Sunday, 24 December 2017

Everyone Can Draw Meaning From Christmas

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst
As explored in my pantheons and archetypes series (which I hope to return to in the new year, when I decide which archetype to look at next), I very much believe that all Quakers, whatever their theological tendencies, can benefit from consideration of the ideas and stories from different faiths and traditions. When I say this, I don't just mean that Christian and non-theist Friends should look at ancient pagan traditions – I also mean that non-Christians should look at Christian traditions and stories. This time of year is a great opportunity to give an example of this, how the stories of Christmas can be spiritually meaningful to anyone, regardless of the extent to which they believe in them.
It's really quite a story, when you think about it. We're going to get into a bit of history for this, and I'm no expert on this stuff, so I've probably gotten some stuff subtly (or horribly) wrong, but the general sense should be accurate enough. The context is of a faith community and society that is living under a fair degree of repression, albeit sporadic, by a foreign power – and that has a history of oppression and forced migration present in both their written and oral histories. That foreign power, Rome, is habitually tolerant of the religious preferences of their subject and client populations, within certain limitations. One of the absolute limits was human sacrifice, which is not relevant here, but one of the practical limits was that the religion had to be somehow compatible with the Roman state religion. Monotheistic cultures could be okay, as they might acknowledge the validity of other deities while cleaving strongly to their own. The Jewish faith, however, resisted the idolatry they saw in even acknowledging other faiths, and while the Roman habit would be to let them have their faith, they found that exclusivity uncomfortable.
At the time of the Annunciation and the nativity (based on the generally accepted attempts to define the chronology of the biblical story of Jesus), Judea was operating as a client kingdom of Rome. This meant that it was essentially self-governing, at least in terms of internal affairs, but that Rome had considerable power when they chose to exercise it. Incidentally, this makes the census used to explain the travelling of Mary and Joseph in the gospel of Luke implausible; there was such a census, but several years later, after Rome fully annexed Judea as a province. But we're talking about the story here, and this history is just for context; we can take inconsistencies as we might in fiction (I make no supposition as to whether or not the story of the nativity is fiction or not) and still see the story itself.
Part of the religious and cultural context, of course, is the Jewish idea of the Messiah. Many individuals have been referred to as “messiah” (or “mashiach”, meaning “annointed”) over Jewish history, but the foretold Messiah, or King Messiah, was very specific. Of course, we have limited ideas about what the views of the Messiah at the time were, and understandings of the foretold Messiah vary between Jewish traditions today. I'm not going to pretend a clear or deep knowledge of this. However, suffice to say that the Messiah was a foretold Jewish King, of the house of David, who would end wars, bring in the world to come, rule while God resurrected the dead, and so on.
And so, in this context, a young woman, engaged to be married, is visited by an angel, a messenger of God, and told that she will have a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that he would take the throne of David, and rule forever. That he would be called the Son of God. That's a lot to land on someone, you will surely understand. Her husband to be is visited separately, and told not to worry that his wife-to-be is already pregnant, because she conceived of the Holy Spirit. While they are depicted as taking all this with absolute trust, and with dedication, it is hard not to imagine that it was a struggle to accept, even with such a heavenly visitor. The sign given to confirm this was that Mary's relative Elizabeth was pregnant, despite her age and the fact she was thought to be barren – and indeed, Elizabeth gave birth to John, known as John the Baptist, a key figure of the later story of the life of Jesus.
As the pregnancy progressed, it became necessary for the couple to travel to Bethlehem, to satisfy a tax census (as already mentioned, this is historically dubious, but we'll run with it). Whatever the reason for the journey, it is clear that the settlement was unusually busy, with no place to stay, so they stayed in a stable. This was most likely not at all unusual; even into the renaissance, it was common in Europe for people to stay in stables, be they attached to an inn or just to house sufficiently well-to-do to be equipped with one; indeed, the conventional translation of the gospel account as “no room at the inn” is not the only reasonable translation, and it could be that they sought to stay with relatives who happened to already have a full house – and they stayed in the stable attached to that house. Thus it is something that one might resort to when there is no room in inns, as a cheaper alternative – or because it served as overflow for the home one planned to stay in. It is not what one would prefer, especially being heavily pregnant, but far from exceptional.
Of course, in the other gospel account, the family already lived in Bethlehem, and there is no mention of the stable; the nativity story as we generally tell it is the fusion of the two relatively distinct stories in Matthew and Luke. However, that fusion story that is usually told is a good one, and so I shall proceed on it with minimal further complication. I shall take the liberty, however, of paying slightly more regard to the gospel narratives than the average school nativity.
Angels called upon some shepherds nearby, and told them of the nature of the one being born, and they came to worship the infant. Here though, the story is absolutely clear that the shepherds were terrified. It's not hard to imagine; angels may be a feature of scripture, but it is not like they were a common feature in Judean life. Suddenly these figures burst into view, perhaps from nowhere, and pronounce that a figure of Jewish eschatology, the Messiah, has been born, and could be found in a stable in nearby Bethlehem. Make no mistake, if these shepherds were aware of teachings on the subject, they had just been told this was the end of the world as they know it, albeit not necessarily progressing quickly. They were filled with awe indeed, and fear. One angel had appeared and given them this terrible knowledge, who was then joined by a whole company of his fellows, and then they went away. Was it in fear or courage that the shepherds decided that the right thing to do was to go and see the child?
And so they saw him, and then they spread the word of what they had been told, and they returned to tell Mary also, and they praised God and worshipped the child. Clearly, they were convinced of the truth of the angel's message, and given the spectacular nature of that display – and the confirmation of the situation of the child – that is understandable. It seems they couldn't stop talking about it. I suppose, in their position, that is quite a reasonable reaction; either you try to pretend it didn't happen, or you accept it and spread the word. Accepting it and keeping quiet about it would be rather more surprising.
Around the time of the birth, wise men – or Magi – somewhere to the east, consulting their astrology, saw that a great king had been born, and travelled west to where the stars told them they would find this king, as they wished to see him, recognise him, and give him gifts. They – their number being unspecified, despite the tradition that has developed around the number 3 – travelled into Judea, and, not knowing precisely where they were going, they popped in on the king, Herod (not the same Herod who features in the story of the Passion, though a relative – it's referred to as the Herodic dynasty). They announced that they had come seeking the king of the Jews who had been born, and could Herod kindly direct them; I suppose, seeking a new born king, going to the palace of the current king is quite reasonable. That supposes they were mistaken in taking the news the stars brought them rather literally, but then, people tend to do that. Herod was naturally disturbed by this, but consulted his own scholars to find out if they had any idea what was going on. This Herod did make a habit of currying favour with foreign neighbours, including to the east, though he was not free to make his own foreign policy under the terms of his subordinate position under Rome. The scholars said where such a person was predicted to be born, and Herod passed the news on to the visitors, asking them to return and tell him precisely where he could find the child, so he could also pay his respects.
Having been told no more that what town they would find the child in, it might have been a long search on the part of the magi, but they suddenly saw that the star that arose heralding the birth was visible again, moving ahead of them, and stopping over the place they would find the child. In the analysis of traditions and biblical text, this eventual finding of the child occurred either 8 days after the child's birth, on the day of Jesus' circumcision and naming, or some whole number of years after that date. However, to make the combined narrative work, we have to go with 8 days, and so we shall. They saw the child, abased themselves, and gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – all valuable items, although that makes them good gifts for carrying a long way.
They were warned in a dream – presumably sent by God – not to tell Herod where to find the child, so they returned home by another route. At the same time, an angel came to Joseph, and told him the family must flee to Egypt, across the Sinai, and stay until the angel told them to come back, a summons that did not come until the death of Herod. This was necessary, because Herod realised that the magi had not returned to direct him to the child. Feeling the child, called by the magi “king of the Jews”, was surely a threat to his power (that being one of his titles, bestowed by Rome), he gave orders that all the young boys in an around Bethlehem, of around the right age, be killed. Every one, summarily. This is known as the massacre (or slaughter) of the innocents.
The story that continues in the gospels goes on for some time, but that is the story of the birth of Christ, known as the nativity.
So, I began this by saying that this story is of spiritual value, whatever your belief – or lack thereof – in the events described. I then must surely explain what value I think it has.
Firstly, it shows a range of reactions when confronted with the direct intervention of a higher power. How those chosen to receive messages acted upon them. The fear, the trust, the confidence. Even those who were not of the same faith, the magi, received a message in a dream, and acted on it. It also endorses divination, specifically astrology, at least in general principle if not in specific detail. We see a world where most of our characters are aware of the idea of messages coming from God, but no personal experience of it, and how they acted based on it. It also shows others who are used to obtaining supernatural knowledge from their study of the starts, acting on that knowledge and obtaining clear results from it – but not being noticeably amazed by this. The supernatural is both amazing, shocking, remarkable, and also everyday and taken in stride. This is perhaps a good indication of the reactions we might have to the workings of the Spirit – or, for non-Quakers, whatever you might believe in – in our own lives.
Then we have the very idea of the incarnation. God, who was outside of the world we know, arranged to come down into it, at least in part of His great being, and become a human being. A human being so vulnerable that it is necessary to flee from the death squads. One that needs a mother and father, and care and protection. The story of Christ begins with a profound vulnerability, chosen by that being considered most invulnerable.
There is the promise of unity, and peace, and life, inherent in the promise that this child was the Messiah. That the Jews, so long downtrodden, even then when the Temple still stood, would peacefully become the foremost nation of the world, of which all others sought advice. Their faith to spread over all peoples. A profound sense of hope, if a nationalistic one, for an end result of peace and justice for all.
Most profound of all though, for me, is the fact that for most of our players in this piece, this happened as part of their normal life. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, despite her gravid condition. The only place to stay was a stable, but pregnancy progresses to its natural conclusion without regard for such conditions. After the birth, and fleeing to Egypt (which would not be devoid of their coreligionists; there was quite the community of Hellenized Jews in Egypt at the time), they raised their son as best they could; their life was disrupted, undoubtedly, but a few years later they returned to their old home and carried on, as far as the gospels indicate, much as before. Shepherds worked, and had this amazing experience, but nothing suggests they did not return to their life as it was before – except for this amazing new knowledge they possessed. Even the magi, whose life was certainly not what might consider normal, given their journey and their gifts, did what they had come to do and returned home.
I do like to think, when I reflect on the story, that the one who did not return to their life as it was should be Herod. He was instilled with such fear that he attempted to remove the threat by killing every boy child even vaguely young enough to be the one the magi had sought. If you were that scared, would you really be reassured that your soldiers had carried out that order, that the child must have been killed? To me, it is only logical to suppose that he lived the rest of his life in fear of the child returning.
In all fairness, probably a deserved ending.
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