The Man Who Discovered a World Where it is Always Christmas
by Fredrik Sidenvall, translated by Bror Erickson
In his book “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, C. S. Lewis paints a picture of a land that is always winter and never Christmas. The cold and the dark are there, there is a need to gather and huddle but nothing to gather around or to warm one. The strenuous daily life never has time for festive clothing or hair-dos, it is gray on gray. In Narnia, the power of winter is broken by the Lion’s arrival. The new era is heralded by Santa Clause, the sleigh riding, red Bishop Nicholas of Myra, with a sack full of gifts, an answer to the children’s dreams.
Two hundred years before Lewis, Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) woke up in London where he had rented a small hovel. When he had read the only book in the room, a Bible, he heard the Lion roar and understood just how long and hard he had slept. He saw that the world that was his home had long lain under a spell that made it far less a home than it had been. It silenced all the talking animals, and told the trees not to speak out. The icy scalpels of the Enlightenment philosophers cut out all the fine threads between man and creation. Men, who for centuries had rejoiced at their place in the cosmic nativity scene with the child in middle, and he himself firmly within the astonished circle of men and animals that found themselves in the promising light of the star, had been driven out into a night without light and a day without shadow and mystery. When the men had lived for a while in a week of practical reason when all creation was plucked apart and nothing put together. Then she returned to the created beings, the circle of creatures, without remembering the child in the crib. She did not see that in the same moment that God’s Child disappeared she lost out being a child of God. But the creatures, the created things, noticed that the magic had departed from men.
“All the color from this shiniest of worlds fades as soon as you snuff this light (from “The Poem” at the beginning of the day, He who is Alfa) that is the first born of creation. If the stomach is your god, then every hair of your head is under its guardianship. Every creature alternates, once your sacrifice and then your idol.” So Hamann densely captured the winter camp of men in the world, when he wrote “Aestetica in Nuce” (Aesthetics in a nutshell) from Königsberg in 1760. Without hope and without God in the world, the Christmas lights of existence fade, and the world becomes gray (someone stole life’s splendor).
Changed View of Creation
But it is not only the world that has changed for man, men also receive their fellow creatures in a changed manner. “Every creature alternates, once your sacrifice and then your idol.” When men no longer seek after Jesus in the midst of existence, then they also lose the understanding that the animals and other fellow creatures are enveloped in God at the same time. The ox and the donkey, ewes and lambs and even the Kings’ camels see the glint of a butcher knife in human hands. If the animals do not willingly gather around man’s crib in worship, they then become his grub. The next day the knives are gone, and now men want to hug and caress their fellow creatures, and against their will and purpose, raise them up as gods. Johann Georg Hamann describes what the creation is forced to endure from men: “Subjugated against their will, but with hope, sighs during work or futility; it does its best to shake off your tyranny, and contained in your rutting embraces it longs after the freedom whereby the animals once praised Adam, when God led them forth to the man so that he would name them. For just as the man called them so would they be named.”
It is in memory of the morning of creation that creation sighs heavily, looking back to the time when man knew who he was, namely the image of God, and therefore knew his place. Then the people stretched their hands out to the fruit of a forbidden tree, then creation’s circle of companionship was broken and the sun went behind the cloud. Ever since, man has cried with a thousand words and tongues his anxious question: Who am I, who am I?!” In the cold Swedish winter night, during the ice age of the 1600s, the French Philosopher Descartes spelled out his answer “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am.” According to him, it is not to be thought, but to think that is the greatest. And then man establishes the basis for his existence, his place in existence, the mind must be free and bold. Nothing and no one can be above the thinking man, but he himself can be above all and everything, and judge between them what shall be and what shall not be.
So creation continues to sigh and to proclaim for man the glory of God. But in the midst of his thought, man has gotten his ears all plugged up. He hears but he doesn’t listen, and all he hears from creation is an isolated hodgepodge. It is as if existence is done singing and writing poetry for us, and every day of the week is a Monday. “The only useful things that remain for us from nature are reversed verses and “disiecti membra poetar” (the limbs of a dismembered poet). To gather them together is the task of the learned, to interpret them the Philosophers, to replicate—or even bolder—refit them is the poets.” So writes Hamann. “However, when men seek to repair creation’s powerful and clear speech, the result is not better than the backside of a tapestry, or a solar eclipse viewed in a glass of water.”
A Light in the Darkness
Like a child that is afraid of the dark during a power outage, the Christian philosopher screams the question everyone else leaves unvoiced.
“But how shall we resurrect the devastated language of nature from the dead?” Be calm, there was a light for Hamann in the dim rented room, a light so strong that for him the world became a Christmas festival. So he writes with conviction “Neither the dogmatic stringency of the orthodox Pharisees [he means the moral philosophers of the enlightenment who, because they hold sacrificial knives, think they have the right to offer everything around them upon the altar of man] or the poetical luxuriance of the freethinking Sadducees [he means the romanticists who in a Pantheistic manner regard nature as divine] can recreate the spirits outpouring that drove God’s holy men to speak and write. The beloved disciple of the Only Begotten has proclaimed for us that the spirit of the prophecy lives in the witness of the only name (Jesus), for only thereby can we be saved and receive a share of the current and future promise of life. This name that no one knows but the one who receives it, the name that is above all names, so that every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth shall bow to the name of Jesus and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God, Praise be the Creator in eternity. Amen!”
Jesus steps forth, the snow melts and Christmas is celebrated. Hamann was able to speak to the most learned and brightest thinkers of his age, and at the same time simply, like a village priest to preach to them. For the learned seeker everything fell in place when Jesus stepped forth for him through the Bible as the Star of Bethlehem and the child in the crib. Then he could once again hear all of creation and the history of all people is a speech where He who is the Word speaks to the created man through creation.
What is the Greeting of the Creator?
What then does creation have to say to us men? What are these greetings from the Creator?
Hamann answers with the slightly dry but meaningful:
“The book of creation contains examples of the common conception that God has desired to reveal for the created through the created; The Testamental Books contain examples of the hidden message that God has chosen to reveal to man through man. “
Before we tire of all the Christmas decorations in our home, and upset ourselves during Divine Services that in one way or another fail to meet our expectations, let us at least remember that God has chosen not to speak to us directly but indirectly, not immediately but in a mediated manner. Hamann continues and interprets the language of creation and listens for the Speaker:
“Not in the least, the Author’s unity manifests itself in the accent of the work, it all seems to have the same moderately high and deep tone! Evidence of the immense majesty and the most complete forsaking! A miracle from such an infinite stillness that it doesn’t resemble God at all (God can speak so delicately and weakly), so that one in his conscious must either deny Him or become an unreasonable animal (the intellectually honest can stand without overwhelming evidence when God speaks calmly), but at the same time from such an infinite power that it fulfills all in all, so that one immediately can circumvent his devout intimacy!”
This here is the deepest mystery of the cosmic Christmas celebration, that God can be dressed in the rags of a beggar and royal robes at the same time. The Holy and Eternal One can speak through the scantiest signs of the age. Both within the fallen creation and in the external human dress of the Bible, God speaks. In Christ both God and man receive the last word because Jesus Christ is God’s last and final word, and at the same time Jesus is the perfect man who in His life formulates humanity’s unqualified yes to God.
This is the Gospel of Christmas: God, who encompasses everything, allows himself to be enveloped in an infant. In Christ, God’s sun rises upon the winter world without blinding or burning us. The divine nature with all its perfect characteristics and all its glory is inextricably united with the human nature in its corporality and its visibility, in its ability to be touched, and its vulnerability, in its limitations and restrictions. That all of the characteristics of both these natures can be attributed to the Godman Jesus, that the two natures participate in the characteristics of each other, is the foundation of our ability to truly know the living God when we stand before the child in the crib.
The communication of the attributes, or Communicatio Idiomatum in Latin, as this portion of Christian dogmatics is called, is also the basis for God’s ability to approach us, and for our ability to approach Him. Yes, that we men can be God’s children. When Jesus steps forward and does these miracles they are not primarily God’s answer to prayer from heaven, but an overflowing of God’s omnipotence in the man Jesus. It is this divine omnipotence that gives the limited man the power to bear the sins of all humanity. But it is this human nature that for the first time makes it possible for God to be mocked and whipped, to be pierced, bleed and die for the eternal redemption of all humanity. In Greek the word that is used to describe the inter-play between the two natures of Christ is perichoresis. Perichoresis basically means “circle dance”; in the person of Jesus all of the characteristics of both the divine and human natures through His consciousness, His will, His word, all that He does and all that He suffers. As when we in our Christmas merriment around the Christmas tree form a ring that communicates all the characteristics of the participants. So, for example, the ring can be described as both young and old when both children and elders participate.
When Johann Georg Hamann thinks about how we should look at the world, and how to capture it in words, in pictures and symbols, when he also thinks through his aesthetic, he then comes to the conclusion that the world should best be understood from the child in the crib. He is so little and so weak, he looks so common and conceivable, but through these eyes it is God Himself who sees us. The child that rests in Mary’s arms holds her and the whole world in His arms at the same time. In accordance with this, and in the light of and power of God’s word Hamann could experience how his lonely and dreary London hovel becomes a temple where God’s powerful history of salvation breaks in and takes place. With the world understood in this manner, as a world of Christmas, he could look calmly at the human side of God’s kingdom that other learned men are so easily tempted to despise, both in the Bible and in the church, and understand that it is in this way that God works: He walks barefoot in human weakness and in the form of a servant but He comes to us in this manner with all of His divine majesty. God reveals Himself to the created through the created, and to man through man.
The Great Christmas
During this Christmas, when in different ways we create beauty in our homes through simple earthly things: a manger scene enveloped in moss, small palms and tulips, the tree with all of its ornaments and symbols, tablecloths and curtains, they are small things but they remind us that behind these little things there is something great. Hamann calls his writing (The Swedish translation is only 22 pages but demands years of study to be understood completely and fully.) “Aesthetica in nuce.” “In nuce” means “in a nutshell.” With this he indicates that his writing is short (Hamann only writes small and hard to comprehend essays), but he also indicates that the true divine realities of existence are gathered together before the baby Jesus’s head, as in a nutshell. In the development of the church’s doctrine, the father Augustine posits that this biblical truth can be described with the word Finitum capax est infinitum, the finite can contain the infinite.
So during Christmas when you read the Christmas Gospel by yourself or with your beloved, then you stand before the baby Jesus, who resembles you when you were little. You are also reminded of who you really are, a creation in the image of God. When you see and believe this you will notice that the rest of creation not only sighs quietly and inconceivably, but you shall hear again that it gives witness to the power and love of God for you. Then you can greet creation without the desire to plunder and slaughter it, and without the desire to worship it. You can join the ox, the lamb, and donkey in the circle around the crib and warm yourself in the light of the righteous sun Who rises with healing in His wings for us.
So here, Hamann writes to express how all of life can be a Christmas party: “The more vivid this idea—the invisible image of God—is in our mind, the better we are to see, taste, examine and grip with our hands His benevolence within the created.” May God give you grace to believe and see that our world is changed since God became man.
[Citations in this article come from Johann Georg Hamann, “Skrifter I Urval” translated by Staffan Vahlquist, förlaget Ruin, 2012.]