The Challenge of the Manger: The Deep Meaning of the Nativity

The Image of the Nativity Scene

Even in such a vigorously secular country such as Britain, much of our festive artwork and advertising is still littered with scenes from the Nativity; filling greeting cards, Advent Calendars, and shop fronts with the kind of religious iconography which is positively alien to most of us the rest of the year. Given the crass commercialism which is everywhere apparent in our contemporary notion of Christmas, it seems strange that this image of the shabby shepherds huddling around a tatty manger still has resonance in an age of LED Christmas trees and chocolate snowmen. What is it about the birth of this child which still has the power to capture our culture at least artistically? It certainly isn’t the background of the baby that moves us to depict him. Sadly, the surroundings of material deprivation in which Jesus was born is today shared by 1,000,000,000 of the world’s children and yet only organisations like Oxfam dare to put up their faces in the shop window. All right, what about his teachings? Does that give the Nativity its power? I don’t think so. History is never short of great orators or formidable moral teachers and yet the birthdays of most of the world’s great sages go unmarked. So, it is that modern Greeks continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus but you won’t find many Greeks celebrating the birth of Socrates! So, if the appeal is not in the biography or in the teaching, what keeps the Nativity in our minds and on our Christmas cards? Its endurance I suggest lies in the events following Jesus’ death. If you traveled back in time and asked a second-century Christian, ‘Why do you remember Jesus’ birth’? They would probably say “Because Jesus’ rose from the dead”. Determining what exactly “rose from the dead” meant to such a first-century person would be a tricky business, partly because the earliest oral sources which end up in the Gospels aren’t entirely sure themselves what happened. Yet the sources are at least agreed on a few points:

  • Jesus was executed under Roman supervision and buried
  • The disciples were disheartened and scattered.
  • Three days later, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some female followers (the New Testament writers differ on the precise details here)
  • The person of Jesus appeared to the disciples physically

Without the last two events, the birth of this little baby born in Palestine would probably have never come to the attention of the world at large and thus Christianity would never have been born. Indeed, without the resurrection (or an earth-shaking event very much like it) Jesus’ followers would have remained demoralised, unable to preach their Master’s message, much less put their lives on the line for it no matter how much Mary insisted upon what the Gabriel had told her. After all, doubt is nothing new and most of us need a good shake before we accept the incredible. We need more than visions or hearsay to accept a life change. Thus, it is the Resurrection (and not the star, the magi or even virgin birth) which makes the first Christmas coherent for the early followers of Jesus. That isn’t to say the Nativity stories don’t reveal important dimensions of the Gospel. For Friends, this is indeed the first Quaker story, a narrative in which we glance our own reflection. Our Peace Testimony permeates the nativity in Luke and Matthew. When Friends campaign against war and injustice the divine declaration given to the Shepherds is brought to life again: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). When Friends genuinely practice our Testimony to Equality, we sing along with the prophetic voice of Mary, who filled with the Spirit tells us how despite her lowly status in the eyes of society, God ‘has lifted up the humble… filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Here is also the call to value simplicity. God decides to manifest not in the halls of emperors and tyrants but in a ram shack through the body a frightened young woman. What about the Truth Testimony? Oddly I think the greatest mirror of truth in the Christmas Story is King Herod. He represents the world of which we are all familiar; one marred by the politics of fear, mutual suspicion, and violence. Raging and sneering against a new light that he cannot comprehend, Herod is not able to let go of the belief that order is based on fear and leadership on the spilling of blood. In Herod’s own darkness and insecurity, we see more clearly ‘the light’ the little child born in Bethlehem offers. He is a ruler without earthly power, without armies or principalities, without popular majorities or a solve-all-your-problems manifesto. He only has love and the sacrifices which absolute dedication to love requires.

The Resurrection and Hope Fulfilled

But as a cynical news cycle reminds us, lots of people have high ideals, but most of the time they come to nothing. Movements for justice fizzle out, revolutions are subverted and people remain oppressed. How do we know that the grand life of love and suffering inaugurated by Jesus means anything? Isn’t it certain that in this world, the corrupt kings always win?  This is where the empty tomb comes bursting into view. Early Christians continued to tell the birth story of Jesus because the ideals the Nativity narratives embodied were confirmed by their own spiritual experience. The only reason in my view that the story of the angels and the shepherds appears in the Gospel records at all are because something more concrete is coming further down the track, giving the Nativity tradition substance. What Luke and Matthew want us to understand is that the Gospel is not built on insubstantial dreams, but the lightening-bolt at the tomb, the axis point which gives the birth of Jesus’ its meaning. When the Hebrew Prophets declared that the Messiah would usher in a new age (a renewed Covenant no less) the early Church found its inauguration in the life of a man who had defeated inevitability itself. In that solitary, astonishing event, the rules of the world appeared to have suddenly changed. Paul expresses this next phase of the world as new creation where the fear of suffering and death no longer holds sure sway over living beings. As Paul relishes, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). If decay and oblivion were no longer life’s only trajectories, then the followers of Jesus had to start thinking about the world and indeed the universe in a new way. And so, they did. As the Christian Astrophysicist Arnold Benz notes in his excellent book The Future of the Universe (1997):

Good Friday/Easter became for Christians a new pattern for life, a paradigm with which they discovered the world anew. The only basic facts confronted them as they always had, and same needs plagued them, but they perceived therein a new, deeper, dimension. Even if the present is destroyed and no fortunate solution seems possible, all is not yet lost. God can create something completely new that far exceeds our boldest expectations. This also holds for one’s own life, where death must be confronted, as well as for catastrophes which affect all mankind. The expectation may not be fulfilled, at least not in the manner one wishes. For the new is no automaton, which would turn God’s free, act into a causal event. The future remains open and subject to risk. Christians nevertheless gather hope from the Good Friday experience that death will not be the last word, just as Good Friday was not the end-point it first appeared.

The Challenge of the Promise

What does this new pattern mean in our daily lives? Attempting to articulate this early Christian experience in a contemporary idiom, Benz summarises the new Resurrected reality initiated by Jesus through the following motto, “Whoever trusts in me, shares in a meaningful world, despite decay and death, even when the sun burns out, the earth spins off into space and the universe disintegrates”. Even in the inevitable suffering of the evolutionary process thinks Benz, God is there, using entropy as his method of entry into the world, pushing it towards transformation. I believe it is this cosmic promise that “all is not lost” which drags our increasingly post-Christian culture kicking and screaming back to the baby in the stable. That and the cold weather! Everyone seeks the prospect of a new beginning and a new hope at some point in their lives. The messianic child is the enduring symbol of that deep human need. Yet, having forgotten the old ways of expressing hope (through prayer, reflection, and community) secular society in its love for the Christmas card nativity has no way of accessing its religious meaning. In place, of reverence, devotion, and awe, our culture peddles an easier message of sentimentalism which expressly avoids confronting the theological vision which underlies the Christmas story. How should we as Quakers respond to this kind of avoidance? I think our big dare as Quakers should be to live per the dictum “all is not lost” in a skeptical/atheist culture which says that people don’t come back from the dead and angels never visit shepherds. I’m sure there are many Friends in our Meetings who would agree with this world-view, and herein lays the genuine challenge of the Nativity. By engaging seriously with the life of this extraordinary child, we are encouraged to re-evaluate our basic assumptions about the world (since it is hard to accept Jesus as the baby of promise without also confronting the issue of the empty tomb). Do we as Friends take the Resurrection sufficiently seriously in our Meetings and individual spiritual lives? Or in paying homage to our Christian roots, are we as Friends in fact too confined or too comfortable with our society’s philosophical assumptions about reality? Are we too eager to throw out older theological ways of thinking because agnosticism is easier to explain in a culture doubtful of God? Are we following our sense of God’s leading, or are we reticent to do so, worried by ‘what reasonable people might think?  Do we really give the Christian tradition our attention when seeking spiritual clarification and advice?  Or are we just content with a ‘chocolate-box nativity’ in December?  This is the deep challenge embodied by the child in the stable.

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