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On birth and death and debt and hope: a last-minute Christmas meditation

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 06, 2012

Before the Christmas season ends, let me call your attention to an excellent column by that excellent columnist, Mark Steyn. Writing just before Christmas, Steyn made the observation that the birth of Jesus was preceded by the birth of St. John the Baptist to Elizabeth, a woman who was thought to be barren. “If you read Luke,” Steyn wrote, “the virgin birth seems a logical extension of the earlier miracle--the pregnancy of an elderly lady.” Just so.

Shifting to the contemporary political affairs, and more specifically to the international financial crisis, Steyn observed that the problem is caused by Western societies that are piling up debt for future generations to pay, and not producing enough children to share that massive debt burden. The industrialized world is old and childless—like Elizabeth, except that unlike her, our societies have chosen that condition. “The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren,” Steyn says. “Which explains why it’s broke.”

You know the argument: If you have many children, they should be able to support you in your old age, sharing the financial burden among themselves. But for an only child, the burden of caring for aged parents can be crushing. The problem is magnified, obviously, if the parents have rolled up huge debts, for which the child is now responsible. The burden of debt is unsustainable; the system collapses. But our society has ignored this simple, implacable economic logic. The “Me Generation” wants gratification, now, and worry about the future later. Apres moi, le deluge, said Louis XV, and our generation seconds the motion.

To plan for the future is a sign of maturity, and also a sign of hope. We have children—some of us—because we believe that they can have a good life. Then, as parents, we work to make it so. Yes, we are planning for the future—but not just our own future, not just for our retirement years. We are planning for future generations, for children we will not live to see.

Soon enough we will all be dead and gone, as will the people who have known us. But the great-great-grandchildren who do not remember our names will be here because of us. They may not realize it, but they will owe their existence to us; they will have traits that we passed along to them. Some of us hope to have many, many great-great-grandchildren. Even though we will not live to see them, we already love them, and feel richer knowing that they will eventually be born. When we read that God promised to make the descendents of Abraham more numerous than the stars in the sky, it brings tears to our eyes: what a spectacular blessing!

Read the first chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and notice how carefully he traces the lineage of Our Lord down through the generations. It is evidently important to St. Matthew; every link in that chain is essential. Although ultimately Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit, still it was essential to preserve the line from King David to St. Joseph. In that process every one of the Christ’s ancestors played his vital role, bringing the process one step closer to the “fullness of time.” Jesus was born because Azor begat Zadok.

Just after Christmas, in a message to a Spanish group, Pope Benedict XVI made the interesting observation that the feast of the Holy Family is a natural “continuation of Christmas.” Jesus, he pointed out, was born into a family. “The family is, so to speak, the door by which the Savior of humankind entered the world.”

The family is always the door through which we pass—or at least peek—toward the future. If we look forward to the future hopefully, we rejoice in family life. If we have no hope for the future… Well, then, we have our own fun, and roll up the credit-card debt, and let our 2.0 children worry about it. Apres nous, le deluge. And the deluge is fast approaching.

But somehow we will survive the economic crisis. Or rather our children will survive it. The families that prosper will be the families that seek a better future, the families that raise happy, healthy children. “In the long run we are all dead,” said my least favorite economist. Yes, Baron Keynes, but if my great-great-grandchildren survive, in the long run I win. Demography is destiny.

Just a week before Christmas, I happened across a study showing that parents of large families are happier, on average, than parents of smaller families. It’s a useful study, if only because it confirms what should be intuitively obvious. Flip through the Old Testament and notice how often sterility is described as a curse, and fecundity as a blessing. In healthy societies children have always been seen as a blessing.

At Christmas time we celebrate the birth of Christ: “a thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices.” But every birth is a thrill; every birth brings hope—except in a world that has grown weary of itself. The Nativity is an awesome burst of light. But every birth sheds another little ray of hope on the future. And the darkness cannot grasp it.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Universal - Jan. 11, 2012 6:59 PM ET USA

    Phil! Unfortunately I already named Jeff on Facebook as my "favorite punkrocker". But I would like to give half the price to you. This is excellent - not new or anything, but together with a long phonecall from one of my best friends - your column which I am reading in the middle of the night, while my wife of 18 months is sleeping - will change my life. It is like the word of God to me. A word of hope and determination that life must be lived and loved always. Because God is love+life. Thanks!!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 07, 2012 10:35 PM ET USA

    If I might make reference to almost a "voice" from the other side. I pray regularly with a Deacon and his wife...; we had just finished our prayers when a show appeared on the muted TV..., "The Jeweler" by some Polish fellow..., masterfully done, but rather deep, not light entertainment..., a story that spanned the generations, about love, sin, hope and regeneration, about a God (and I think a pope) that still loves us.

  • Posted by: Jbernardcraig8251 - Jan. 07, 2012 9:30 AM ET USA

    Bishop Sample of Marquette asserted the Church is experiencing the results of her failure to support Humanae Vitae. Nearly universal use of contraception among Catholics is the root cause of the "greying" of the Church. Our schools are emptying since we have produced insufficeint students to attend them; funerals up; weddings down; [precipitously]; baptisms trending downward. These demographic realities will dictate Church actions for decades to come. New Evangelization is only weapon at hand.

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