The absence from modern life of both the higher and lower forms of faith

With the burning of Christmas trees, its been pushed to the forefront of our collective thought this Advent season: How are Christmas trees representative of Christian worship? Its what the national conversation has been about the past couple of days. Chesterton attempts to tell us why they are and the answer may surprise you!

Is our Advent preparation for Christ to be austere and nothing else? All spirit and no thought to flesh? Well, we are still in the flesh, aren’t we and yet we aspire to the spirit and we have a God who came to us as both fully man and fully God. Can we not have both higher and lower forms of faith? Can we not have Christmas trees and Christmas customs along with our higher worship of the spiritual changes to which we aspire? It is that paradox that we discuss today with an observation from the Prince of Paradox himself. In his winsome way, Chesterton is describing Christ’s hypostatic union, the theology of humanity and divinity in one individual existence. The paradox of paradoxes.

It is that point on which Chesterton contends that we must accept our human nature and our spiritual nature and our desire to express both in an acceptable way. In a paradox about Christmas itself, which is about the birth of Christ, Chesterton uses a phrase – turnip ghosts – in his essay on Christmas that alludes to All Hallows Eve, which is about the dead who have become saints – flesh and spirit together. Terry Pratchett, a reader of Chesterton himself, includes a similar reference to turnips in his classic Christmas send up on the modern day Santa, Hogfather.

A scene from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather with the allusion to turnips, porkpies and sherry being left out for the Hogfather as ‘Father Christmas’ instead of cookies and milk for Santa Claus.

The term ‘turnip ghosts‘ is a reference to an English version of the Jack O- lanterns of Halloween. Chesterton is saying that if you are going to see such action as taking a holy day of remembrance of the dead saints who have gone before us and memorializing such by cutting up turnips and sticking lights in them as ‘vulgar‘ then perhaps eating turnips for Christmas dinner might be considered of the same vulgarity. Because both actions remind us of our fallen nature at the same time they remind us of the higher nature we possess through Christ, that dual nature that Christ Himself is – both fully man and fully God. Its that combination that allows us to be religious at all, he concludes. And religion is the practice of our faith in God.

“Let no man deceive himself; if by vulgarity we mean coarseness of speech, rowdiness of behaviour, gossip, horseplay, and some heavy drinking, vulgarity there always was wherever there was joy, wherever there was faith in the gods. Wherever you have belief you will have hilarity, wherever you have hilarity you will have some dangers. And as creed and mythology produce this gross and vigorous life, so in its turn this gross and vigorous life will always produce creed and mythology. If we ever get the English back on to the English land they will become again a religious people, if all goes well, a superstitious people. The absence from modern life of both the higher and lower forms of faith is largely due to a divorce from nature and the trees and clouds. If we have no more turnip ghosts it is chiefly from the lack of turnips.” – G.K. Chesterton, Christmas and the Aesthetes, Heretics, 1905

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