The whole, absolute point of Christmas is to rise above the things we think we can't do without, endearing and tasty as they seem, like department store jollity and good things to eat.
Still, the whole, absolute point of Christmas tends to get confused, and just about always has one part Jesus, one part shepherds and angels, two parts tree and lights and what'll-it-be?-asked-the-bartender.
Merry Christmas and Holy Christ-Mass, to the formal discomfort of many on both sides of the equation, seem entangled beyond efficient separation, although the year 2008 affords a fair range of opportunities for at least a certain degree of mental and emotional disentangling. A "merry" Christmas it won't be for many in the Dickensian sense of comfort and joy.
When you've lost your job, or your stock market funds have fallen by half, and when economic landmarks like General Motors seem barely able to stagger along, and a kind of reverse Santa named Bernie Madoff sneaks down the chimney to help himself -- under sorry circumstances like these -- the times appear manifestly out of joint, more screaming nightmare than fireside reverie.
That leaves the Christ-Mass in at least partial possession of the day. It may not be a bad thing. In fact, how could it be?
A principal frustration to the culture is how little the culture is able to actually control, hard as it works at the job of control. You think you've got your stock portfolio zipped up and encased in fleece and along comes Bernie Madoff to prove otherwise. The most democratic, most benevolent-minded government in the world, that of the United States, finds itself unable to guarantee the continued spread of good times. If General Motors can't cut it !
Or is that too simple a formulation? What human institution, when we get down to it, never stalls, never sputters, never runs out of gas? Even the greatest military force in world history couldn't plant six feet under all the enemies of civilization living in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these still live to trouble us.
The message of the Christ-Mass, by contrast, is of divine care and love for the weakest, frailest, most vulnerable of us -- which is to say, all of us. The message has, to many ears, a quaintness, as if nothing made less sense than a "God" with a "Son" brought by a "Virgin Mother.'' What a load of it -- as critics and doubters see the matter. The purpose of Christmas, on this view, is no purpose at all, apart from deception that enriches the dispensers of the message.
We're thrown, then, back on institutions that fail again and again and again but seem, for all that, to lack plausible alternatives. The skeptics and foes of the Christmas message urge better regulation of swindlers and better safeguards against terrorists. That's about where it stops.
Talk about doom! Doom is thinking all you can do about Bernie Madoff is devise more effective traps for his like. That the Lord of the Universe might think in grander terms -- having to do with redemption and deliverance from sin -- isn't something that comes to mind in legislative chambers. Not that it should. The point wouldn't be that legislators need to figure out God's position on tax policy and mortgage oversight. The point would be that ordinary people looking for hope might turn elsewhere than to legislators, presidents, judges and political strategists.
To the central figure of the Christ-Mass? To the baby named Jesus? We all might -- should -- account that a dependable possibility. The ancient superstructure of Christmas, and of the religion that grew out of it, overshadows the mere busyness practiced by humans: the making of money and war, the passing of laws and edicts.
If God -- think of it, God -- came in love and humility to His people in the form of a baby, does not that consideration outrank everything else on earth, then and since then? Even the movements of the market? Even war, even peace?