Monday, 19 December 2016
Why we need to tell stories like the Nativity
I like to think of Jesus saying to his disciples (who, in modern lingo, we might call his mates): “I was born in a stable, me”. It could have been a sort of Aramaic version of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch – a bunch of horny-handed northern Judean proles getting competitive about their relative hardships: “Luxury! I was born in a bloody Roman helmet at bottom of t’aqueduct.”
But while I like to think that was a family story handed down by Joseph and Mary, there is of course no evidence for it. Scripture bores at this time of year will remind us that there’s no linguistic suggestion of a stable, just that the infant was placed in a manger because “there was no room at the inn”.
And, for that matter, there’s no historical evidence of a Roman census that required the Jews to return to their towns of birth, nor of King Herod’s order to slaughter the first-born of Bethlehem. All of this seems highly unlikely anyway. And if it’s not true, then where do the untruths end? At an empty tomb outside Jerusalem some 30 years later perhaps?
You can see why many of us ascribe the status of fairy tale to the story of the Nativity. And fairy tales aren’t true, are they?
But that’s not really to understand how and why the ancient Jews told their stories. They weren’t really as interested in historical authenticity as we post-moderns are, but let’s start with history.
There’s little serious scholarly doubt that an itinerant Jewish rabbi called Jesus existed. And it would be the boldest of myth-debunkers who would claim that the life that was lived hadn’t transformed beyond measure the history of humankind over the subsequent two millennia – and possibly forever.
No wonder young Mary 'pondered these things in her heart.' We’ve been asked to do the same ever since.
Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t enjoy the perspective of that unfolded history, but they knew something world-changing had happened. No one can die – let alone defeat death, as Christians hold – unless they’ve first been born. The cosmic significance of a person who had achieved just that was rooted in the knowledge that nothing like it could have happened if that person had not been born. And so the Nativity narrative was born too.
But this isn’t just to aggrandise the birth of a Very Important Person. That narrative also serves to tell us about what the world was like before this life was lived. Darkness into which a light was shone, the Christian metaphor of choice, doesn’t begin to cover it. What Jewish story-tellers wanted to convey was a world of unspeakable cruelty (the slaughter of infants) under the boot of imperial oppression (lives that were not one’s own, in which a heavily pregnant girl could be ordered about the countryside at banal administrative whims).
And it’s not just about the brutality of the Romans. How about the Jewish law – so much more than just a set of rules – that would scorn and shame a young woman, little more than a girl, who was pregnant outside marriage? Not for her the comfort and relative safety of a home birth. So, again, “I was born in a stable, me.”
This is the world of casual cruelty, brutality, racism and misogyny that is going to be turned on its head by the life that starts in the humblest of its midst. The least of these, a terrified unmarried Jewess from the sticks, is about to show the mighty military and the powerful legal eagles which way is up. We’re about, finally and after a whole lot of prophetic conjecture, to learn what God is like.
And that’s why the Jews told this story, with its shepherds and wise men falling to their knees and the inability of emperors to do anything about it. Because this birth changed the world. And, given where it happened, it was a miracle.
No wonder young Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” We’ve been asked to do the same ever since.
We need to find ways to tell stories like this again. Stories that tell us what the world is like. Stories that tell us what the world can be like. Stories that last. Stories that tell us not just what happened, but what is going to happen. Stories that tell us who we are.
Stories, in short, that tell the truth.