I love the Christmas season. I start playing Christmas music just before Thanksgiving and continue several weeks into the New Year. I love the lights, colors, parties, and foods. And each year our family resumes the previous year’s non-alcoholic eggnog taste testing. I don’t think there’s a nog I’ve not sampled. So even though I’m posting this on New Years Day, I’ve still got a couple of more weeks of Christmas left in me, so I hope you’ll indulge me a bit.
I think, however, the reason I love this holiday so much is that it is a time of emotional extremes. The beauty of the season comes from stark contrasts: it’s a season of light during the darkest point of the winter; a holiday of warmth during the coldest time of year; a time we sing joyous carols, mostly written in minor keys. All of this is appropriate since we celebrate the birth of a child who was born to die for us. For all Christians, Christ’s birth is inseparable from his death, the two acts intertwined in our economy of salvation.
This year has been particularly intense for me, since the week prior to Christmas my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The doctor warned us that this will likely be her last Christmas with us. My father passed away two years ago, and now, facing the prospect of losing my mother, I have discovered that no matter how old you are when you hear such news you still feel like you are about to be orphaned. So this year my pain has been great, but in the strange way this holiday works, it has made the celebration more intense. The good news we celebrate of a redeemer who has ultimately destroyed death has more resonance this season as I anticipate the death of my mother.
I am reminded of Lehi’s counsel to Jacob that, after the Fall, Adam and Eve could experience joy because they could now experience misery, that the fundamental truth of human existence is that there must be “an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2: 11, 23). All the more poignant are Eve’s joyous words to Adam, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5:11). Despite how much we humans dislike pain and heartache, it is only by experiencing these that we can understand their opposites.
I’m not sure we always appreciate the radical difference of our Mormon understanding of the Fall compared with that of most Christians. For them, the Fall of Adam and Eve was a disaster, the advent of all toil, sin, and suffering. Even for Milton, whose Paradise Lost posits a fortunate Fall, it is only fortunate after God provides a savior. It was not part of an original plan, and it would have been much better if it had not happened: “Happier had it sufficed him to have known/Good by itself, and evil not at all” (11.88-89). For us Mormons, the Fall was as much part of the original plan as was Christ’s atonement. They were both intended from the foundations of time, Plan A rather than emergency-backup-Plan B. Both were essential for humanity to exist and for us to achieve our full potential.
And what potential! The Mormon view of the capacity for human development is so vast we cannot comprehend it. That infinite potential required Adam and Eve to leave the Garden, to use their bodies to work, to create, to have children, to gain knowledge, in short, to live. They had to lose their innocence in order to fully become. However, just as they were never meant to remain in the Garden, they were never meant to remain in the lone and dreary world either. They were not of this world, even though they had to learn from this world. But to return to their heavenly home required the impossible: to become wise but blameless, experienced but untainted.
Reconciling this paradox required the glorious impossibility of Christ’s birth, as Madeleine L’Engle has called it. An angel described it to Nephi as the “the condescension of God” (1 Ne. 11:16). The word condescension literally means “to descend with.” I have often wondered why Christ would have to become like us in order to save us. The answer seems to be for the same reason Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden: the experience of human life is essential for even a God to understand. Alma tells us that Christ endured “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” so that “his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12). Only a God could do the impossible: endure human experience and remain sinless. And only a God could effect a reconciliation that allows us the same possibility.
So our goal in this life, it seems to me, is to leave here with a different type of innocence than we had when we came into it. We arrived innocent of experience, but we must return innocent of sin. But for Mormons mortality is not just about testing, it is about gaining knowledge and experience. Certainly there are types of human experience we should avoid experiencing (the scriptures and Church leaders are pretty explicit about these), but it also seems to me that it is just as important to seek learning and experience. I am reminded of Joseph Smith’s admonition in an oft-quoted sermon that, “the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 137). Joseph appears to be just as concerned that the saints gain understanding as he is that they avoid evil.
My experience teaching (mostly) Mormon college students has been that we as a culture are often more concerned that we might read something bad than we are about seeking out the good. It’s as if we believe we could gain salvation while remaining in the Garden of Eden. Needless to say, I don’t share this opinion. I am particularly fond of Travis Anderson’s call to “seek after the good in art, drama, film, and literature.”
It is my belief that Mormon authors have an obligation to help their audiences experience the kind of depth that Joseph Smith stated is essential to gaining eternal life, to help our minds “stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss.” I believe many of them do. I also believe that Mormon readers must begin to seek after the good rather than simply avoid the bad. We Mormons know that the Garden of Eden was safe, but it was never very interesting. Christmas gives us the knowledge that we can leave the Garden and still gain salvation.