Christmas can be a time of loneliness and suffering for many people. I think that’s why I am so very fond of the new Christmas song from the English progressive rock band Big Big Train.
Their single is called “Merry Christmas” and, like its refreshingly direct name, it goes straight to the heart of the holiday. The song’s chorus exhorts us to “give a little peace, joy, love, and light to the world.”
Not sure what that means? Check out the band’s video for it on YouTube, which tells a story about a lonely guy and the daily grind.
Unlike most new Christmas music, the song is an instant classic, destined for my permanent playlist. The trenchant lyrics ask: “When did the ringing of tills drown the pealing of bells? Who cares as long as the products sell?”
The dramatic turning point in the video happens when the sad bloke, wandering away from his office job, goes into a church, where a choir of children sings.
Bass player Greg Spawton explained, “We wanted ‘Merry Christmas’ to be a proper Christmas song, so it features the Big Big Train brass band, The Chapel Choir Choristers of Jesus College, Cambridge, and, of course, sleigh bells.”
For me, it illustrates how the spirit of Christmas can turn despair into hope. The magic of Christmas arrives when we glimpse how suffering can be redeemed. Surprisingly, goodness can transform the darkness.
Eleonore Stump has written a philosophical masterpiece on the problem of suffering: Walking in Darkness
In recent years, in addition to her magnificent book Aquinas (2003), the philosophy professor Eleonore Stump has written a philosophical masterpiece on the problem of suffering: Walking in Darkness (2010).
In 2012, as she reflected further on the topic, she noted how Walking in Darkness strove to focus attention on “a neglected part of the problem of evil, namely, the fact that, even when he is flourishing, a person can suffer because he has been denied the desires of his heart.”
To my mind, this is a truly significant problem. For example, it speaks to the experience of so many Western people, who live lives of relative affluence and freedom, and yet who nonetheless experience profound dissatisfaction and loneliness.
“In my view, this kind of suffering is redeemed when somehow, through suffering, a person receives his heart’s desire but in the reshaped form which that desire has when and only when it is interwoven with a much deeper desire for union with God,” wrote Stump.
To illustrate her thesis, Stump retells the story by the American author O. Henry, The Gifts of the Magi. In this story, a wife, who has beautiful hair, and her husband, who has an heirloom pocket watch, each learn about their hearts’ desires at Christmastime.
“The wife had her heart set on a pair of combs for her hair, and the husband had his heart set on a silver chain for his watch. But the two of them were very poor, and the things they wanted were very expensive. So they could not buy either the combs or the chain, and they did without these highly coveted things."
“At Christmas, however, in spite of their great poverty, each one of them received from the other” exactly what their hearts had desired, notes Stump. As it turns out, they each bought the expensive items for the other: “the wife received those combs from her husband, and the husband received the silver chain from his wife.”
The twist to the story invites us to reflect on the meaning of Christmas
But how did this poor couple get the money to buy each other expensive gifts? The twist to the story, Stump realizes, invites us to reflect on the meaning of Christmas: “The husband sold his watch to pay for the hair combs, and the wife cut and sold her hair to pay for the silver watch chain.”
Stump says the story shows “the husband and the wife each got his or her heart’s desire, but in a much more powerful way than either of them could have dreamt of”; namely, as transformed into a sign of “the self-sacrificial love” of their spouse.
O. Henry ends his story with these words: “I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But ... let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
Stump, whose Walking in Darkness is a philosophical reflection on the power of narrative, comments that the whole point of the story is “a person can get her heart’s desire in a way that is much deeper and better than she could ever have imagined.”
To which I sing along, with Big Big Train, “Merry Christmas!”