explains. “There is no objective Right or Wrong: each race or class can invent its own code or “ideology” just as it pleases. And whatever may be amiss with the world, it is certainly not we, not the ordinary people; it is up to God (if, after all, He should happen to exist), or to Government, or to Education, to give us what we want. They are the shop, we are the customers: and ‘the customer is always right.’”
Such seeming liberation turns out to be precisely the opposite. Yes, we are no longer mired in a fearful superstition of “nature” and the impossibility of moral rightness therein. But we are now clouded by something different: a bold conviction that we can bypass any such struggle altogether. We are blind to the severity of the darkness and, in turn, far less desperate for the light.
Rather than being slaves to nature, Lewis observes, we have become slaves to ourselves. “Have you not begun to see that Man’s conquest of Nature is really Man’s conquest of Man?” Lewis writes. “That every power wrested from Nature is used by some men over other men? Men are the victims, not the conquerors in this struggle: each new victory ‘over Nature’ yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen, new contraceptives to keep men from being born at all.”
The answer, of course, is not to return to the floundering nature-worship of yore. Yet without some basic reverence for a “Living Power” and a recognition of the frailty and flimsiness of our personal mini-religions, can our hearts truly be readied for any kind of ultimate answer? Without becoming pagans first, cognizant if confused about our spiritual sickness, can we really see the need for an antidote?
Lewis thinks not:
It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians…I don’t mean that we should begin leaving little bits of bread under the tree at the end of the garden as an offering to the Dryad. Perhaps what I do mean is best put like this.
If the modern post-Christian view is wrong—and every day I find it harder to think it right—then there are three kinds of people in the world. (1) Those who are sick and don’t know it (the post-Christians). (2) Those who are sick and know it (Pagans). (3) Those who have found the cure. And if you start in the first class you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.
In such a way, Christmas remains a stealth and steady force amid our weary, dreary post-Christian ambivalence. Even amid the hyper-materialism and cultural altars to personal nostalgia and hollow holiday sentimentalism, the strangeness of the Christmas story somehow manages to survive in ways the modern world simply doesn’t suspect or detect.
And if Christmas can nudge our cultural sensibilities to consider even the most generic pagan notions of wonder and mystery, perhaps that’s a better starting point than the earthbound, colorless rationalism that pervades all else. As G.K. Chesterton also wrote, putting faith in something similar, “The great majority will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and suddenly one day they will wake up and discover why.”
For beneath the trivialities in much of the holiday ruckus lies not just a hint of mystery—testified by generosity and love and plenty of common grace—but the promise of an actual solution. The story of the Mighty One who came so that he might die offers enough resurrection power to shake our society from its slumber.
“All over the world (even in Japan, even in Russia) men and women will meet on December 25th to do what is a very old-fashioned and, if you like, a very Pagan thing—to sing and feast because a God has been born. You are uncertain whether it is more than a myth,” Lewis concludes. “…Who knows but that here, and here alone, lies your way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too, and to the great human family whose oldest hopes are confirmed by this story that does not die?”
To read the full sermon, purchase the latest edition of the VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center.