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Main | Gratitude is Happiness Doubled by Wonder »
Monday
Dec242018

Christmas a Time to Regain Wonder

William Blake, Illustration 1 to Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: The Descent of Peace, 1814-1816., pen and watercolor.CreditCreditThe Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

 

By Ed Simon/Staff writer for The Millions via the New York Times

For me, few images of Christ’s nativity convey its strange, luminescent wonder as much as William Blake’s “The Descent of Peace.” Painted in the early 19th century as part of a series of illustrations for John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” Blake imagined the scene as bathed in an otherworldly light that holds the darkness at bay while an angel somersaults in the heavens. Within the manger, the infant Christ floats in the air with arms outstretched above an exhausted Virgin Mary. 

Blake’s reality thrummed with a charged beauty — as a child he had visions of a “tree full of angels,” and when he was 4 he saw God put his head in through his family’s kitchen window. Yet it is precisely that sense of the sacred and the profane being commingled, of our prosaic reality being a site for divine wonder, which makes Blake a prophet perfectly attuned to Advent.

Christmas, according to the carol, is the “most wonderful time of the year.” Certainly it’s one of the most commercialized, where it’s hard to sense much of the sacred import between Black Friday and the perennial culture-war scuffles over the meaning of the season. How much better, then, to see the holiday through Blake’s eyes, where “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” One need not be a conventional Christian — I’m not — to see the significance of the nativity story. Because what the nativity story conveys is a narrative of wonder threaded through prosaic reality, where the birth of a child is an act of God’s self-creation, where a manger can be the site of the universe’s new genesis. Perhaps Blake’s seeing angels in trees and God in his kitchen is the true nature of things, and everyday appearances are the real delusions.

It is difficult to see those angels today. We live less in an “age of wonder” than we do in an age of anger, anxiety and fear; the age of the weaponized tweet and horrific push notification. I don’t believe that one can die from lack of wonder, but I’m certain that a deficit of it will ensure that one has never really lived. If that’s true, then few of us, including myself, are really totally alive in this anxious age, for anxiety is the great enemy of wonder. Anxiety implores us to retreat, wonder to expand; ignorance festers in small minds, wonder spreads out from the open one; fear demands we build walls, wonder that we tear them all down. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed in his “Culture and Value” that “Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples.” What would it mean here and now to cleanse the doors of perception, to reclaim this strange awareness we call wonder?

The power of the story of the nativity is its ability to transform our prosaic experience. One need not be a believer to see the value in this. What would appear to be a humble human birth is at the same time holy and miraculous, with animals laid down before the Lord, and the star of Bethlehem guiding the Magi to Christ’s cradle. 

To wonder is to dwell in amazement, surprise and the miraculous. One can experience wonder when meditating upon the magnitude of the universe, or in contemplating Blake’s poetry or art. Wonder is when we apprehend the sublime and the magnificent in what we encounter every day, with both humility and delight. The wonder in the Christmas story is that something as human as a baby could also be something as foreign as God.

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In thinking about the meaning of the nativity today, I find its most potent and radical message to be one not just of wonder, but of wonder as means of approaching difference, of experiencing and understanding the Other. As God, Christ is supposed to be radically foreign, but as Jesus he is intimately human. The theology of incarnation explains that union’s tension, but the broader philosophical implications concern how love must be inculcated by wonder at this paradox. The philosopher Simon Critchley, describing the contours for a “faith of the faithless,” writes that “Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination … the imaginative projection of love onto all creatures.”

Wonder is the antidote to hatred, for wonder is fundamentally radical. Had Herod any sense of wonder for the exquisite singularity of all people, would the massacre of the innocents have commenced? If we had wonder at the individual universe that is each fellow human, at the cosmic complexity of other people, would we put refugees in cages?

We do not have to look far into the current state of the world to realize that this time requires a return to wonder — what I would call a “politics of wonder,” predicated on both empathy and celebration of difference. Those of us, religious believers or not, who understand the profound meaning of the nativity must fight on behalf of wonder and in the service of a future society that places wonder at its very center. 

If a “right to wonder” sounds utopian or quixotic, if it implies radical reorientation and questioning, it is seems untenable or strange, then that’s precisely the point. To put wonder at the center of our personal and political lives is not denialism, but a rebellion against the life-denying strictures of the present. To wonder is an act of resistance, and an act of love. We require this not just on Christmas, but on every day of the year, not just because it may save our lives, but also because it will remind us of why they need saving in the first place.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions, an editor at Berfrois, and an adjunct assistant professor of English and media studies at Bentley University. He is the author of “America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion.”

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