The four men of Schleiermacher’s Christmas Eve present four fairly orthodox renderings of Jesus Christ – that is to say, the Incarnation which we celebrate on Christmas and Christmas Eve. We can tell that this is what he’s doing because the children’s guessing the gifts prefigures the adults guessing the meaning of Christmas in speeches, and four versions of this meaning reflect from four mentioned gospels: four already extant presentations of Christ.
the first speaker Leonhardt describes Jesus as
1) the historical man around whom the church has added many long traditions;
Ernst presents the Incarnation as
2) a worldly presentation of Christ’s eternal nature, in which all can participate;
Eduard celebrates the Incarnation as
3) a celebration of and benediction upon essential human nature reborn and complete;
and Josef, refusing to answer in the same manner,
4) experiences the Incarnation in an innocent and childlike way, free of, or perhaps beyond, the human ability to express it.
Leonhardt, a lawyer, presents his case in the clearest fashion, and a few quotes might suffice: “the very ease with which we believe in the miracles presumably performed by him chiefly arises from our festival.” By saying ‘presumably’, Leonard casts doubt upon the miraculous, and by linking our credulity with ‘our festival’, a church holiday, Leonard inextricably binds Jesus to Christian tradition, “attitudes which would have no power in the sheer telling.”
Yet the same tradition which preserves Christ through ritual diminishes it by forgetting its historical subject: “the personal activity of Christ on earth seems to me to have far less a connection with it than most people realize.” Of this distance he is openly critical: “it remains doubtful whether it was all in accordance with Christ’s will that such an exclusive and tightly formed church should be formed.” Merry Christmas to you too, Leonhardt.
Where Leonhardt remains more focused on the tradition/church, for the worth of the Incarnation Ernst turns much more to the nature of the Incarnation itself. And the essence of the Incarnation is joy “the mood which our festival is meant to incite.” It is temporally unique – joy is only in this way at Christmas—and its “effect is realized within its entire scope.”
That is, “everyone is occupied in preparing a gift,” and “people are planning together for it, working to outdo each other.” Of this feeling, “some common inner cause must underlie it,” and “this inner ground cannot be other than the appearance of the Redeemer as source of all other joy...innermost ground out of which a new, untrammeled life emerges.”
For Ernst, the Incarnation is the Joy which gives us joy, as we give joy to others. Thus, Ernst contradicts Leonhardt by saying that however diminished the tradition may be from its origin, in so far as it relies on its origin the Incarnation, it cannot depart from it.
Eduard, for his celebration of Incarnation as human nature, refers to the ‘more mystical’ gospel of John, where “the Word becomes flesh.” That the gospel lacks a Christmas story fails to bother him, as Christmas is its entire spirit. Because the flesh is finite and Because the Word/Logos is thinking and knowing, the Incarnation is “the appearing of this original and divine wisdom in that form.” For Eduard, Incarnation is the resolution of finitude with infinity; it is the completion of human nature.
Thus, “what we celebrate is nothing other than ourselves as whole beings...in such a state there is no corruption in man, no fall, and no need of redemption.” Where Leonhardt is the proto- Marcion/historian (Jesus was a man) and Ernst the proto-Donatist (our joy is really God’s joy), Eduard is the essential Athanasian, as he signals by his talk of being and becoming, essences and union. But he is also essentially humanist, as he describes humanity as “a living community of individuals,” and highlights the importance of experience, “one may as it were call the first free, spontaneous outbreak of fellowship at Pentecost,” and “a woman also sees Christ in her child – and this is that inexpressible feeling a mother has which compensates for all else.”
It is a similar difficulty of expression which prompts Josef to differ from all the previous – “I have not come to deliver a speech but to enjoy myself with you.” For him, Christmas, “creates...a speechless joy, and I cannot but laugh and exult like a child.” He encourages his fellows, referring to the women, “think what lovely music they could have sung for you, in which all the piety of your discourse could have dwelt far more profoundly.” He says again, “Today all men are children to me...I too have become just like a child again.”
And he behaves like a child, describing himself as being born again, and “taking part most happily in every little happening and amusement I have come across.” This is possible because of a certain innocence of wrong: “The long, deep, irrepressible pain in my life is soothed as never before...pain and grieving have no meaning and no room anymore.” In this respect, Josef completes the move that has grown through each of the speeches as they emphasize experience more and speech and reason less – which is, as far as I know, one of Schleiermacher’s real themes.