The human mind works like this. Very basically, we see something and compare it against what we know and then we automatically know how to think and act. For example, we see an angry face and automatically prepare to ‘fight or flee’ — Scientists have shown that even infants can recognise what a face is, and whether it’s angry.
This demonstrates that our mind and language are fundamentally metaphorical. We see and describe the world by saying, “Oh that is just like something I have seen before. That is an angry face.” Seeing the world like this, in terms of metaphors, works at the deepest level of our mind, the unconscious and automatic level. We don’t reason very often and question whether that object we see really is an angry face which our mind has categorised. As George Lakoff says, “. . .the hidden hand of the unconscious mind uses metaphor to define our unconscious metaphysics . . .” [In Philosophy in the Flesh] Not only do we see faces and other objects automatically; our all-encompassing worldview is also formed by metaphor. This includes Christmas, whether we are Christians or athiests.
The Christmas season uses two conlicting metaphors
We like to say that our modern world has lost the true meaning of Christmas. Santa Claus and his bag full of gifts (comfortably supporting the need to shop to keep our economy growing and healthy) has taken over as the predominant metaphor from the Christ child laying in the manger. I doubt that this only happened recently. In fact, since the earliest days of the church, there was a common metaphor for the world, and that was whatever political/economic idea dominated in a particular age. The Roman metaphor was the great city of Rome and its grandeur. The Holy Roman Empire replaced that with the great church and its grandeur. Thus, the modern metaphor of the great society creating global economic wellbeing follows a long line of similar metaphors. The infant God in a manger metaphor has always struggled against the dominant metaphor of the times.
The thing about metaphors is that you need to ‘unpack’ them to understand their deeper significance. What do the metaphor of Santa Claus and the metaphor of the infant God mean?
Santa Claus is a happy old man giving gifts to children who have been good. The metaphor means that, if we are good, the gifts will come to us. In our economic system, if we are well-off, we are usually seen as good. We are encouraged to give gifts to the less well-off at Christmas. This is not usually associated with Santa Claus, however, but with Saint Nicholas, who gave gifts to all children, rich and poor alike, without regard to whether they were good or bad.
The infant God in the manger metaphor is more difficult for humankind to unravel. In fact, even Jesus’ mother probably didn’t understand the significance of this puzzling act of God. The angels had to explain it: “I bring you news of great joy that will be for all people.” The infant God is a great gift that brings joy and peace to all mankind. Exactly what this gift is remains subtle and largely hidden. God doesn’t enter the world like a hero or Santa Claus. God’s gift of Himself at Christmas, and His choice to do that in Bethlehem in a manger, keeps on giving because we can’t unravel the mystery of the infant God metaphor! The infant God metaphor is always in conflict with the dominant economic/political metaphor.
Christmas is a time for going back to the 1st grade in school
Can you remember when you were in the first grade? Probably not. What I remember is that I didn’t understand anything — about reading, nunbers, how to get along with the Sisters, or how to be a “success.” I was basically a sponge, waiting to soak up the water of education. [Another metaphor] If I had arrived at the first grade already full of ‘stuff’ I wouldn’t have been ready to learn. That’s what usually happens at Christmas. We already know what the Bethlehem story means.
Still, when we see the infant Jesus, we experience some conflict with the dominant symbols of our commercialised world. This is a signal that there is some learning at hand. Our task is to make room “in the inn” (our already filled sponge) for the “news of great joy.” If we have been through thirty or forty Christmases (or many more in my case), making room is difficult. Over the years, we have filled our sponge with our own explanations about the infant God in the manger. For me to learn what this gift means, I can only try to stop thinking and return to my innocent state of readiness, like the 1st grade. “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10] The mystery of the infant God in a manger is there, waiting for us to be ready to receive the good news of news of great joy. Try emptying your mind of all your accustomed stories about Jesus and Bethlehem and wait for God to come.