There are two great drives inside us: Part of us is driven towards the secular. The pagan has such an overwhelming reality and power that we are almost helpless before its lure. Pagan beauty is such as to take our breath away. Not to admit this is to be in denial. The beauty and power of pagan beauty are, for any sensitive person, overwhelming.
But we are also driven towards the other-worldly, the transcendent. It lures us in a way quite other than does the pagan. Here we are not overwhelmed, we are haunted. We feel this drive as a painful restlessness, as a nostalgia which never lets us feel at home. Not to be in touch with this longing, and what it means, is also to be insensitive. Hence we are irresistibly driven both towards seizing the earth as our salvation and leaving it for the same reason.
At one level, these drives seem incompatible, enemies of each other. To immerse myself in the secular is to neglect the higher things – just as to become absorbed in the things of heaven seems to demand that I slight the things of earth. It is not easy to be true to myself, to the reality of this earth, and to the things that haunt me deep inside, without somehow short-changing either the things of heaven or the things of earth. How do I set together my two deepest longings, for what this earth can offer and for what the heavens can offer, without selling one out to the other and thus cheating them and myself?
The perennial temptation of course is to abandon one for the other. We do this when we become other-worldly, “spiritual”, in a way that suggests that this world is not a very good, nor very real, place. The beauties and pleasures of this earth are seen as insubstantial, mere refuse. In this view, the beauty of the earth, paganism, is a distraction from the spiritual life at best, and sin when not at best. Many is the spirituality, often very honoured, that has espoused some version of this. Outside of this view, however, mostly we see the complete reverse: The world and its beauties are what are taken as massively real, God and the heavens are what are taken as insubstantial. The other-world is dwarfed by the reality, beauty, pleasures, and demands of this one.
In the incarnation of Christ, Christmas, we see, among many other things, how we are to make peace between the pagan and the sacred, between the world and God. In the birth of Jesus we see how earth and heaven are set together and how each should be treated. Anthony de Mello used to tell a little story that can be helpful here in understanding how Christmas shows us this:
Once upon a time there was a small island a few miles out to sea. On it was a temple which had a thousand very fine bells, of every size. Whenever a wind blew it would produce a symphony of sound that could be heard on the mainland and its beauty would send listeners into a rapture.
But slowly, over centuries, the island sank into the sand and the temple and bells were now under the sea. A legend grew among the people, and spread to all parts of the world, that the bells continued to peal out, ceaselessly, and that they could be heard by anyone who listened closely enough.
Far away, in a distant country, a young man heard this legend and travelled for thousands to miles to sit on the shore, opposite the place where the temple had been, and try to hear the sound of the bells. For days he sat on the shore and listened, trying always, by every means possible, to block out all other sounds so that he might hear the bells. But it was all in vain. He never heard them. All he ever heard was the sound of the sea. Finally he gave up. On the last day, before returning home, he went to the shore of the sea one last time. This time, however, he did not go to listen for the bells but to enjoy the sounds of the sea. He had, through the days of sitting there, become quite attached to the sea. He wanted to listen to it one last time and say a gentle good-bye to it. On this last day, unlike the previous days, he did not try to block out the sounds of the sea in order to listen for the bells. He simply luxuriated in the sounds that were naturally there. A strange thing happened. He forgot about himself while drinking in those sounds and, suddenly, without straining, he began to hear the sound of the bells.
De Mello draws a simple point from this: If you wish to hear the church bells, you must listen to the sounds of the sea. That is also the message of Christmas. In it, paganism and the heavens are brought together and one begins to hear one in the other.