The Nativity Stories (iii) Some Thoughts

I’ve been suggesting that the Bible’s nativity ‘stories’ are just that – two different stories. We do them a disservice by trying to prove, with far-fetched and ingenious rationalisations, that they’re entirely historical accounts. In other contexts, stories present us with no such problem, even so-called ‘historical dramas’ (like Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’) and we rightly focus on deeper, underlying insights. So what about Matthew and Luke?

In these stories, full of human interest, a man discovers that the woman he’s engaged to marry is pregnant, but not by him. What does he feel, and how does he act? We can imagine he feels betrayed, made a fool of, and is hurt and angered as a result. We’re told he was “a man who always did what was right” – a morally upright man. He could well have put that first, acted as a judgemental ‘moralist’, and made the woman pay dearly for her wrongdoing, the punishment being death by stoning. 

But he stops and thinks – perhaps about the appalling cruelty of such a punishment, and about the qualities in the woman that had led him to love her. Despite his hurt and anger, he “makes plans to break the engagement privately”. He’ll give her a chance to sort our her life, rather than see her lose it. This world would surely be a better place if all of us, when wronged, did not at once give priority to anger, and to making the wrongdoer pay the maximum price. Surely it is better to recognise our common human frailty, to look for the potential for good in others, and to allow for the chance of a new beginning? As Gandhi is reported to have said, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind”. 

What about the tale of the ‘wise men from the east’? What Matthew is most likely imagining is holy men, astrologers, priests, perhaps, in the Persian Zoroastrian religion. He pictures them as people who take an interest in other religions, and  who even make long, unpredictable and hazardous journeys, to explore other beliefs, insights and ideas, and to make contact with some of their most important representatives. This story invites us, to detach ourselves from our exclusivist, like-minded ‘bubbles’, to respect and go out of our way (like the ‘wise men’) to actively explore the beliefs and insights of other religions and spiritualities, and to make contact with people who understand and live by them. If only more of us would really embrace the fact that if “Truth” is ‘out there’, it’s most unlikely to be concentrated in the few but, rather, dispersed among the many. Your religion does not offer the one and only way, truth and life. Let’s learn this lesson from a story of open minded curiosity about, and genuine respect for, the others. 

Space, as always is running out. Another ‘thought’ is this – the nativity stories are about how God, to quote the carol, “came down at Christmas” and chose to dwell in a human being. Rather than being ‘up’ there, or ‘out’ there, God has ‘come down’ to dwell in human flesh. We humans are indeed ‘godlike’ in our ability to destroy our world in a nuclear hell fire, bankrupt it by ransacking its limited resources, or irreparably poison its land, sea and air. Or instead, we can realise that all that is needed to safeguard both ourselves and our world is dwelling within us. Rather than looking, hoping and waiting for external, otherworldly help, our challenge is to take personal and collective responsibility. The nativity stories give birth to a ‘god-filled’ human being, in whose later teachings and lifestyle, we are shown, individually, how to live wisely, thoughtfully, unselfishly and compassionately so that, collectively, we might actually actualise the Christmas message of  “peace on earth, and goodwill among all people”. If only ….. 

Recommended Reading : 

“The Nativity : History and Legend”.  Geza Vermes.  Penguin Books.  2006.

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