December 22, 2008

“So Hallow’d and So Gracious Is That Time”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

I’m no expert on Shakespeare, so I’ll have to take the word of those who are. They say that, surprisingly, there is only one reference to Christmas in all of Shakespear’s plays. This is it:

“Some say that ever ‘gainst the season comes, Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long; And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad; The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, or witch hath power to charm, So hallow’d and so gracious is that time.” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1)

This shows that, though he didn’t profess or express a deep commitment to Christianity, Shakespeare saw in Christmas some mystical power beyond words that was able to drive away dark thoughts, shadows, threats and evil powers.

The Christmas message comes “‘gainst the season,” that is, in opposition to the darkness, coldness and death winter symbolizes. “The bird of dawning singeth all night long”—hope and light are in the air even in the middle of the night.

Of course, in the darkest night, in the coldest season, all sorts of superstitions come to the surface: Shakespeare mentions spirits that “stir abroad,” planets that “strike” through astrological portents, fairies (not cute ones, but dangerous ones) that “take” things from people when they’re sleeping, witches that “charm” with curses. Because it is Christmas, all of these mysterious threats seem powerless to harm believers. This is why “the nights are wholesome,” “so hallow’d and so gracious is that time.”

Shakespeare was noticing the power of the Christmas spirit, even over those who don’t believe the Christmas message. The words sung by the angelic choir, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” have come to describe the atmosphere that surrounds Christmas, which seems to make people do things that express their higher potential to love and share and help others, rather than their own darker side expressed in Scrooge-like, grasping self-interest at the expense of others.

One of the professional football players who was victorious this past weekend created a good example of this. I can’t remember which was the game or who was the player, but as with several of the games played this late in the season, the drama took place on a field covered with a thin layer of fresh snow.

Our hero made a very athletic catch in the end-zone for a touchdown. It’s characteristic for a player in this situation to do a little celebrating, often at the expense of the defensive player he has out-hustled to make the catch. This can create bad feelings, and, if it’s overdone, can result in a penalty for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

But this player expressed his joy in another way. He lay down on his back and waved his arms and legs to create a snow angel. Right there on TV! Clearly, this very competitive professional athlete was caught up in the Christmas spirit, “‘gainst the season,” in the face of the cold and snow.

I like to think this sort of thing is part of the aura of Christmas. It is not the true message, but it points to the true message. People who are ready will be led to the Baby in the manger and all he means for our salvation.