The Christmas When Everybody Was There

The soldiers were scattered across Europe with the loneliness of war. The world was caught up in a total struggle. Women had gone to the factories; children were collecting scrap metal. The “war effort” was universal. In many places, food was rationed. The madhouse of consumption belonged only to the war; everything else could wait. And there was Christmas. Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley were part of the effort as well, cranking out songs that have never gone away. The mood was one of deep sentimentality and hope. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” the radios played, and soldiers wept.

Being born in the early 50’s, I grew up in the cultural aftermath of the Second World War. The adults had not recovered from the experience and continued to remember it actively, even passionately. When rationing ended in Britain in 1954, there were those who felt that something important had been lost. At one point, the Labour Party had argued for indefinite rationing. The commonality of shared suffering, it seemed, was a stronger bond than the commonality of shared prosperity. Interesting that.

No one was nostalgic for the war itself. The fighting, bombing and the certainty of death and injury were gladly left behind. But the common bond of a common effort remained a lively part of a generation’s memory. The stories only ended when they were laid to rest. The nostalgia, I think, was for the commonality, an experience that banished loneliness and gave meaning to even the smallest actions. The prosperity that followed was hollow. For what purpose do we now shop?

Commonality is a fundamental part of life in a healthy world. It is akin to love itself and an extension of self-sacrifice. It is a world in which we receive far more than we give. It is also something that lies at the heart of the classical Christian account of salvation. We are saved within an act of inexhaustible and all-encompassing commonality in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Unless those events are seen through the lens of commonality, they cannot be understood.

St. Paul describes Christ as the “Second Adam.” He does not mean by this that Christ is merely a “do-over,” a second start for humanity. Rather, as an Adam, He is a summary and “re-capitulation” of the whole of humanity. The name “Adam,” in Hebrew, also means “man.” It is the term for our collective humanity as well as the man, Adam. As Second Adam, Christ is the new Man, but also a collective new Man. It is this that is referenced by St. Paul when he says that we should put off the old man and put on the new (Col. 3:9-10).

The Virgin is more than the one who carries the Christ Child in her womb; she is also the source of His humanity. He “took flesh” of the Virgin Mary (σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου), the Creed tells us. That “flesh” should not be seen as an isolated reference to biological meat. It is everything that constitutes our humanity: “and was made man” (ἐνανθρωπήσαντα). The reality of our humanity, whether of the First Adam or the Second, is collective.

In the Orthodox tradition, the two Sundays before Christmas are set aside to commemorate the Holy Forefathers, and the Holy Ancestors. It is a recognition that in the flesh of Mary is the flesh of many generations, indeed, the gathering of all flesh. It is a recognition that in the faith of Mary is the faith of the generations that have gone before as well. Christ has come for us, in us, that with us in Him, He might live, die and live again and we as well. This is the true fullness of Christmas.

In this true story of Christmas, everyone comes home. We are all there. We are united together in Christ in the common struggle that is our salvation. This war in which we live is the only true World War, and perhaps greater than that. Its outcome has long ago been determined in Christ but it remains something to be lived and fulfilled in us.

We’ll be home for Christmas. Christ is born. Glorify Him.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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13 responses to “The Christmas When Everybody Was There”

  1. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

    Oh, I have struggled of late. But God is good and my hope is in Him. Thanks for this writing, Father. It is so helpful right now.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Byron, you are not alone in your struggles. It is a difficult time for me and my family too.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The reality of our humanity, whether of the first Adam or the second is collective.” But also unique and deeply personal. Not in a sinful and fractured way though.

  4. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    I like your words very much: “We’ll be home for Christmas” (with all the meaning you convey). May God grant this!

  5. Pebble Avatar
    Pebble

    Thank you! This post is wonderful and helps me a lot.

  6. M E Avatar
    M E

    As a child in the war years I recognise what you are talking about. Most of what I remember is the continuation of shortages during Austerity in England in the 1950s. The end of the highly regulated world was as puzzling as you said. Rich people and poor people were divided again without Rationing and they went their separate ways

  7. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I have suspected for a long time that it is war that creates the most problems for theodicy. I think of how Lewis, Tolkien, many atheist writers (Russell, Flew, etc.) were all writing during or after the War (or influencing a new generation of atheists and Christians). But the Civil War, broke America. Even our “living rooms” are a forgotten reference to the fact that homes were continually used for funerals. I had forgotten the context of “I’ll be home for Christmas.” It’s interesting to me, that when you find a real fascination with war among Americans, it is usually with the Civil War or WWII. These have had the longest lasting cultural impact and were likely more formative than German liberalism, or even why such liberalism was embraced. Theology is in one sense, an identification of who your enemies are. German Biblical Criticism had inherited long-held antisemitic views, going back to Luther, but later through an application of antisemitism towards the OT text. Culturally, I feel continually that we are in the middle of an un-settleable theological debate between Calvinist/Lutheran leaning tendencies and alterations thereof. The Fundamentalist Controversy arose in Presbyterian/Calvinistic circles (contemporary with WWI). Of course they did! They have the hardest theodicy to swallow, and also, the easiest. My preoccupation with Original Sin is that at the heart of it, is it not resolvable without its removal. You cannot fix Original Sin conceptually in a way where there is a resolution. There will always be the elect and the reprobate who are such apart from their will; they were born that way, and God will be the deciding factor of who is who. All alterations of this view complicate it while at the same time, ameliorating some of the consequences – but eventually proving fatal. It feels Origen-istic to me in that a sort of eternality of the soul seems presupposed, which to me also feels pantheistic, and will lead to a Yin-Yang of the eternally-evil-motivated reprobates, and eternally good, elect. Wiping the OS slate clean, doesn’t help, it creates naive idiots who think that social programs will alleviate societal ills by taking somewhat seriously death and ignoring wholly Satan, and other forms of death: living without a father, living without peace in the home, living without worship of the Trinity, living without hope of a future life, or, worse, giving us nightmarish hopes a future life where our consciousness lives forever in a prison in the “cloud” of a VR simulation. Modern atheism to me, is really a theological debate, a literal – playing Devil’s advocate. Some years ago, I made a list of why I was not an atheist. One of the reasons I put down has stuck with me, “Atheism is a giving-up on the possibility of a theodicy”, a sort of -sloth -as it relates to theodicy. War fractured families. War divided women from the home and created modern feminism. War shattered any semblance of an Epcot-Disneyland (Disneylands exist as a powerful distraction from war/trauma, and this is why 30/40/50/60/70/80-year-old adults make pilgrimage to Orlando or Anaheim). It is in the context of war, that your enemy feels like a permanent demonic force that must be eradicated to ensure your and your children’s survival. This is how politics still work during times of peace, they encourage the stimulation of fear of death, and the transference of that fear onto an enemy. The more enemies you can create for your party, the better. You can even invent issues that didn’t exist prior to your invention, exacerbate a fear in the other/enemy, and enlist fools in a war – with no draft necessary. If death was seen as the trauma, instigated by the demonic, then war would be a cycle of depravity: death/trauma/depravity, death/trauma/depravity. War would never solve much of anything. Nazis didn’t die, they moved to America (and were given jobs in prestigious institutions while we mined their demon-data) and elsewhere. Racists didn’t die, they became eugenicists. The divide between whatever “elect” means, and reprobate means, is based on genetics for all of heretical history. How John 1 comes to mind! 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Ah, but what if people realized, that their death was working on their sub-and-present consciousness, that they were always negotiating for survival even when they felt safe, and that Satan was always doing his damned-est? The only way out of the cycle (which to me, is where heresy arises) is Resurrection. And that Resurrection, is a coming home, to a body, on the earth made for that body, among others with bodies, that will not die, in a communion of Life. Pandora’s box can only be shut in the New Adam. The difference between Christianity and other religions is that other religions (which include atheistic philosophy) attempt to normalize death to mitigate its effects, create the illusion of deathlessness through distractions (which allow their governments to deal in death and depravity unnoticed) and Christians have a Lord/LORD (interesting effect on me writing Lord/LORD) who is both the Author of Life, and the Defeater of Death such that, regardless of genetics, you can be born again into This Family. That word, Defeater, it just reminded me now how in a philosophical debate you have “defeaters”, that prove an idea false. In a simple and yet real sense, Christ is the “defeater” here as well, because philosophy is often nothing more than an attempt to mitigate the knowledge of death while ignoring the reality of Satan.

    The “collectivity” in Adam, for Western theology, has been a genetic collectivity in depravity. In Orthodoxy, it is a collectivity in death, after sin. In Western theology, the new collectivity is mainly one of the soul, as the genetic has corrupted the will so that it cannot get a reign over the body. In Orthodoxy, a methodology for reigning the passions, based on the Bible, St. Paul especially, including also the inheritance of Jewish piety, is given to us because – Christ assumed the body from the Virgin (first negotiation of the liberal due to the soul being primary) to undo the works of the Devil (second negotiation due to the primacy of the soul) that as New Adam he might liberate the slave to the fear of death (third negotiation, death being naturalized) for freedom (fourth negotiation, the will being bound to corruption) from corruption, while taking death captive (again, not fully necessary in Western theology) and leading the captivity (ours, death’s slave-hold, devil’s slave-hold, philosophies’ slave-hold, distraction in sins slave-hold) – captive! Death and Satan are caught by the bait of a seeming opportunity to take the Master’s estate and claim it for their own once and for all. The King comes to a manger, only some will see it, only some will have eyes and ears for it, because, it is so counter-intuitive to death. How would we deal with death? More death. Bigger death. Wide-scale, nuclear holocaust. That’s our solution for death and fear of enemies. That’s the rhetoric of our politicians. And over here, in Bethlehem, you have the most subtle subversion going on in the history of the world. I John 3:8, The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

    And it confuses people with no eyes or ears just as much today as it ever did. I Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

    and with that, I can’t help but think of the words of the Theotokos:

    He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
    52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
    53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
    54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
    55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

    The same offspring, not born of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.

  8. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    “The end of the highly regulated world was as puzzling as you said. Rich people and poor people were divided again without Rationing and they went their separate ways”

    We helped evil bring pain into the world, but as He always does, God repurposed it for our salvation. And now it seems that we cannot be saved without it. If you love me, please give me limitations and my ration of hardship, lest I stray from the path and forget who I really am: God’s own child and a part of everyone else.

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Interestingly, the post-WWII conditions involved government intervention in alleviating poverty and stabilizing the economy. Ironic that we still need such support for the same reasons, but there is resistance politically to do so. Is war the only reason for instigating altruism on this scale nationwide? It seems to be the case historically. I reflect on how this perspective is indicated in resistance to the ‘single payer’ structure for health care.

    Would it be relevant to ask, what would Christ do?

    Father, please forgive me. I suspect this comment is too far off-base.

  10. Ioana Avatar
    Ioana

    I was born in the late 1960s in communist Romania. Learned about the rationing, and war, and Stalin’s influence on the Soviet block from my grandparents and parents, themselves victims of the “glorious revolutionary regime”. My early childhood memories include bananas and oranges and some chocolate for St Nicholas (Dec 6th) and steak on Christmas, all of which started to gradually disappear in the late 1970s as dictator Ceausescu decided that Romanians needed to “pay the foreign debt” instead of eating and heating their houses in the winter. The 1980s were simply horrible. We had no passports, we were imprisoned in our own country (Covid lockdowns, anyone?) Those who had escaped to the West would send packages with coffee and non-perishable foods (some of which were just confiscated by border agents, they had families to feed, too). Of course, this did not apply to Communist Party members and families of the Secret Police. Was there community among us the underprivileged? Kinda. You never knew who’d betray you.

    In 1989 when the communist regime fell, we gradually started to get food back on the shelves. That was nice. For everybody in the West from my generation: you have NO IDEA how nice. There hasn’t been an increase in the community spirit after 1989, mind you. I didn’t feel much of a community after I immigrated to Canada in the early 2000s. Have I appreciated the food in the last 30 years? You bet. And the gifts. And every trip wherever I could go across the globe. ‘Cause, you know, you never know.

    There’s much inflation in Canada now because of the disastrous measures during Covid. Did that prevent me from buying small gifts? No. To me, the Christmas gifts are about the Magi. The food I prepare and share with family and friends is about celebrating Christ, love, warmth – I give thanks ot every meal, and every now and then I Iiterally pray that I will never again experience a completely empty fridge. But then, I also say: Thy will be done – because I KNOW, I just know He will never abandon us.

    My community is made of whoever feels the same. And Christmas will always be Christmas – even when they impose the politically correct “Happy Holidays”, even when they cut our gas so we can’t travel to see loved ones, even when they’ll feed us crickets… well, St John the Baptist ate grasshoppers and honey, right? So…

    Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

  11. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Ioana,
    Such memories of Romania in the 70’s and 80’s are bleak and heartbreaking. I am indeed sorry for what you and your family went through. And you are right. Most people in the west have no idea what such experiences are like. Your words reveal your God-given strength, faith, and love. May He continue to bless your family and home.

    Indeed, Christ is Born!
    Glorify Him!

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I say that the joy, beauty, love and humor in the midst of war, pain and destruction is the greatest proof of the reality of God with us!

    James Thurber’s little book “The Last Flower” which was published in 1939 just after WW II began is a really good illustration of that.

    There is a lot of poetry that explores the co-exisetence of war and beauty.

  13. Anna Avatar
    Anna

    Ioana,

    I am a fellow Canadians who sees what you see for our country. Lord have mercy.

    I recently read a new novel called, “I Must Betray You,” by Ruta Sepetys. It’s about Romania under communism, and helped me to better understand what you and all Romanians went through. She did a good job of the novel, and it’s “clean” historical fiction.

    I want my kids to read it as well, as we have many Romanians in our parish.

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