And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
a Baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?
And is it true? As we make our way into our churches or gather round our festive tables this Christmastime, do we believe that the Truth of the image illumined in stained glass is also the Truth that illumines our hearts? In his poem Christmas, John Betjeman (1906-1984), the late poet laureate of England, utters these words “and is it true?”, as a cry that straddles faith and doubt as he observes the festivities unfolding. Oh, to be sure, as we look around us during this advent season, the markings of Christmas are all there. He writes, “The bells of waiting Advent ring,/ The Tortoise stove is lit again…” and “The bunting in the red Town Hall/ Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all.’” The signs are there, but is it true? Is it true?
And what is this really all about? Christmas unfolds amidst the bustling of the “London shops on Christmas Eve?” and Betjeman probes more deeply as he observes the outer signs thusly,
And girls in slacks remember DadAnd oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts grow glad,
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
Are these not in some way lovely things? Parents are remembered by the children? Is one’s heart not stirred by the little girl, grown up, now in slacks remembered dear old Dad with a gaudy tie? Or that brute of a son, never really in touch with his feelings, with a tender offering presented to his loving mother? Does a tear not form in one’s eye? And what of the little children who wait upon the bearded man, as if bringing Mel Tormé’s prophecy to life? And as if from a Courier and Ives greeting card, the light streams from the church and our imaginations hear the bell toll, welcoming one and all. It all seems so lovely, perhaps too lovely, even saccharine.
And is it true? And it true?
What do these things, these lovely things, mean? Yes, the bows and the wrappings, the tender family moments, even decorated parish church all mean Christmas—they all sing Christmas! And yet, can they bear the load of Christmas? Can they contain the weight of “a baby in an ox’s stall?” Perhaps they touch the meaning. Perhaps they give it a nod. But can they, do they, testify to the Truth? And so Betjeman continues:
And is it true? For if it is,No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwellsNo carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
“What is Truth?” Pilate asked Jesus at his trial. Is truth those “tissued fripperies” as lovely as they are? Is truth a half-resented sentiment offered in a five-dollar “secret Santa” gift? Is Truth met around a Christmas dinner table at which one hurriedly arrives, and hurriedly leaves to meet the obligations that are expected by in-law and out-law alike? Is Truth found in the sentiment of Christmas, keenly felt (or deeply resented?). With God all things are possible, so I dare not suggest that Truth cannot be met in such places. And I do suspect that Betjemen knew that it may have left its mark even in such places. But these things, these sentiments are not Truth, in and of themselves. Years ago I remember being part of a choir and singing an anthem entitled “Christmas is a feeling.” Yes, Christmas may evoke all sorts of feelings, but if Truth rests on how we feel, then surely the forces of darkness have won. But thankfully, Truth is not a feeling. Christmas is not a feeling. As Betjeman rightly notes, all these festive sacraments pale in comparison (can they even compare?) with the greatest Sacrament of all, the Word made flesh. This very Word made flesh can yet dwell in us, and so while we may enjoy the “sweet and silly Christmas things,” let us not forget to seek him where he may be found, and feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
May the richness of Christ dwell in you fully this Christmastide and always,
The text of John Betjeman’s poem Christmas is found in Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: an Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse, edited by Kevin J. Gardner (London: Continuum, 2005), pp 82-83.