Tuesday, December 25, 2012

the serious purpose of the infancy narratives



May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

The suggestion that a preacher should have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in another was made by that colossus of 20th century theology, the German Theologian Karl Barth … most interpret that as a call to relevant preaching … but I never in my wildest imaginings thought that this Christmas we would have our actual Gospel text for this Christmas as a subject of discussion in the newspapers …

I'm talking about the debate that arose subsequent to the publication of the third and final volume of Pope Benedict's series of books on the life of Jesus. This one dealt with the infancy narratives, the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, and in the course of his discussing the topic he happened to point out that there is nothing in the Bible to verify the presence of cows and donkeys – the ox and ass of Christmas Carols - at the birth of our Lord.

Well, you would have thought that the poor man had suggested something astonishing – that perhaps the birth had taken place on a passing comet & the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus had returned to earth in a tandem parachute jump … rather than actual stating something that is quite clear if one reads what Luke and Matthew has to say on the topic … and the fact is that neither of them mentions cows and donkeys at all … their presence is fixed in our minds largely because of Christmas Carols, the artistic tradition that started in Medieval times, & the first 'living crib' set up by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century … we have donkeys and cows in our nativity scenes as an act of creative imagining … the birth took place in a stable … what do we usually find in a stable … and so the animals are presumed to have been there …

The mild indignation and indeed consternation promoted by the Pope's reflections are both amusing and serious … amusing, because it is rather funny to see people getting so hot under the collar about this … it is not as if the Pope was trying to set in place a ban on crib scenes, or ordering the faithful to dispose of all non-biblical figures from the nativity sets they have under their trees … it was simply a passing comment on the facts … funny too because much of the upset seemed to be coming from people who have almost no interest in religion in general, but do like their little Christmas traditions … even if for them they are all but divorced from Christianity …

But it is serious too, because it points to the fact that we have all but exclusively become locked into a kind of 'sentimental interpretation' of the Infancy Narratives … for most of us they have become very much about the cute Baby Jesus lying in a splinter free manger filled with antiseptically clean straw, gazed at by a serenely beautiful Virgin Mary, & surrounded by all the usual suspects of a crib scene in a stable you could eat your dinner off the floor of … and that picture postcard image is all very pretty and all very nice … as long as it doesn't get in the way of the serious business of what the St Matthew and St Luke were trying to convey when they gave us their Gospel accounts of the birth of our Lord and Saviour. 


And the truth is they had no interest in saccharine sentimentality … if they had, there would have been a lot more cutesy details, talking about how lovely the baby looked, and what he weighed, and what a lovely little curl he had, etcetera, etcetera … no, they had a very sombre theological purpose … and that was to make it absolutely clear to us that this was no ordinary birth, that was the promised Messiah and the how and the where and the when of his birth fulfilled the Old Testament prophesies about him … and more, that he was the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born to a pure virgin … someone who at his birth angels would burst forth from heaven singing about … someone whom wise men would follow a star to find … and someone whom people like Herod would stop at nothing to kill … Matthew and Luke had no interest in setting the scene for a cosy little Christmas card photo-opportunity … they wanted to make it crystal clear that this was the Lord of the universe breaking into our world, and that this was why he was someone who could teach with absolute authority … and why he was someone who could redeem us from our sins …

I mentioned at the beginning what Karl Barth had to say about preachers having a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other … he said a bit more than that on the subject … he also said the preacher should interpret what the papers said from our Bibles … & interpreting this reaction to what Pope Benedict had to say thus, I think it shows there is a danger of allowing the trappings of the Christmas season to become more important than Christmas itself … that all the add-ons can serve to obscure the birth of Christ and the Incarnation of God as man … and so this Christmas my prayer for us all is that even as we enjoy all the good things of the season we do not lose sight of its real meaning … and commit ourselves anew to proclaiming that meaning to the world … Amen.

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