The Nativity: Evoking Wonder
By Ray Waddle
The days get shorter and colder, the night sky reveals its bright wilderness of stars, and a sacred sojourn starts anew.
The journey is Advent, and people are on the move – Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem, Magi making for the Holy Land, and the rest of us hitting the road for the holidays, or seeking the December Incarnation of the living God.
The ever-renewing power of Christmas appears simultaneously as a 2,000-year-old story and as a newly unfolding one, discovered afresh by each believer.
"It's a story that happened – and continues to happen," says the Rev. Sharon Ringe, a New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Believers and readers must navigate their own way through it. And the way forward every time is through the biblical accounts – an adventure packed with mystery. But the journey carries risk, too: the risk of losing the meaning of the story because of commercial distraction, modern-day skepticism or over-familiarity.
Hearing the Christmas story again means encountering its supernatural details – angelic announcements, divinely inspired dreams, the virginal conception of Jesus. It means pondering the authority of Scripture and grasping the intention of the sacred writers.
Inspired word of God
United Methodist doctrine says the Bible is the inspired word of God: it bears authentic witness to God's self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. John Wesley took a high view of infallible biblical authority, calling Scripture "the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice."
But the Bible includes a variety of modes of telling truth, conveying data and storytelling – historical narrative, poetry, parables and other literary techniques. The four Gospels are not newsreel transcripts or eyewitness accounts, but ancient biographies produced to tell the vivid story of Jesus, the impact he made and the theological truth he embodied. The Christmas story, found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, features supernatural details that everyone – scholars, laypeople, clergy – must sort out for themselves.
"The Gospel writers use a historical setting for crafting a story to say what they need to say theologically," Ringe says.
"The wonder is the stories communicate differently to each believer."
A question stubbornly grips modern readers: Is the Christmas story true in all particulars? Did the ancient writers expect their readers and hearers to treat the visitations of angels as historical fact? The endeavor of Bible-reading, many scholars say, is a matter of affirming the historical bedrock of the stories while always examining the historical context and purpose of the writing.
Historical details critical
"The historical details mattered to the original writers, and they should matter to us," says the Rev. Ben Witherington III, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
"As Wesley saw it, these were not fractured fairy tales but real stories told with literary language. We're a historical religion. No one in their right mind would make up a story like the virginal conception if they wanted to start a world religion. Such a story would inevitably be challenged as a story about an illegitimate child. Our religion stands or falls on certain historical events. The Incarnation, Jesus' Crucifixion, and his bodily Resurrection are historical bedrock."
Nevertheless, the Gospel narratives are not journalistic dispatches in any conventional modern sense. The Gospels are "like portraits, not like photographs," Witherington says. "Portraits are facts plus interpretation."
So readers shouldn't expect the versions of the Christmas story in Luke and Matthew to be identical. They were written for different communities. They emphasize different details. They might not agree in all details.
"It's like Monet and Manet painting the same cathedral," Witherington says. "The cathedral is real, but their interpretations will be different. Are we going to complain to Manet that the left side of the cathedral in his painting is not quite the same color as Monet's version? The Gospel writers had a certain degree of flexibility and latitude."
Questioning supernatural events
But take the supernatural details of the Christmas story, such as the heavenly angelic throng who appear to the shepherds in Luke 2: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!' "
Did that happen? Since the rise of modern science some 400 years ago, some scholars have treated that aspect of the Christmas story as a fictional embellishment, a touch of literary fancy to dramatize the story or make the essential point that Jesus Christ's birth was a matter of cosmic import, a cause for rejoicing in all heaven and earth.
But Witherington says he would hesitate to call that scene from Luke a show of literary license.
"The ancients believed God spoke to people, period. ‘Thus saith the Lord.' If as a modern person you believe the universe is a hermetically sealed contraption, then you will have trouble with that detail of the story," he says, "but you have to be careful not to bring to the story your own preconceived ideas of what happened.
"We believe God is constantly at work. God was at work then and is today. The question we need always to ask about these texts is: Have the original inspired writers told us divine truth accurately and adequately, using the way they wanted to tell the truth?"
Refreshing the story
Besides debates about historical truth, sheer familiarity with the Christmas narrative (and its distant Sunday-school cousin the Christmas pageant) can blunt the awe and excitement of the Gospel news. That's when Wesley Seminary's Ringe turns to artistic tradition to help refresh the story – painters, musicians, poets, carol writers and others who set out to do what the Gospels do – "tell stories crafted to evoke wonder.
"As a poet once said, We're perpetually awaiting the rebirth of wonder,'" Ringe says.
That sense of awe is something the mere recitation of age-old facts from a 2,000-year-old event cannot deliver, she suggests. The Christmas story comes alive for modern-day people when the poetry and grandeur of the Incarnation stir and come to inhabit one's heart, ethics and actions.
To awaken such feelings about the ancient story and dramatize the Christmas Incarnation's claim on the present moment, Ringe says she often has her New Testament students sing the verse from "O Little Town of Bethlehem":
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
"We sing it as a prayer, because there is no peace today in Bethlehem," she says. "But such poetry reminds us what the Gospels and the Christmas narratives are telling us: The Bible is the story of God's engagement with God's people."
Ray Waddle is a religion columnist based in Bethel, Conn., and editor of Reflections, the theological journal of Yale Divinity School.