Americans are, as Tocqueville says, better than they say, but the doctrine lets Americans appear more self-sufficient than they really are.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on December 23, 2014.
I hear the angels, high in the hills. Up among the trees, the ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce. Down through the snow-patched meadows, the counterpanes of brush and rock and long stems of cold, brown grass, forlorn above the ice. I hear the angel voices in the overtones of the wind through the buffalo gaps. I hear them along the frozen streambeds winding through the needles, down from the mountains. I hear them proclaiming the advent of the Lord.
In a sense, of course, to talk of angels in the wind is simply to construct an allegory. It’s a way of saying that, if we are willing to be reminded, even the sound of the wind can make us think of the first Christmas, when the angels spoke to shepherds outside Bethlehem. Our days are thick with such reminders, if we pay attention; our lives filled with occasions for remembrance. Think just of the seasons: The world is witness. It whispers holy things / of nature fallen and new grace that springs. So why not hear a little bit of Christmas in the wind? The more we are willing to be prompted, the more this world seems redolent of the divine—even our senses overwhelmed. Our daylight thoughts. Our numinous dreams.
And amen to that pious prayer. Yes, always yes, to cries for recollection of the Christmas story. I love the Santas with their bells, the Salvation Army’s call to charity on the sidewalks of America’s cities. I love the stores with candy canes and sleigh bells soaped on their windows. I love even the Muzaked carols in the elevators, and the municipal trees, and the oversweet candies from the neighbors, and the fruit cake like depleted uranium, and the schoolchildren’s nativity plays, and the Advent calendars, and the trips to the Food Bank, and the season’s goose. For Christ’s sake, why not be happy? So much around us shouts reminders of the cause for Christmas joy.
But I also mean something more than allegory here. Something more than pious metaphor and the familiar cheer of the season. I mean that celestial sounds were genuinely flowing down across a snowy field, just a few days ago. I mean that this December, here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, up in the highest registers of hearing, the clamor of heavenly voices really could be heard. I mean that the actual angels were actually here, actually singing tidings of great joy, and I actually heard them. I was not just reminded of the Bible stories of angels coming to Zacharias, to Mary—to shepherds, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and good will toward men.” I was allowed to understand, for a moment, a little of the great secret: The supernatural presses on the ordinary universe, straining to break through, and for a moment the world was changed. Charged. Made different, strange, and new.
I think some vague intuition of that secret is why I have always loved Christmas. This is the reason to embrace the madness of the holiday. The reason to surrender to the thousand crèches, the lighted decorations, the secular reindeer, the commercialized gift-giving.
Are they ideal? No, but little on earth is, and the almost medieval-like festival of modern Christmas serves, at least, to thin the barrier between this world and the next. The sappiest of Christmas carols have their purpose; the gooiest of Christmas movies have their point. I appreciate the theological density of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but I can joyously (and tunelessly) howl along with the absurdity of “The Little Drummer Boy” and find tears in my eyes listening to “I Saw Three Ships.” Even the manic silliness and sentimentality of the season work to God’s intention. In the emotional storm and the blizzard of Christmas symbols, we open the little mystic gaps through which the angels slip.
A sinner—corrupt and soulsick, heartsore and muddled in my thoughts—I sometimes wonder what this world looks like to the saints. The universe must glow, every day a holiday, a holy day, like the blinding sunlight off clean snow and sharp swirls of sparkling ice. But it needs no individual grace, no special sanctity, to feel the life of the Christmas season. Portions of the wall are tumbling down, and through the breaches anyone can discern some of what we ordinarily keep hidden from ourselves: Christ himself in the faces of the poor and battered. The treasures that charity lays up in heaven. The extra-worldly beauty of nature. The joy of creation in the objects all around us. The almost sacramentality of everything real.
This December, I heard the angels singing. Actually heard their voices high in the wind, across a western meadow frozen stiff and covered with the fallen snow. Listen, and you’ll hear them, too—down from the hills and the cold trees, ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce. Along the icy streambed, through the brush, and over the rocks. All those voices caroling, praising, rejoicing: a swirl of joy beyond all deserving. Just listen, and you’ll hear the angels, too.