I’ve been suggesting that the nativity stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are two different stories, and that we do them a disservice if we try to prove, with far-fetched and ingenious rationalisations, that they’re historical accounts. They invite us, while enjoying what’s on the surface, to look a little bit more deeply.
Luke provides a lengthier preamble to the birth of Jesus than Matthew’s initial genealogy. Looking at his gospel as a piece of literature, he gives us a ‘warm up’, with the story of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, to prepare us for the ‘main event’. He foreshadows the coming story about the ‘miracle’ of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, with that of the promise of a pregnancy for a post-menopausal Elizabeth who, we’re told, was “very old”, and had been previously infertile. It’s apparently not the case, however, that the couple had given up all hope, since Zechariah is told that, “God has heard your prayer.”
Once we’ve been told about two “very old” people enabled, against all the odds, to bring about the conception of a child, the door is opened to the further miracle of a virgin birth. After all, as the angel tells Mary, “There is nothing that God cannot do”. Unfortunately for him, Zechariah’s not too sure about, and he makes the mistake of saying to the angel Gabriel, “Do you expect me to believe this?” For this display of doubt, which might even be considered dissent, he’s immediately struck dumb until the promised birth takes place. It’s just as well this is a story, or we might be led to think about God as a totalitarian ruler, whose operatives clamp down, immediately and forcibly, on any signs of questioning, doubt or dissent. But a story it is, and so we needn’t go down that road.
Another literary device showing we’re dealing with stories, is Luke’s insertion of lengthy and impressively ornate speeches into the mouths of his otherwise down-to-earth characters. He’s in good company. I’m reminded of the Roman historian Tacitus, telling us about the speech made by the Caledonian leader Calgacus, prior to the battle of Mons Graupius around 83 CE. “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, show what heroes Caledonia has in reserve.” I can’t help thinking that if Calgacus said anything at all, it would be more like, “G’wa hame, ye glaikit scunners” – to be loosely translated as ‘Get away home, you numb-skulled nuisances’.
The poem, however, put into the mouth of Mary, the ‘Magnificat’ (a joy to listen to in the setting by JS Bach), makes an immediate appeal to my centre-left sentiments. Some of its themes picture God as ‘scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away with empty hands’. This is very much in keeping with the emphasis in the nativity stories on the value of ordinary folk – an old priest and his wife, a village carpenter and his girl, shepherds in the fields, a cowshed in a village rather than a state room in a palace, strips of cloth rather than elaborate shawls for a baby – a baby who grew up to be a penniless, peasant preacher, and a champion of the poor, disabled, discounted and oppressed – children, women, the physically and mentally disabled, the socially and religiously ostracised.
What a contrast that makes, with a Christian Church which, when it ‘ruled the roost’ in the Middle Ages, provided more than ample proof of the fact that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whole books have been filled with the appalling evidence, showing why there had to be a Reformation, and why it had the success that it did. But still there are large sections of the Church which are hugely wealthy in a world where multitudes are hugely poor. And there is still moral corruption on an eye-watering scale, with pedophile priests being shielded, investigations blocked, documents shredded, and victims denied compensation, let alone abject apologies and remorse.
But more happily, there are those who, rejecting the idea that religious leaders should avoid political comment, speak out against political policies that rig the system to favour the rich, going easy on wealthy and corporate tax dodgers while coming down heavily on impoverished benefit fraudsters, and penny-pinching on health, social care and welfare services, while happy to see an exponential growth in charity shops and food banks picking up the pieces.
The concluding post in this short series, will be about my final thoughts … for now …
Recommended Reading :
“The Nativity : History and Legend”. Geza Vermes. Penguin Books. 2006.