Apparently there is some scholarly debate over whether Jesus was really born in a stable. Close textual analysis, and careful study of the expectations and practices of Jews in 1st-century Palestine, allegedly suggest that rather than the draughty lean-to or chilly cave of the traditional imagination, Our Lady in fact gave birth in the more comfortable surroundings of a relative’s home. I have seen this interpretation offered not by the usual atheist bores who churn out endless tendentious volumes purporting to debunk the New Testament narratives, but by observant orthodox Christians who are admirably keen to get the historical detail absolutely right.
I am not competent to judge the theory’s plausibility. Also, if I’m honest, I’m not really that bothered. Perhaps I should be; I do agree with the argument that there is a danger in making the astonishing miracle of the Incarnation too cute and anodyne. Children’s Nativity plays are a wonderful experience – I have just attended my first as a parent – but there is a danger of centering the Christmas season too much on the familiar bits.
I have never been able fully to enjoy the carol Away in a Manger for this reason. It seems to present a slightly too soft-focus picture of those extraordinary events 2,000 years ago. We need to make room for strangeness and disorder in our theology of the Incarnation. “This Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,” wrote TS Eliot in his poem Journey of the Magi, imagining one of the Wise Men reflecting years later on what he had seen in Bethlehem.
The Child Jesus grew into the man Jesus, with those terrifying and compelling demands for repentance, justice and selfless service. He often denounced the conventional and complacent approach to life to which, if we are not careful, our Christmas celebrations too easily conform. It is interesting, too, that the Gospel writers are relatively unconcerned with the Nativity, compared with other parts of Jesus’s life. Mark and John do not mention it; Matthew and Luke each devote rather less than two chapters.
Yet I remain pretty relaxed about the Nativity traditions. The Church has always believed firmly in inculturation. If the (possibly) extra-biblical accretions in the cultural presentation of the Nativity story, like the animals, the state of the weather, and the naming and numbering of the Magi, help people to enter imaginatively into the Christian story, that seems to me to an excellent example of this practice.
In modern Britain we have two millennia of Christian art and worship. We can draw upon a magnificent inheritance of poetic reflection on the events of the New Testament. They remain part of the popular consciousness, albeit in a somewhat vague and increasingly tenuous way. If there is ever to be a Christian revival here, it will of necessity draw to some extent on what you might call the vestigial memory of the faith. It is obviously far from ideal if someone’s only real point of contact with the Church is a sentimentalised version of the Nativity. But that is better than nothing – and it is potentially a useful foundation on which to build.
Consider the shepherds and the three kings. Everyone knows about them, even if they haven’t been near a church in 40 years. Very often their relative social standings are contrasted to emphasise that Christ’s love and appeal are universal and not bound by human distinctions of class. Possibly this is an oversimplification – the theme is not really picked up in the New Testament. Regardless of that, it is an incredibly important and true aspect of the Christian message, which will always appeal to people.
The central question for me about elaborations of the Nativity story is not “is this directly referenced by, or straightforwardly inferred from, the biblical narrative?”
A much more fruitful (and Catholic) approach is to ask: “Does this help to draw out the deep meanings of the biblical drama, to make it more colourful and memorable and comprehensible?” It is possible for Bible stories to be overwhelmed by attempts to develop them – but that does not mean we should not undertake such development, carefully. Anti-biblical and extra-biblical are not the same thing.
I wonder if a certain suspicion of artistic exploration of the Nativity is linked to the more austere corners of Protestantism. It is, I think, the same impulse which tuts at candles burning before statues and the veneration of icons and elaborately vested priests processing through clouds of incense. As Catholics, we can and should embrace it, wholeheartedly and intelligently. Our faith is sacramental and physical. The world is full of meaning. Symbols, metaphors and allusions all add to the richness of the faith. Poems and songs and plays involve people in the faith with their whole imagination – their whole heart and soul, if you like – as well as their mind.
Not everyone can be a theologian. Everyone can enter into a great story.
Niall Gooch tweets @niall_gooch