I read somewhere that, on this date in 1869, there was anxiety in the Roman Basilicas that the singing of today’s Magnificat antiphon at Vespers – O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster (« O Emmanuel, our King and lawgiver, desire of the nations and their Savior, come to save us, O Lord, our God ») – might trigger popular demonstrations in support of the Piedmontese King Victor Emmanuel II, the poster-boy for the unification of Italy and the modern secular state. Well, whatever did or didn’t happen in the Roman Basilicas on that December 23, 1869, nine months later on September 20, 1870, Victor Emmanuel’s army did indeed at last enter Rome – conquering or liberating it, according to one’s perspective, and providing a united Kingdom of Italy with its desired capital.
The desired Emmanuel of today’s antiphon, whose advent we celebrate at Christmas, reigns over a greater and more permanent kingdom. His coming constitutes the greatest possible joy for the world. But, as the anxiety that gripped Rome that Christmas reminds us, as Ukrainian President Zelensky’s inspiring address to Congress the night before last also reminds us, our joyous celebration of the coming of Christ cannot completely escape the concerns and anxieties that afflict our political world and our personal lives.
In the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to her sad little sister. The girl’s sadness was personal. But the date – 1944 – recalls another, greater sadness, the separation and dislocation caused by World War II. It is said that Judy Garland’s performance of the song at the Hollywood Canteen brought soldiers to tears. That’s easy enough to believe, since the song still has that effect on me whenever I hear it now.
Christmas is a transcendently happy occasion, but we celebrate it in a world of woe. While we all want our Christmases to be perfect, reality regularly intrudes. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really just fine, just as it should be, just as we would want it to be. In fact, however, and not just in movies, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by migrants, like Mary and Joseph, and others who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by immigrants far from home, by refugees in temporary camps that have a way of becoming permanent, by the lonely in their own homes, by those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by soldiers at war (like my own father fighting in 1944 with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).
Christmas does not deny those realities. Rather, it heralds the hope that gets us through those realities and takes us beyond them. That hope keeps Christmas coming year after year, in good times and in bad.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
Make the yule tide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more.
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.