The feast of Christmas, commemorating Christ’s birth—in which God became a human being, revealing himself in the flesh and initiating the ministry that would culminate in his death and resurrection—is one of the key feasts of the Christian year. The story is, for most of us, a familiar one, even if in many contemporary celebrations it is far from the center of attention. Unsurprisingly, gift giving and seasonal food often take precedence over any theological meaning. Even when faith wanes, Christmas provides many scattered friends and families an opportunity to gather and to spend time together, or just to rest from the strains of the workplace.
Accompanying waning Western faith is a commercialization of the feast. Christmas has been successfully assimilated into Western consumer culture and now occupies pride of place on its calendar of consumption. For months now, far before any of the proper liturgical seasons began, its coming has been announced to us in every store and on every screen. Like stars above the magi, we are surrounded by signs of our need to buy gifts, to prepare for the coming feast. Every year there are those who complain about such commercialization—what room is there amid the bright lights and gaudy window displays for peace and goodwill for all mankind, let alone the Christ-child?
This was comically embodied last month in the scandal surrounding the British bakery chain Greggs, or more specifically, their advent calendar featuring a nativity scene with a sausage roll in the manger in place of Jesus. But this controversy obscures more than it reveals. The image was sacrilegious, and most theological arguments to the contrary seem flippant and insufficiently attentive to the particularity of the Incarnation—that God became not only worldly in general (a tolerable abstraction), but this man, in this specific time and place. At the same time, however, the public uproar forms part of a spurious narrative of Christian persecution that fuels the recent resurgence of the far right across the West. One is expected to either defend the sausage roll nativity, or to join the chorus of reactionary voices—but when one ceases to expect commercial interests to have any regard for the traditions of the Church, the whole thing seems more and more like a non-story.
While not significant in itself, the sausage roll nativity does serve as one potential image of capitalism’s assimilation of everything it touches into itself. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in 1848, “The bourgeoisie has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor in the icy water of egotistical calculation…all that is holy is profaned.” If the West’s public celebration of Christmas was ever a liturgical manifestation of its theological significance—the ontological Other is encountered in the immanent Other—now the ontological is collapsed entirely into the immanent plane. The image of the invisible God becomes a commodity.
But such images of Otherness recur again and again, if not in places you might expect. The classic 1979 sci-fi film Alien opens with an annunciation—not a proclamation of good news, but a warning: the unknown signal that activates “Mother” and awakens the crew. What emerges in the warped virgin birth from the chest of Officer Kane is not an incarnation of a benevolent Godhead, but Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The defining feature of cosmic horror as a genre is the total powerlessness of the protagonists, who are constantly under threat of being swallowed up by a hostile and incomprehensible universe. In Lovecraft, this horror is explicitly political, frequently expressed in racial or class terms, representing his confrontation as a wealthy white American man with the fragility of his power over other social groups. The political resonances of the genre are not lost in Alien, even if they take a slightly different form. The protagonists are the equivalent of truckers in space, low-income workers, and the creature that stalks them through the ship (as well as the revelation later made about Officer Ash) dramatically embodies their powerlessness before the wider economic powers that govern their lives. In the Christian account, the Nativity sanctifies the world in which it occurs; here, in this warped Mariology, this birth of the Other is an act of destruction, figuring the alienation of labor.
As it happens, depictions of extra-terrestrials are frequently deployed in popular culture as images of Otherness and the theological themes that inevitably evokes. While often serving as screens on which ideas about social others—whether racial, sexual, classed, or ideological—might be projected, these strange forms whose ways are above our ways, unassimilable to earthly logic or taxonomy, frequently suggest echoes of the divine.
On the fifth of January 2005, in the early hours of the morning, something passed across the night sky over Highland, Illinois. Described by one observer as a giant flying house and by the local police department as huge and V-shaped, the UFO has passed into legend in Metro East, with some residents still believing it to be an emissary from another world. The event is described in the Sufjan Stevens song “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”:
When the revenant came down,
We couldn’t imagine what it was…
The song’s description of the sighting suggests that this is an otherworldly occurrence in more ways than one. Stevens is well-known for his devotion, and religious themes and images proliferate throughout his work. It is not impossible that lying behind his narration of events in the rural Midwest is another very different story:
Oh, history involved itself
Mysterious shade that took its form
Or what it was, incarnation…
Are the flashing lights and sirens invoked the line before intended to recall the angelic hosts that announce Christ’s birth in Luke’s Gospel? Are the three stars mentioned representative of the Magi that came to bring him gifts? It is difficult to say with any certainty. While devout, Stevens is also light-handed with his faith, unwilling to “impose religious content on anything.” Yet it is with this same light-handedness that he treats the titular subject of this song, leaning away from precise details of the sighting or potential conspiracies, and more towards an expression of wonder at this strange visitation. The line between the immanent and the transcendent is blurred, or rather, one is found within the other, the sirens and angelic hosts announcing the unidentified object in the sky, an apparition of Our Lady of Highland, Illinois, incarnation.
The Highland UFO is so renowned that there is even a locally made DVD documentary, The Edge of Reality, available for just $19.95, just as one might buy a statuette at Lourdes—or like the nativity might be used to sell baked goods. But even in such commodification, there still remains the trace of the Other, and the possibility that we may yet receive it as a gift.
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. Murden is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in Prague.