The Pagan religions were, in many ways, fine things. Though far more prone to cruelty and depravity than our squeamishly tolerant modern minds like to admit, there was a nobility to them. They were the fumbling, crude efforts of man to render worship to the unknown and hidden powers that govern the universe. From before his earliest known records, probably from before man was man, he had been haunted by the sense, the knowledge that there were things over and above him, to which he stood in the relation of a servant or even an animal, and which commanded his awe and respect. In every corner of the globe, there grew up means of rendering this due respect, of entering pleas and making restitution for offenses. The Romans had their own notions of it, making obeisance to dozens of different deities and deified figures from the past. It was a point of pride for them to be the most pious of all people, and they certainly reaped rich rewards. Everywhere they went, they found more gods, or perhaps their own under different names. Generally the Roman deities were enforced, though those masters of mankind were wise enough to be tolerant of most local cults.
But there was a general undercurrent of thought among the great minds of the era, including the Philosopher himself, that such things were speculative only. The truth of these mysteries was far too high for man to reach. So, whatever local superstitions or cults there might be were more or less to left to themselves. After all, they probably all amounted to much the same thing, and no one was ever going to figure out the truth.
It’s been said before that the ancient and modern worlds are remarkably similar in many ways. Perhaps this is simply the natural bent of the human mind when it’s had too much civilization for too long. The great issues seem less great and tolerance and open-mindedness replace piety and courage as the favored virtues. The Roman world was what we would call supremely multicultural: as long as you made a little obeisance to the official cult, it didn’t really matter too much what or who you worshiped. After all, as the wise men said, it wasn’t like anyone actually knew the truth: any or none of the cults could be true, so let people do what they liked, provided they didn’t upset the status quo.
What none of them realized was that one people did have the truth. They hadn’t ‘figured it out:’ Aristotle had been right to say it was too high for man to discover. Instead, God – the one, true God, the reality of which all pagan deities were, at best dim reflections of – had revealed Himself to them. The Lord whom man had felt an uneasy awareness of since the beginning, the light the enlightens every heart had made Himself known to a small, insular nation that had spent the last few thousand years tenaciously guarding its religion while being kicked back and forth by the various Mediterranean powers. In a little, violent, unstable backwater of the Roman Empire, man had had direct contact with the Divine, and the secret of secrets was jealously kept.
For the Jews, though they held knowledge of God, were not a proselytizing people. They sought no converts and made few. They kept their religion, not hidden, but their own, just as they kept some of the greatest works of ancient literature hoarded within their sacred scriptures. It was, apparently, God’s will that they should do this. Their history as a people hard largely consisted of a struggle to maintain doctrinal purity among the innumerable pagan cults that surrounded and sometimes ruled over them. Their God, the God whose name was a declaration of His supreme reality and was never spoken save in secret in the most solemn ritual, and who forbade any image to be made of Himself, would permit no other idol and no other deity to be worshipped by His people, nor would the Jews permit the likening of their God to any other. So zealous were they that they had proved they would fight to the death rather than abandon a single tenant of their faith.
So this strange nation in the corner of the Roman empire bore this knowledge within as a mother bears a child in her womb: hidden, yet manifest, quietly nurtured and zealously protected, waiting until the right time to come forth.
As it happened, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, there was a woman among these Jews who bore a son. As the Jews had received knowledge of their God from no human mind, but direct from Heaven, so her child had no human father. As God worked to preserve His people from error and apostasy for long centuries, so she was preserved in virginity even in childbirth. And the birth of her child marked the manifestation of God before the nations of man.
We celebrate a birth not because it is the start of a new life (that happens at conception), but because it is the appearance of the child who heretofore had been in community only with its mother into the community of mankind as a whole. God had manifested Himself to His chosen people, and remained hidden, as it were, within that nation. Now, though, He came forth to make Himself known to the nations. As the Christ child emerged from his mother’s womb, so the True God emerged from the Jewish nation and entered the communion of Man. The guarded and, as it were, secret knowledge of Jews was unleashed upon the world.
There is a story that, sometime during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a message came to a sailor, which he spread through the land, that the great god Pan was dead. About the same time, according to one legend, the Oracle at Delphi stopped its prophecies. It was the herald of the end of the pagan world. Mankind’s struggle to find and to placate the unknown gods was over, because the true God had come among them. There was no going back.
In modern terms, it could be said that the Birth of Christ was the death of multiculturalism. The modern idea of the equality of all religions is not so much wrong as about two thousand years out of date. There was a time when it might be fair to say “we can’t know the truth, so let all worship as he sees fit,” but it’s a time long past. In ended on Christmas morning.
That is really what we celebrate on Christmas: the end of Paganism. Not because the pagan religions were necessarily bad in themselves, but because the need for them had passed, a fact which all men who truly loved the gods would celebrate. No more groping in the darkness; no more fumbling efforts to find the right way, or to comprehend the incomprehensible. The lights had been turned on, and a path made clear. That which man had always sought had appeared in their midst. That which they had wondered about and tried to glimpse through the fog had revealed itself. One of the ancient and perennial woes of mankind – his alienation from the Divine – had been removed.
The relation of paganism to Christianity was not of one system to another but of question to answer. That is why its advent meant a tectonic shift in human history. There is no parity between rumors and reality, or between hearing a man described and meeting him in person. Christmas was the dawn of certainty where previously there had been only doubt, of light where there had ever been darkness, and of the bridging of a gap that had seemed immeasurable.
The modern mind does not typically think through the consequences of its suppositions. So few people who say ‘all religions and all cultures are equal’ consider what it really means. If all religions, with their wide variety of doctrine, are equal, that is only to say that no one knows the truth, which is to say that God is too far removed from us to have any clear idea of Him. Christmas is the celebration of the fact that this isn’t true: that God has come among us, and our long isolation is over at last. Man’s search for God is over, for God has come to him. Our relationship to the world and to the Divine has been permanently altered.
In short, Christmas is the celebration of the moment when it ceased to be possible to say that all religions were equal. Those are its glad tiding of great joy: God is come to man, and the time of doubt is past.