The Light of Wisdom
+ Fr. Alexander Schmemann
(One of many talks given by Fr. Alexander Schmemann over the course of almost thirty years over Radio Liberty and directed toward those living under a repressive regime in the Soviet Union. According to the translator, Fr. John Jillions, "In these talks Fr. Schmemann was combating the anti-spiritual forces of atheist propaganda. The talks lose none of their force when put in the context of another front of the same war, the front of modern secularism.")
"Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom..." The main hymn of Christmas begins by affirming that in Christ's birth, the world is given not only the image of a perfect human being, but also "the light of wisdom," the most transcendent and all-embracing revelation of meaning. The light of wisdom! Here precisely is the ancient battleground against Christianity and Christ. Arrayed in opposition are all who, in the name of wisdom, feel compelled to destroy everything in any way related to the Child from Bethlehem. Their argument with Christianity and Christ has continued for almost two thousand years.
The Apostle Paul came to the Areopagus in Athens, where all the bright lights of science and philosophy held court, and there, at antiquity's heart, he preached the crucified and resurrected Christ. These sages mocked him; and soon, it was as if all the power of the great Roman Empire joined them in mockery and offered support. For two hundred years Rome fought, persecuted, and killed Christians, labeling them expendable outlaws and pariahs. Christians were slandered, their teachings derided, their rituals ridiculed. But in the midst of this darkness and malice the same Apostle Paul writes to the Christians with such simplicity and tranquility: "We are treated as impostors and yet are true; as unknown and yet well known; as dying and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6: 8-10).
The years went by. Little by little the philosophers and scholars began to reflect on the teaching that once seemed to them so incomprehensible, irrational and peculiar. Consider for example a second century philosopher named Justin, whose works have come down to us. His whole life had been spent in pursuit of truth; he had studied every area of knowledge, and finally he came to Christianity. What led him to this persecuted faith and to a martyr's death? His answer: "the light of wisdom." He discovered the transcendent and all-encompassing wisdom of Christian revelation. He discovered that Christianity alone was capable of answering all questions and satisfying completely the mind's seeking and the heart's thirst.
A few more decades, and we find another representative of ancient Olympus: Clement of Alexandria. With him as well, Christian faith is revealed as the height of human reason, the goal and fulfillment of all searching and hope. Christianity, he said, is meaning and wisdom itself, or "Logos." The gospels claim that Christ is the Logos, the Word who gives meaning and makes sense of everything else.
How many there were like Justin and Clement. The Empire itself finally bowed its proud head before the Crucified Teacher whom she so long disdained. Thus began the Christian era in human history and culture. Is it really possible to forget the roots which gave rise to virtually everything through which we live and breathe in western society? Christianity has entered the flesh and blood of our life, and without it we can understand neither art, nor philosophy, nor science.
Today, however, the pride of the human mind rebels once again against the treasure-house of wisdom, goodness and beauty. What holds this rebellion together? Raw power; for in the final analysis, the enemies of Christianity have no other arguments whatsoever except slander and propaganda. In answer, and with no less force, the churches ring out with a song of victory: "Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom..." With conviction equal to that of our opponents, and just as firmly, we proclaim that honest searching, thirst, and love for the truth will sooner or later lead to Christ. "For in him was life, and the life was the light of men...The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1: 4-5). It is precisely in this affirmation, in this confession, that we find the meaning of Christmas. The light of wisdom which entered the world and began to shine within it those two thousand years ago has neither left us, nor been extinguished. We have progressed so much in our study of the world in these twenty centuries, that the best minds of our time are beginning to sense God's glory and the light of His wisdom as they explore the limits of the universe, its order and its beauty. The star which led the wise men to the cave is no longer simply a touching story, as once again we hear the eternal truth of the psalm: "The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork!" (Psalm 19:1).
The whole world strives for unity, peace, love. But are these to be found in economics? In the arms race? In competition? It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is an ever-deepening desire for something that will truly go to the very heart of humanity, as the all-illuminating light of life. Yet the "very heart" is no other than Christ Himself. And there is no other path to this heart except the path He gave in the commandment of love: "Love one another, even as I have loved you..." (John 13:34). And there is no other wisdom and no other goal except the Kingdom of God He proclaimed. The light of Christmas is precisely this cosmic light and love. With spiritual hearing we can still hear the very same triumphant praise of two thousand years ago: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men" (Luke 2:14). With spiritual eyesight we can see the same light of wisdom, and with spiritual voices we can respond to this joyful proclamation with the same song of thanksgiving: "Christ is born; glorify him! Christ comes from heaven; go to meet him? Christ is on earth; be uplifted!" (Nativity Canon at the Matins Service).