So, this is Christmas….
Here is another view based on the Bible-as-literature approach, concentrating on the question “What does it all mean?” –based on the same sort of scrutiny as we would afford to any other major work of prose. And in its King James version, it is very fine prose, being the product of not just the best theological minds available at the time, but also the best literary practitioners available.
The evidence of the sort of people responsible for the drafting can be seen in the wordgame of Psalm 46. If you count 46 words from the beginning, you get the word “shake”; if you do likewise from the end, excluding the incantation “saleh”, you get “spear”. Add them together, and you get “Shakespear” – in the probable 46th year of his life.
The upshot is that we can conclude that either Shakespeare himself was working on the project, or one of the franchise known as Shakespeare, or someone else we know as Shakespeare, or one of his friends such as Jonson: the best the king could command.
Be that as it may, in the different accounts of two of the four gospels, we have the story of the nativity. In earlier blog a few years ago, I went into the story of the principals (the “holy” family), but there is another story worth examining: the meaning of the story for those who visited the newborn child – and in turn, for those of us who visit and revisit the story annually.
In doing so, we can also recall some more recent and local folklore. Even in my own lifetime (born 1954, as you are so kind to ask), we witnessed the eclipse of the figure of Father Christmas by the American invader Santa Claus. The latter is the product of the New World hijacking of the old Dutch Saint Nicolas, together with the 1822 poem Twas the night before Christmas (aka A Visit from St. Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863).
This was completed and popularised by the Coca-Cola Company for its Christmas sales campaigns beginning in 1931, and drawn by artist Haddon Sundblom.
However, in the UK, the equivalent figure was historically Father Christmas, or even Old Father Christmas, who had more in common with the North German Weihnachtsmann, and wore a long coat of green and white, rather than the short red jacket of the Coke version. He also in some depictions brought with him the New Year, in the form of a baby, bringing us back to the meaning of a birth at the turn of the year. Interestingly, this Old English version combines both a figure of experience and wisdom with one of infancy and potential.
Again, we can return to Bethlehem.
The first group that we know of who were interested in the events were the Wise Men from the East (not kings, nor only three of them, mentioned only by Matthew) – so, some scientists, interested in the meaning of astronomy, having been brought by the star. What is really interesting about this visit is that they get it wrong, in that they take the obvious route and expect the authorities (Herod) to know what is going on. The meaning here is two-fold: first that the authorities usually do not know much about science, and secondly that discovery and wonder are found in every part of nature and science, in many cases where they are least expected – like a pub outhouse.
The other outcome of the wise men going to Herod is of course catastrophic: it brings about the slaughter of the innocents, showing that if tyrants and dictators are not in possession of knowledge and expertise that they fear, they react with murderous repression.
The second group of visitors to the newborn child are mentioned only by Luke: the shepherds. These are ordinary working people, dependent on the seasons and exposed to the elements as they make their living. Visited by an angel (probably not the winged djinn of Middle Eastern folklore but a messenger) and frightened out of their wits by a meteor shower (the heavenly host), they too go to see what is going on.
However, we never learn exactly what they get out of their visit, except – crucially – the wise men fall down and worship the child; and the shepherds praise god for all of the things that they had seen. So here we are at the heart of the matter: the mystery, the wonder of this great gift to the world, which is so transformational that it can only be described in terms of being god made human. It is the transcendental, that which remakes us, whether we are scientists seeking it, or ordinary working people suddenly hit by it.
“It” is the mystery, solved by believers as a supernatural force which works miracles. And also, when looked at closely by non-believers, as a human force which does just the same, such is the relationship represented by Old Father Christmas and the child who accompanies him or follows – we all get and need a spark, to open our hearts and minds to new creativity and to new joy in our lives.
And as 2016 ends, we need it more than ever: a year which has seen a series of public disasters which leaves us all looking forward to the future with understandable trepidation. And a year in which we lost many great and influential figures.
And yet even here, there is light, as described by one of those we have lost, Leonard Cohen:
Everybody has experienced the defeat of our lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to work out. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas, in centre stage, and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and strategy and we’re left on the sidelines, wondering why we no longer have a part or want a part, in the whole damn thing. So everybody’s experienced this. When it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling goes from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain, which is really involved in the recognition of defeat.
Cohen’s evocation of how things can be “presented to us sweetly” and thereby link us to the hearts of others in the great human chain is worth all the wise men’s gifts and all of the praise of the shepherds. It is not supernatural, but it is a wonder. We only need to recognise it.
We can also try to make it happen ourselves, in what we do and make and write (if that is what we do.)
This is the child that I will welcome with Christmas again, and look forward to that transformational light which is always there –even if we are looking in the wrong place, it will find us, if we only keep seeking it.