The Miracle of The Christmas Spirit

The Reverend Mr. Opitz (1914-2006) was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education. This article is based on one of his sermons.

Charles Dickens wrote his most famous story to demonstrate what happens to a wretched, miserly old man when once the Christmas spirit gets to work on him and takes over. Something happens at this time of year to make people easier to get along with. There is something about this season that releases the friendliness and good will between one man and another which most people keep under rigid control during the rest of the year. Those feelings, carefully preserved in sort of a cold storage most of the time, come forth naturally and spontaneously on certain occasions.

Christmas is chief among those occasions; but there are others. Let two men take refuge under an awning from a sudden downpour of rain and their predicament leads to a camaraderie that is no less real for being brief. Accounts of severe snowstorms contain stories which illustrate the same point; for instance, people in a stranded railroad car suddenly decide that they like each other and a real spirit of friendliness is kindled simply because they are marooned in a blizzard.

There is no law which says that people must feel friendly at Christmas; nobody is forced to display comradeship because he is trapped by a storm. It is simply that under these circumstances an ordinary quality in human beings is transformed into something higher and finer; “a good man out of the treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things.” The Christmas spirit works upon the heart and mind of man, and by some strange alchemy it transmutes the base metal it finds there into a rare and precious thing. If that spirit endured for even a year, the consequences would be immense.

We speak of our own times as an age of revolution because things outside of us are changing so rapidly that we can hardly keep pace with them; but the only lasting revolution is that transformation which takes place in the hearts and minds of men.

Institutions and Men

Society might be said to have its flesh and bones. The bones are its mechanical arrangements—its institutions, its laws, charters, constitutions, manifestoes, and the like; the flesh is comparable to the kind of people who run these institutions and use these laws. It is common today to write and speak as if the kind of people we are does not matter very much, if only we can be very clever about altering our institutions, writing more elaborate laws, and filling our charters with high sounding phrases.

And so we emphasize the mechanical arrangements by which we live and put our trust in men who claim that all we need do is to make these more perfect until society, like a machine, will run by rote and be exempt from the human frailties from which it now suffers. There is just one thing that these planners leave out of account—the human factor. The best laid plans of men will go astray unless they are made to work by the right kind of human material.

It is told that a composer wrote a brilliant composition for the cornet. The music was technically perfect and it was good music. The trouble was that no one could play it because the composer had neglected to put in any rests where the cornetist could take breath. It seems to be in the order of nature that no man can push wind into a cornet continuously for more than a few seconds. As a brass man myself, I can attest that this is one of the shortcomings of the instrument—or of the performer—and nothing can be done about it. The composer cannot ignore these facts.

It strikes me that many of the schemes for social betterment exhibit just such a blind spot; allegedly they are written for the benefit of human beings, but in the writing the principal thing is omitted—the human factor.

Responsible Individuals

That is not the Christian way. The Christian way is to fix responsibility on individuals, to insist that individuals be transformed. It is through transformed individuals that society will be made over. By transformed individuals one does not necessarily mean ordinary men made over into saints; there are saints just as there are geniuses; but there are never very many of them, and any scheme which looks toward making over society into a community of saints is pure moonshine. But ordinary men are not helpless pawns in a game where someone else makes the moves. We are ordinary human material, but it is quite within our power to prefer justice to injustice, to incline toward sanity rather than toward neurosis, to abjure the get-something-for-nothing philosophy, to be possessed by ideas which are both great and true. These things are within our grasp; dealing with them may be unspectacular, slow, and difficult-but these are the things that work.

As an example of how they work, take the single instance of human slavery. Until recent years when the institution again became part of a widespread social system, human slavery was considered to be a great moral wrong. No ethical principle could be found to justify it.

This was not so in the Graeco-Roman world. There, slavery was the foundation of society. Slaves outnumbered free men by at least two to one. The great philosopher, Aristotle, whose work on ethics we still read, thought slavery a necessary thing. An historian, writing of the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era, says: “The harder work of the world was done . . . under direct compulsion of physical pain and death for the slave who did not accomplish his task.”

The first great Christian missionary, Paul, saw no great wrong in slavery and urged slaves to obey their masters. The Church of the first centuries never denied the right to own slaves, although under the first Christian Emperors the laws regulating the relations between slave and master grew continually more humane.

But there was something in the spirit of Christianity which was incompatible with the idea of slavery; this was the idea of human brotherhood which was a corollary of the idea of the fatherhood of God. Straightforward people cannot for long hold two such contradictory ideas as are contained in the situation where the man you are holding as a slave is just as much a man as you are because you are both sons of the Most High.

Ideas Set Men Free

What happened is history. The slaves who formed the overwhelming bulk of the ancient world, as the centuries went by, either became freed men or they became serfs. Those who remained serfs were bound to their lands and they owed certain obligations to their masters, but in turn their masters owed a measure of responsibility to their serfs. More centuries passed. The serfs attached to the soil gradually found that the land was attached to them, that they were its owners. By the thirteenth or fourteenth century the erstwhile serfs had become free yeomen over most of western Europe.

A change of tremendous consequence had taken place with the inevitability of gradualness. The minds of men seized upon a great idea; and in the atmosphere furnished by that idea, the ideas which had justified human slavery withered and vanished. There was no slave revolt, no agitation to pass laws against slavery, just the slow, steady erosion of the ideas which had made slavery tolerable. When these ideas were eroded away, the institution of slavery disappeared.

Slaves of the State

But now, in our time, we are suffering an eclipse of the idea that man is a person in his own right. It is being replaced by the notion that the individual is a creature of the State, deriving his rights from the State and holding such rights as he may have at the pleasure of the State. This doctrine provides a climate tolerable to slavery, and with the majestic inevitability of cause following effect we see the return of the institution that we had thought forever dead.

When there is a deep transformation in the hearts and minds of men—meaning a new outlook, a new set of ideals, and new ideas -these things inevitably bring about some change in our social arrangements, either for good or for evil. If the outlook is sound, if the ideas are tempered by reality, then our laws and institutions will pretty well take care of themselves. On the other hand, if our outlook is half-baked, if our ideas correspond to no known reality, if we have our eyes on privilege—then we can have the best constitution and laws in the world and we will still get into trouble. One would give a great deal to know Madison’s opinion of our Constitution after we have tortured it almost beyond recognition. And what is one to make of the citizens of one of the West Coast states who recently voted into law a bill to provide old age pensions, only to find that its cost exceeds all the other items in the state’s budget combined?

Laws aren’t foolproof; any law can be twisted out of its original intent. Laws are creatures of men, and men will use them according to their lights. If strong inclinations run counter to a law, the inclinations will find satisfaction in extralegal ways; the Prohibition Amendment bred the speakeasy and the bootlegger; the OPA laws brought in the black market.

The thing that has us excited now is the atomic bomb, and elaborate laws have been drawn up for its control. The bomb is not dangerous; what is dangerous is man. If the bomb is left alone, it won’t do anything; it will just stay put. And if someone really wants to drop it, he won’t be thwarted by the existence of a rule forbidding its use. What is needed is not a control of the bomb but a self-control of man. If men with a mind to build and use atomic bombs are among us, there is no protection in laws.

Peaceful Change

The way of religion is the transformation of men, not solely into saints, but mostly into real human beings. This mode of dealing with the human situation is not calculated to lend itself to parades, mass meetings, newspaper headlines, or afternoon teas. It has only one thing to recommend it—it is the right way; and being right, it is the way to which men will eventually turn, although perhaps not in the immediate future.

“Men still call for special revolutions,” wrote Ibsen, “for revolutions in politics, in externals. But all that sort of thing is trumpery. It is the soul of man that must revolt.” This revolution in the soul takes place without shouting or fanfare, without the breaking of heads or the destruction of property; when it occurs, it takes place quietly but with persistent resolution.

Augustine is supposed to have prayed, “Lord, make me good, but not yet.” That is precisely the attitude of the average person; he puts off the determination to do something with himself until after some external event has occurred. He waits for the crowd to line up, or for the Cooperative Commonwealth to dawn, or for the Revolution, or for some other event which will give him the signal to start living the way he should. You remember the old story; it was planned at a certain moment on a given day that every person was to utter a great shout. But the moment passed and there was a great silence. Everybody had kept quiet, waiting to see how it would sound when all others shouted.

This Christmas season does something to us inside. It sets us on our feet and gives us a cue as to the way we should go. Our part is to carry on from there, to carry this spirit which comes to us at this season into the rest of the year. Then it may be said of us, as Dickens remarked of one of his characters, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas very well.”

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.