Seventh Day of the Octave of Christmas
(Click here for readings)
(Click here for readings)
By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.”
For over two thousand years, Christianity has made a profound impact in the course of Western civilization. Considering the relatively slow developments occurring over so many thousand years before the birth of Christ, the last two millennia indicate a definite change in general pattern of human behavior. Practices long held in before Christ either ceased permanently or continued imperfectly without the moral sanction enjoyed by most of society. Besides the old pagan epics of Babylon, Egypt, or Greece, some of these ancient practices are recorded in the Old Testament, practices so gruesome that modern readers often recoil in horror and feel tempted to shun that part of salvation history.
Christ was the “life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light that shines in the darkness.” In most cases, Christians apply this in a moral sense to the individual: Jesus has the power to overcome the inner darkness plaguing the sinful soul. Christians can also apply this idea of a life of light to history, where the Church, for all its abuses over the centuries, more often served as a light for the world. Acknowledging this Christian enlightenmentcan help to shed light on the enemies that threaten to dim Christ’s light today.
Before Christ (BC), and in the first few centuries afterward (AD), the world was truly a dark place. The empires of Xerxes, Ramses, Hammurabi, or Caesar, might impress people with their great monuments like the Pyramids or Hanging Gardens, ortheir great exploits like subduing the Gallic tribes or the kingdoms of Mesopotamia, or their great cultural achievements like Hammurabi’s Code or Vergil’sAeneid, but all of these wonders rest on the back of slavery, injustice, and genocide. The great personages of the Ancient World only shine by a stark contrast with the vast majority of men in bondage and squalor.
In imagining a world without Christ in the last chapter of The Great Heresies, Hillaire Belloc pinpoints three major factors that inevitably arise, and which figured prominently in ancient societies: slavery, cruelty, and relativism. Without a conscience formed by the teachings that command men to love God and love their neighbor, men will enslave, kill, and torture their neighbor whiledefying rational order by making themselves or something else God.
Slavery, cruelty, and relativism are on full display in the book of Exodus—and all the rest of the Old Testament books, for that matter. God’s chosen people suffered the worst kind of bondage and most horrific cruelty from a deranged pharaoh who imagined himself a god. The pharaoh did not consider whether he committed atrocities in treating his subjects this way; after all, he had the power and made the rules. So complete was their subjection that the Jews could not even imagine a better way to live, making Moses’s liberationexhausting since he has to coax them out of slavery nearly every step of the way.
The situation of Exodus reflected the universal conditions of man in the world of that time. When left to his own devices and free from God, this ancient life, which Hobbes correctly called “nasty, brutish, and short,” is the one that man will create. In those parts of the world with no religion or false religions, this wretchedness will always hold sway for the great mass of people. Goodness, beauty, and truth do not come naturally.
With God, through Jesus, man can lift the darkness. Jesus allows him to see his neighbor, or himself, as more than a mere animal or machine. Jesus commands people to love, not oppress or subdue, one’s enemies. Jesus makes God intelligible, and one might even say lovable, by acting as His Word, making life in this world knowable and meaningful. Men and women are no mere objects randomly placed in the world, but God’s children made in his image with a transcendent goal to pursue.
Looking back at the pagan past and its darkness, along with the patches of darkness threatening to grow in the secular present, the Church’s mission, articulated in John’s first chapter, becomes clear: to bring truth, beauty, and goodness to the world through Christ’s light, word, and love.