01/05/2014 08:09 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2014

The Epiphanies of James Joyce and Jean Bethke Elshtain

Courtesy Of Elshtain Family

January 6 marks the Feast of Epiphany, the presumed backdrop for James Joyce's classic "The Dead." The longest and most famous short story in Dubliners (the centennial of which occurs this year), "The Dead" centers around wife and husband Gretta and Gabriel as they reflect separately upon certain unshared memories between them. Joyce's final passage, replete with contradictions, evokes splendor and melancholy, lightness and darkness. It captures a levity of spirit born of solemnity, as it brings the living into communion with the dead:

It had begun to snow again. He [Gabriel] watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I was reminded of this story recently while reading the Christmas letters of the political philosopher and ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain who was born on Epiphany, 1941 and died on August 11, 2013 (as reported in The New York Times). Elshtain, who taught for nearly twenty years at the University of Chicago Divinity School, was a leading public intellectual with achievements that ranged from delivering the prestigious Giffords Lectures to advising presidents to holding multiple endowed chairs. She spearheaded and served upon numerous civic commissions, advisory boards, and other institutions of civil society. In addition to her hundreds of articles and dozens of books, some really wonderful writing comes in the form of her annual Christmas letters. (An extended discussion of those letters and her life and legacy is available here.)

One such letter begins with her reflections on "some of the most beautiful prose in the English language"--those above lines from Joyce: "Breathtaking in its beauty and sadness, the connection between this world and the next, between the living and the dead, is evoked so palpably it brings tears to one's eyes. And one reflects on those who have departed--long ago, more recently--and, too, on those who have only recently joined us, whose human adventure lies ahead."

These musings were a prologue to the family news that generally fills Christmas letters: deaths and births of the past year, updates on children and grandchildren. Her invocation of the "human adventure" of youth was a gesture to the hope made available through the birth of new souls, offered at a time when many celebrate the birth in Bethlehem that gave hope to the world. Yet just as the light of hope appears brightest in the darkness, Elshtain understood that natality becomes most poignant when juxtaposed against finitude and mortality. This insight became particularly acute in her final years. Written during Christmastide--that often overlooked season between Christmas and Epiphany that connects the old year with the new--her letters understood and connected the contradictions of Christmas in ways that secular commercialized celebrations of Christmas do not.

For many Americans, Christmas is now over. The presents are opened. The leftovers all gone. One of my neighbors was out boxing up his lights on December 26th. Similarly, remembrances of those who have died are confined to end-of-year retrospectives during the last week of December. With the arrival of the New Year, the slate must be wiped clean to make room for the new. New resolutions are proposed. New pages are turned, falling onto the leaves of the past. This is no time for eulogy or solemnity. We want perfection for Christmas--just once a year--though we also struggle to make it last as long as possible. We want the star in the east without the darkness, the splendor without the sadness.

But this is not how life usually reveals itself to us or how we experience it. And this is why there is no adequate non-religious 'Christmas response' to the deaths and tragedies and disappointments that, we know all too well, befall many people around Christmas or as the New Year begins. Herod's rage and terror has no place in a society that wants only to remember the idyllic birth in the stable. But that, too, is part of the Christmastide story. The challenge, then, is how to discern and navigate contradiction instead of ignoring it or wishing it away. This was a prominent concern in Elshtain's Christmas letters and many of her writings.

For those for whom the Feast of Epiphany completes the season that began in Advent and Christmas, there is ample room for the old and the new to coexist. The sad and the beautiful, the living and the dead, the tragic and the hopeful--they come together over Christmastide. This is the epiphany that Elshtain, channeling Joyce, proffers to us. "The promise of Christmas with its theme of natality," Elshtain maintained, entails the perennial "possibility that something new and unexpected might burst through the crust of 'the same' and surprise and renew the world." She spoke to how one thing can emerge in and through its opposite. Yet the old crust does not simply disappear when the new breaks through. Indeed they become forged together. Together, they become something new. Similarly, the renewal of the world depends on retaining memories of the past, insights of the old, and lessons of the dead. And so, even though it is the New Year, we do well to remember those who have departed us--that they are still with us. May we bring them into communion with the living. May their hopes and epiphanies inform our Epiphany.

A different version of this essay appears in Capital Commentary.