Christmas Eve Reflection
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited”, two of the main characters Charles and Sebastian, are having a discussion about the nativity story while Charles is visiting Sebastian at his family home at Brideshead. They became close friends when they met each other at university. Sebastian comes from a large and wealthy aristocratic family, Charles is an only child with who lost his mother at a young age. His father provides him with discipline but little love, so he never really had much of a childhood. Sebastian on the other hand has never really left his childhood behind, in fact he still carries his teddy bear Aloysius around with him wherever he goes. Charles scoffs at the whole idea of the nativity, and particularly the virgin birth As someone who has in his young adulthood embraced the “modern world”, he has no time for fairy tales and is a confirmed atheist. For him, Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is as he calls it “pure bosh”. Sebastian on the other hand as a Roman Catholic, at least in the technical sense, argues that he believes the infancy narrative, “because it’s a lovely idea”. Charles protests, “Sebastian you can’t just believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
You can’t just believe things because they’re a lovely idea…..
You know, despite Charles atheism, he has a point doesn’t he? When we consider the nativity story there will always be some like Charles and Richard Dawkins, author of the God Delusion who will write it off as “pure bosh!” or myth if you will. Many others though like Sebastian, are attracted to the story possibly because it has all the elements of what good stories are made of, tyrants (like Herod), a pauper who is really a King, and unlikely heroes all set against cosmic events such as angels, and a star over the stable in Bethlehem. It is important for us as a faith community though to get to the more realistic “gritty” truth of the coming of Jesus into our world if it is it to really make a real difference in our lives. There is a tendency to paint a rosier, lovelier than real picture of the birth of Jesus, a bit like one of those “precious moments” nativity scenes, where the shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph all kneeling at the manger, animals all kindly looking on etc. “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”. But we can be at risk of diminishing the meaning of the nativity and of God coming into the world by taking away its very human elements of struggle and vulnerability.
I love the nativity painting by the 19th century American Artist Gary Melchers, which a Facebook friend of mine posted last week. There is an edge and a beauty to this picture that underlines what the birth of Jesus is really about, in fact what human childbirth is about. The painting portrays the Holy family immediately after the birth of Jesus, but before the Shepherds have arrived. Joseph to be honest, looks like he is in a state of shock! I look at him in this picture and I remember what my first few moments of being a father felt like! After Margaret gave birth to our first child Deborah, all sorts of thoughts were crowding into my head from,
- “WOW! this is just amazing”,
- to “what just happened?”
- to “am I even ready to be a Father?”
I wonder if Joseph held Mary’s hand like I held Margaret’s that night. When she gave birth to Daniel and I held her hand I thought I was going to lose my fingers every time there was a contraction. At one point, she almost bit my hand! There was joy yes but there was some trauma as well and of course mine was the least of it! I wonder if Joseph felt as helpless as I did at moments during that night. When you see Melchers’ portrayal of Mary, she looks exhausted. But wouldn’t she be after giving birth? Sometimes you get the impression in portrayals of the nativity that Jesus suddenly was born like light through a window! I don’t think so! I mean you ladies who are mothers here please raise your hand right now if you had a “precious moments time” when you gave birth to your children! The importance of the nativity story is not as Sebastian claims, “because it is a lovely idea”, but because God through Jesus enters our world and joins with us in the sheer struggle and vulnerability of our own humanity. A vulnerability which I know many of us here this very evening feel within themselves. And sometimes the journey towards Christmas brings that vulnerability out from inside of us, that sense of human struggle, just as it does in the painting by Melchers, expressed so beautifully in this very realistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph. Christmas for us in some ways is like a “birthing,” there is anticipation yes, but we are also constrained by money or by expectations, there is the joy of family gatherings, yes but there can be complexity and tensions in those gatherings. We have such high hopes and yet along the way things can go wrong, and if nothing goes wrong, we will still worry about them going wrong. And after its all over on the day after boxing day, might we, if truth be told, feel a little like Mary does in Melchers’ painting?
There are stories, and then there are stories. J.R. Tolkien author of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings describes the nativity and the accounts of Jesus as one of those many tales that can be called a “good catastrophe”, Tolkien calls it a “eucatastrophe”. A “good catastrophe” story is one where there is an unlikely hero, who is often rejected or ignored by the rest of the world, and yet who through sheer grit and determination saves the day. So for example, the story of Rudolf the red nosed reindeer, ridiculed by the other reindeer becomes a hero because his shiny nose provides light for Santa and his sleigh to deliver the children’s presents. Frodo in Lord of the Rings despite his small hobbit stature and his lack of experience is able to defeat Sauron by throwing the ring of power in the fires of Mordor saving Middle Earth. And Luke Skywalker from a humble farm on the planet Tattoine defeats the Darth Vader. Good catastrophe stories are always ones where: evil is defeated, light triumphs over darkness, the “force awakens” and goodness is restored through the actions of the unlikely hero… like a child born in a stable to a peasant girl and whose birth is celebrated by shepherds.
But our story from Luke is very different from these other “good catastrophe” stories in one very important respect. You see Luke takes great care to locate the nativity story in time and in history. He writes, “in those days a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be registered. the first registration when Quirinius was Governor of Syria.” This is why the story of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection presents for many people an “inconvenient truth”. Because if the birth of Jesus and the incarnation was indeed a myth like all the other “good catastrophe” stories, then people could just accept it as a “lovely idea” but discount any implications that it creates for us in how we live. But you see our story didn’t take place in “Middle Earth”, it didn’t happen at the North Pole, it didn’t occur in a galaxy a long time ago far, far away. The birth of Jesus, happened in a particular place 9,000 km to the east from where we sit today and in a particular time, when Quirinnius was Governor of Syria. The birth of the Christ is anchored in time, anchored in a place and in reality. And this story makes a startling claim, that God the creator of this universe came into our world as a human being and was subject to all of the vulnerabilities and the struggles that we ourselves have. There are many myths and many stories that follow the pattern of the “good catastrophe”, but this one has the power and the Grace to transform us when we place our lives inside the life of Jesus. This story is not one that has come from “an idea”, however noble that idea might be. This story comes from something that happened, a gracious saving action taken by God to redeem humankind when God became one of us in every sense of the word.
When I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time I was eighteen and I finished it in four days, I couldn’t put the book down. I remember staying up several nights reading it until three in the morning. When I finished it, I remember thinking “I know this book about elves and hobbits and dwarves, goblins and wizards isn’t really true but I so wish it was!” Our story is true, it is the reality of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, you can trust in this story whatever challenges you may find yourself in, because whatever those difficulties may be, who we are in our struggling humanity is contained inside of Who Jesus is, Emmanuel God with us! and as people of faith we live our lives between the brackets of the wooden manger and the wooden cross. It is the story of God coming into the world through Jesus, but it is also our story when we live into it. As we give birth to Christmas anticipating its joys, constrained by its pressures, let us remember that we are a saved people, not saved through our own efforts or our own goodness, but born again because Jesus was born of the virgin womb and resurrected from the virgin tomb (Chiarot 2013).
Bush, Margaret. 2012. “‘Just a Fools Hope’ J.R.R. Tolkien’s Eucatastrphe as the
Paradigm for Christian Hope.” Liberty University.
Chiarot, Kevin. 2013. The Unassumed Is the Unhealed: The Humanity of Christ
in the Theology of T.F. Torrance.
O’Donnel Gandolfo, Elizabeth. 2013. “A Truly Human Incarnation: Recovering a
Place for the Nativity in Contemporary Christology.” Theology Today 70 (4): 382–93.