Witnesses to the Light

Today’s feast marks the goal or telos of the Nativity—the coming into the world of the Light of the World and the recognition of that Light by those for whom God has prepared it.

"Simeon's Song of Praise" (c. 1700) by Aert de Gelder (WikiMediaCommons)

Happy Candlemas! Now, and only now, is the feast of Christmas complete. While many on the standard secular/Protestant calendar think it was complete on December 26 or whenever the last relative has been celebrated with, and many Catholics who pay attention think it concludes with Epiphany, it really is only concluded now.

Today is the day on which the tree, whose needles are now mostly on the ground, must be taken down. Today the crèche must go. Today is the day on which I must finally give up on actually getting out a Family Christmas Letter—perhaps I’ll make it a Family Lent Letter! For some people reading those letters is penance anyway.

But today is the end of the Christmas season in more than just a conclusory way. Today’s feast marks the goal or telos of the Nativity—the coming into the world of the Light of the World and the recognition of that Light by those for whom God has prepared it. Clearly not everyone recognized this tremendous event for what it was worth. We read in John 1 that “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (1:10). Our Lord did not grow up surrounded by paparazzi—how on earth could any child grow “in stature and wisdom, and favor with God and men,” as Luke puts it, under such circumstances? He did not face being the subject of TMZ stories and People Magazine spreads. “TMZ reports: ‘Light of the World’ Gone for Three Days—Response to Mother Doesn’t Sound Very Perfect, Does It?”

No, the Revelation of the Light was given to select witnesses who represented the world who did not know Him. And who were those witnesses at the Nativity? Who is in that crèche that I must now box up? I think one of the most profound analyses of the witnesses was given in G. K. Chesterton’s 1925 classic The Everlasting Man. And before I get to Chesterton’s understanding of those crèche-figures, I need to explain a little bit about what he was doing in that book as a whole. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton is setting about to respond to the universal history given by his friend H. G. Wells in The Outline of History. Wells’s vision was the modern evolutionary and progressive vision of things in which things start from a very simple accidental beginning and continue to get more complicated and, well, better, as time goes on.

Chesterton’s view is very different. He has no problems with the mechanics of evolution per se, nor that the world began in a less organized fashion and became more organized. After all, that is also the picture of Genesis 1 in which God creates a cosmos, an ordered thing, out of chaos. But Chesterton distinctly departs from Wells in thinking that man is simply a slightly more evolved form of other life—what the New Atheists today call a “jumped-up monkey.”

No, in Chesterton’s outline of history, there are three important turning points: first, when God creates out of nothing and makes the chaos which he will shape into order. Second, when man, who is not just quantitatively different with his big brain and more complex structure, is created. And third, when Christ comes into the world. Particularly after the creation of man, Chesterton does not think of history as one smooth ride of progress from the less complicated to the more, from the worse to the better, but instead as a drama in which man is created with all the dignity and power with which he always had. Sure, he’d be willing to admit that evolution continues with the human species—thank God, after all, that most of the race developed the capacity to drink cow’s milk.

But he does not think of early humans as “cave men” and modern humans as sophisticated and morally developed creatures. Instead, he sees the history of the world as a history of man advancing technologically, politically, and intellectually, but always hindered by his own lack of moral power—by the effects of original sin—and consequently cut off from the God who made him. In fact, the rise of technology and civilization is always, for Chesterton, a very dodgy thing, for the “lower” and “simpler” forms of human life are more human and the “higher” and “more complex” forms of life often end up being abhorrent. Barbarism is not always opposed to civilization. Barbarism is often what civilization is. Think of those memes of the rise of man which depict man starting as a bent-over monkey, gradually growing taller and larger, and finally erect and looking out onto the world—and then in the final picture he is again bent over, looking at his smart phone. A very Chestertonian meme indeed.

The outline of history is not, for Chesterton, ultimately about technology, but about man finding moral and spiritual fulfillment—it’s about finding or, perhaps better, remembering the God who made us. And in the history of the world, there have been essentially two kinds of approach to the truth about that God who, because of sin, is left behind. The first is that of the mythologists, which is to say, the poets, which is to say, most ordinary people. They see the beauty of the world—and sometimes the ugliness of the world—and know that there is truth behind it. Not only do they know there is truth behind it, but they know that there is a true someone or someones behind it. And they believe that the way to get to that truth is through the power of the imagination—they believe, says Chesterton, “that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”

The thing about the poets, which is to say the ordinary people, is that their sensibility is very particular. They do not see beauty as an abstraction but as a vivid and particular quality of things themselves. It is not “the science of afforestation,” says Chesterton, but “this particular forest” in which they see the piercing light. Do they really believe, however, in the spirit of the trees? Or the goddess in the grove? Chesterton observes that most people are like children; do they really believe that to step on a crack will really break their mothers’ backs? No, mythology, poetry, paganism—and it’s all wrapped up together—is a kind of day dream of reality. It is, as the theologian Paul Simon would have said, all about “hints and allegations” that they took alternately sincerely or insincerely, depending on any number of factors. They are shadowy realities that ultimately, as Christians, we believe are foreshadowings.

And yet a word more about the grotesque and the ugly side of paganism. Those foreshadowings are indeed shadowy, the more humanity went on, especially when knowledge and technology were growing. When children cease to believe in the leprechauns and fairies, they do not therefore cease to believe that there is something out there—they quite often seek out that truth of things on the grotesque side. The relatively innocent side of paganism is often left behind and something crueler approached. If they can no longer believe in or be attracted to good angels and fairies, humans will often seek out the demons.

This is what Chesterton sees as in the late antique world before the coming of Christ. The playful superstition of humanity is abandoned in favor of what he calls a “realistic superstition,” the “sort of superstition that does definitely look for results.” This is the world of Carthage and its sacrificing of children by parents in order to gain good results in this life. This is the kind of magic that is, in many ways, indistinguishable from modern science. Its goal is not to enjoy the gods’ company but to gain their power. I think about Conan the Barbarian before he is about to get revenge, telling his god Krom that he doesn’t pray to him often, but that he wants Krom to help him get revenge on his enemies—and if he doesn’t, says Conan, “to Hell viss you.” It is Voldemort exploring dark magic. It is our billionaires who are trying to become “transhuman” and live forever. It is our politicians who please their base by legislating for abortion until pretty much after birth.

But there is a second way to the truth that doesn’t involve gods or demons—and that is the way of philosophy. It is truly Robert Frost’s “road less traveled” in the history of the world. For it is usually only a few who will pursue this path. They do not take the poets and the poems very seriously at all. At best, they will want to take the myths and abstract a theory about the nature of things or even the nature of God. At worst, they will want to perhaps ban the poets, as Plato suggested. But they rarely will acknowledge that they are on the same plane as the mythologists. They are content to work out their sometimes brilliant and sometimes idiosyncratic understandings of things. Chesterton is content to acknowledge many of the great advances of the great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Pharaoh Akenhaten (the one who worshiped a single sun god), Confucius, even the Buddha.

But there is one problem with all the philosophers. Let me quote Chesterton at length here for a minute:

. . . the point about them is that they all think that existence can be represented by a diagram instead of a drawing; and the rude drawings of the childish mythmakers are a sort of crude and spirited protest against that view. They cannot believe that religion is really not a pattern but a picture. . . .None of them could understand a thing that began to draw the proportions just as if they were real proportions, disposed in the living fashion which the mathematical draughtsman would call disproportionate. Like the first artist in the cave, it revealed to incredulous eyes the suggestion of a new purpose in what looked like a wildly crooked pattern; he seemed only to be distorting his diagram, when he began for the first time in all the ages to trace the lines of a form and of a Face.

And thus do we come to the Incarnation in which the wild diagrams of the philosophers and the wild day dreams of the poets start to come together.

For Chesterton there are three sets of witnesses to the incarnation—the poets, the philosophers, and finally the demons—or, more precisely, the demon worshippers. Who are they?

First, the poets. It was the shepherds out in their fields to whom the news is given first. And shepherds are, for Chesterton, the kind of men who had mythologies—who sensed most “that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality.” They were the ones for whom the message was seen as the confirmation of what they had dimly suspected: that “holy things could have a habitation and and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space.” Mythology was always a search for the truth under the guise of beauty and the limits of material reality. It was not wrong, the shepherds discovered, in being “as carnal as the Incarnation.” These witnesses to the light in my crèche represent the people of the world who long for a shepherd—a true, populist leader who will never let them down. Who will show them the face of God. And they have found him.

Who, then, are the philosophers? Chesterton again:

That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things; and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have bad their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.

Philosophy was, is, Chesterton reminds us, no different than mythology is—a search for the truth. And now in the Wise Men we see the searchers finding what they searched for—the truth, and it is found in a religion. And not only in a religion, but in a fairly narrow religion at that, one that, like their philosophy, had looked askance at the mythologies of the world. I often wonder if Melchior or Balthazar was one of those guys who wears a t-shirt that says, “It’s Not the Destination, It’s the Journey.” He would have had to take it off.

Who represents the demons? Who represents the dark side of paganism? It is Herod, who believes the reports of the philosopher-kings (and who knows? Perhaps he had heard of the shepherds, too?) and wants to use those reports to ensure he remains on the throne by killing this king of the Jews. This witness to the Light is a hostile witness, one who wishes to extinguish it as soon as possible—and he is willing to sacrifice all the baby boys of Bethlehem in order to accomplish it. “The demons also, in that first festival of Christmas,” says Chesterton, “feasted after their own fashions.” And yet the Light was come and would enlighten the world—when it erupted into the world, there was a kind of undermining of our ordinary life going on.

What then do we celebrate on this Feast of the Presentation? Chesterton does not go on to discuss this ending of the Christmas story in The Everlasting Man. But I think we can extrapolate here. If the witnesses to the light represented the world on the search for truth, either innocently or with malign intent, then Saints Simeon and Anna represent for us the completion of the tale. Can we trust shepherds, foreigners, or even kings who believe some tale about a king who comes to right a world that has been wrong seemingly from the beginning? No, what the Feast of the Presentation brings to us is the validation. Sure, you can diagnose yourself on Web MD and you can have all sorts of smart neighbors who have read all about the symptoms of what they think you’ve got in a number of articles and you can listen to your neighbor who either with sadness or ill-disguised glee tells you that you must have the disease because her cousin’s mother-in-law’s neighbor had it and she heard that it was just like what you have. But when you want to be certain, you go to the medical center and you hear from the crusty old doctors who know what they’re talking about.

Saints Anna and Simeon are the crusty old doctors who have been around forever. Anna the Prophetess, we know from the Scripture, had been widowed for many years. Instead of taking up Zumba or traveling to Europe or political advocacy, she had spent her time in the temple, “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk 2:37). She had done the preparatory work to see the light and she was rewarded, for as Luke tells us, she came up just at that moment and saw the child Jesus and and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (v. 38).

Curiously, we get less biography of St. Simeon, but we do know that he was also righteous and devout—and he was “looking for the consolation of Israel, and was filled with the Holy Spirit.” He was rewarded according to the promise that he would not see death before the arrival of the promised anointed one of Israel. Some of the traditions around him are, if not true, revelatory. According to one, he was one of the translators of the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint—and had been corrected by divine providence when he wanted to translate Isaiah 7:14 as simply “a young woman shall conceive.” It would be a “virgin,” he was instructed. According to another, he was 360 years old. I don’t think we have to take these literally to take them seriously. Like Anna, he had spent much time in prayer and study of the Scriptures that foretold the Messiah. He had literally studied the whole circle of divine truth—360 degrees—and he was ready when called upon by God to identify the Light to the Gentiles.

If there’s a lesson for us in Anna and Simeon, it is that we stand in their place. Unlike the pagans who knew only shadows from their philosophical and poetic searches, we have the truth in front of us in our very midst. Do we study? Do we desire the coming of the Lord’s Christ in our own lives where we have left him out? Do we spend our time in the temple praying? For it is our call as Catholics to be, not shepherds or wise men, but dwellers in the presence of the Light who take that Light into ourselves in order to pass it on and help others see it.

(Editor’s note: This address was presented on the Feast of Candlemas celebration put on by the Roccasecca Project.)


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About David Paul Deavel 24 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is forthcoming from Notre Dame Press.

3 Comments

  1. An excellent essay but one caution. Genesis 1:31 And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. God did not create chaos. Creation did not evolve but was made perfect in its integrity from the onset. Man and his fallen nature has not evolved. Catholics should carefully consider how evolutionary theory is not consistent with the scriptures nor tradition nor the writings of the doctors and fathers of the Church. Chesterton was right but it isn’t necessary to concede to evolution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*