A Christmas Angel from Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900
"It began with the fir trees. One morning, on our walk to school, we found them stuck fast to the streetcorners- seals of green that seemed to secure the city like one great Christmas package everywhere we looked. Then one fine day they burst, spilling out toys, nuts, straw and tree ornaments: the Christmas market. With these things, something else came to the fore: poverty. Just as apples and nuts might appear on the Christmas platter with a bit of gold foil next to the marzipan, so the poor people were allowed, with their tinsel and coloured candles, into the better neighbourhoods. The rich would send out their children to buy lambkins from the children of the poor, or to distribute the alms which they themselves were ashamed to put in their hands. Standing on the veranda, meanwhile, was the tree, which my mother had already bought in secret and arranged to be carried up the steps into the house from the service entrance. And more wonderful than all the candlelight could give it was the way the approaching holiday would weave itself more thickly with each passing day into its branches. In the courtyards, the barrel organs began to fill out the intervening time with chorales. But finally the wait was over, and there, once again, was one of those days, of which I here recall the earliest.
In my room I waited until six o'clock deigned to arrive. No festivity later in life knows this hour, which quivers like an arrow in the heart of the day. It was already dark and yet I did not light the lamp, not wanting to lose my view of the windows across the courtyard, through which the first candles could now be seen. Of all the moments in the life of the Christmas tree, this was the most anxious, the one in which it sacrifices needles and branches to the darkness in order to become nothing more than a constellation- nearby, yet unapproachable- in the unlit window of a rear dwelling. And just as such a constellation would now and then grace one of the bare windows opposite while many others remained dark, and while others, sadder still, languished in the gaslight of early evening, it seemed to me that these Christmas windows were harbouring loneliness, old age, privation- all that the poor people kept silent about. Then, once again, I remembered the presents that my parents were busy getting ready. But hardly had I turned away from the window, my heart now heavy as only the imminence of an assured happiness can make it, than I sensed a strange presence in the room. It was nothing but a wind, so that the words which were forming on my lips were like ripples forming on a sluggish sail that suddenly bellies in a freshening breeze: "On the day of his birth / Comes the Christ child again/ Down below to the earth/ In the midst of us men." The angel that had began to form in those words had also vanished with them. I stayed no longer in the empty room. They were calling for me in the room adjacent, where now the tree had entered into its full glory- something which estranged me from it, until the moment when, deprived of its stand, and half buried in the snow or glistening in the rain, it ended the festival where a barrel organ had begun it."
John Donne, Christmas Day Sermon, St. Paul's, 1640.
THE AIRE IS NOT so full of Moats, of Atomes, as the Church is of Mercies; and as we can suck in no part of aire, but we take in those Moats, those Atomes; so here in the Congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that that whole breath and aire is made of mercy. But we call not upon you from this Text, to consider Gods ordinary mercy, that which he exhibites to all in the ministery of his Church, nor his miraculous mercy, his extraordinary deliverances of States and Churches; but we call upon particular Consciences, by occasion of this Text, to call to minde Gods occasionall mercies to them; such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a naturall man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies; A man wakes at midnight full of unclean thoughts, and he heares a passing Bell; this is an occasionall mercy, if he call that his own knell, and consider how unfit he was to be called out of the world then, how unready to receive that voice, Foole, this night they shall fetch away thy soule. The adulterer, whose eye waites for the twy-light, goes forth, and casts his eyes upon forbidden houses, and would enter, and sees a Lord have mercy upon us upon the doore; this is an occasionall mercy, if this bring him to know that they who lie sick of the plague within, passe through a furnace, but by Gods grace, to heaven; and hee without, carries his own furnace to hell, his lustfull loines to everlasting perdition. What an occasionall mercy had Balaam, when his Asse Catcehized him: What an occasionall mercy had one Theefe, when the other catcehized him so, Art not thou afraid being under the same condemnation What an occasionall mercy had all they that saw that, when the Devil himself fought for the name of Jesus, and wounded the sons of Sceva for exorcising in the name of Jesus, with that indignation, with that increpation, Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are ye; If I should declare what God hath done (done occasionally) for my soule, where he instructed me for feare of falling, where he raised me when I was fallen, perchance you would rather fixe vour thoughts upon my illnesses and wonder at that, than at Gods goodnesse, and glorifie him in that; rather wonder at my sins, than at his mercies, rather consider how ill a man I was, than how good a God he is. If I should inquire upon what occasion God elected me, and writ my name in the book of Life I should-sooner be afraid that it were not so, than finde a reason why it should be so. God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But Cod hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe to morrow, but to day if you will heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.