On the meaning of Christmas

It was Karl Jaspers (I think) who borrowed the term “axial moment” from structural engineering to describe the Christian “philosophy of history.” He refers (of course) to the intersection of Eternity with historical Time, in the person of Christ.

A good geometric diagram of this is presented — intentionally, I think — in the famous fresco of The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (here). There is the equivalent of a horizon line, inscribed along the top edge of the sepulchre in this painting, and against a descending side, four soldiers are presented, sleeping in what we might call the “old world.” Christ rises into the “new world” above them; but is also the unifying centre of the whole composition.

The geometry is as striking as the anatomy of the lance-bearing soldier. There are two vanishing points. One is at the centre of the sepulchre line, the other directly above it at the centre of Christ’s face; so that we have the curious effect of looking down from up, and up from down, simultaneously. There is a further transformation from left to right, in the blossoming of the landscape, which completes the quartering divisions of a sublimated Crucifix.

The commission was for the Residenza of Sansepulcro, in Tuscany. In this location, the fresco served to bridge the sacred and profane. It was placed to be the focus of prayer before town hall meetings. It represented this intersection between supernatural and mundane. It presents the living history of the world, as a man of the fifteenth century would understand it; and as any Christian would have understood it through many centuries before, and several after. Yet few, even among Christians, or art historians, can make sense of it today. We can see what the picture contains, but not what it means.

Everything “below,” or previous to, that temporal line, looks forward to it, as the Hebrew Prophets to the Messianic Age. Everything above is a consequence of the descent of Christ, from Heaven.

Though I have had a chance only to peruse, there is a new book by Richard B. Hayes, which continues his remarkable work on what the writers of the New Testament meant by so pregnant a phrase as, “According to the Scripture.” From what I can see, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (here) is a sharp dispersal of the pettifog obscurantism that has always been, in effect, the credo of “Biblical Criticism” — which presumes the Evangelists were “spinning” the Old Testament passages they quoted. It is clearly a brilliant book, of theological inquiry, casting light just where the shadows of modern scholarship have fallen most thickly.

But what has it to do with Christmas?

It is this sense of the meaning, not only “of life” but of history, that we must recover; and Christmas will do merrily as a time to struggle for it in our minds. We are not part of some meandering and essentially pointless “evolution.” We are not accidentally smart apes. We are instead part of a cosmic drama which has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. And if this could be comprehended by the simplest people, many centuries ago, we are capable of comprehending it today.