by: David Van Biema
ATIE LARSON IS A LITTLE TOO YOUNG TO GET IT. .....Her dad Brian has just slipped a blue-and-white-striped shepherd smock over her head. “Look at you.” he says. “It’s perfectJ” But Katie, 2, doesn’t think so. Two years ago she was Baby Jesus, and that costume was much more comfortable. She begins to cry . “Do you want to hold this cute little baby sheep?” Brian asks, waving a stuffed toy before his daughter’s beet-red face. Still no sale.
Katie’s brother Tyler, 6, is more at ease with all this . He obligingly pulls on the robe, cord belt and headdress worn by dozens of predecessor shepherds over years of Christmas pageants here at the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Ill. “Now, what do shepherds do?” asks pageant director Phyllis Green. “They protect their sheep’ he says promptly. His older brother Drew, who at 8 has two years more of this particular story under his shepherd’s belt, chimes in, “And the angels come”
As if on cue, from a Sunday-school classroom upstairs wafts the sound of 70 angelic young voices rendering a still shaky but clearly heartfelt version of Away in a Manger.
Across the U.S., similar scenes are unfolding, as small children progress from incomprehension to playtime participation to the beginnings of actual Christmas understanding, thanks to pageants ranging from the most modest cardboard-camel presentations to near professional productions playing to thousands of people a week.
No performance, not even those working from the prefabricated scripts and scores provided by Christian entertainment companies, will be exactly like another; because no two 6-year-old shepherds are alike.
None will be precisely like the New Testament Gospel accounts, either, a fact that causes concern to almost no one . For children like Katie and Tyler and Drew, learning about Jesus at this age is like learning that birds have wings: the more complicated parts will be filled in later. At First Presbyterian, on the makeshift stage at the front of the sanctuary, the really important point for all Christians is being made: that God loved us all and came to earth in the form of a little baby, like our little brother or sister, and it was such a miracle that we shepherds watched and the fifth-grade angels sang. What more do we need to know?
AND YET HOW MUCH MORE THERE IS TO learn, and how peculiar it is to find that the actual Gospel Nativities are the part of Jesus’ biography about which Bible experts have the greatest sense of uncertainty—even more than the scripture about the miracles Jesus performed or his sacrificial death. Indeed, the Christmas story that Christians know by heart is actually a collection of mysteries. Where was Jesus actually born? Who showed up to celebrate his arrival? How do the details of the stories reflect the specific outreach agendas of the men who wrote them?
In the debates over the literal truth of the Gospels, just about everyone acknowledges that major conclusions about Jesus’ life are not based on forensic clues. There is no specific physical evidence for the key points of the story. There are the Christian testimonies, which begin with Paul in the 50s A.D. and are supported in part by a 1st century Roman reference to “Jesus the so-called Christ” a “wise man” who “won over many of the Jews and also many of the Greeks,” and who is described as crucified in accounts from the next century. Beyond such testimony, there are literary tools used to weigh plausibility. Were the Christian narratives written close after the events? Were there many talkative eyewitnesses? Do they agree? The details of Jesus’ birth—in a humble place attended by only a few— are ill suited to the first two criteria. Mark and John do not tell about the Nativity at all. And despite agreeing on the big ideas, Matthew and Luke diverge in conspicuous ways on details of the event. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angelic Annunciation is made to Joseph while Luke’s is to Mary. Matthew’s offers wise men and a star and puts the baby Jesus in a house; Luke’s prefers shepherds and a manger. Both place the birth in Bethlehem, but they disagree totally about how it came to be there.
One might be tempted to abandon the whole Nativity story as “unhistoric:’ mere theological backing and filling. Or one might take a broader view and, like the constantly evolving scholarship, look anew at these stories and what they tell us not just about the birth of Jesus but also about how his message was spread. “It’s virtually impossible to reduce the accounts to a single core narrative, contends L. Michael White, University of Texas at Austin religious historian and author of From Jesus to Christianity. But that may not be the most important point. “What jumps out at close readers:’ he says, “is Matthew’s and Luke’s different roads to performing the vital theological task of their age: fitting key themes and symbols from Christianity’s parent tradition, Judaism, into an emerging belief in Jesus and also working in ideas familiar to the Roman culture that surrounded them:’ Thus the Nativity stories provide a fascinating look at how each of the two men who agreed on so much—that Jesus was the Christ come among us and was crucified and resurrected and took away sin—could be inspired to begin his story in similar, yet hardly identical ways.
“Behold a virgin shall conceive”
THERE IS NO BETTER INTRODUCTION TO THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Matthew’s and Luke’s approaches to the Nativity story than their tellings of the first key scene in the drama: the angelic announcement that a very special child will be born.
In Matthew’s version, an unnamed angel brings the news to Joseph in a dream. Matthew delivers the important information straightforwardly enough—”fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost”—but he does so in a few brief lines, making the Annunciation proper just one in a sequence of such dreams and concentrating less on additional information about the event than on a series of citations regarding the prophecies the birth will fulfill. Scholars see this as an excellent indicator of Matthew’s background and audience. A Jew living in a primarily Jewish community (either in Galilee or what is now Lebanon), he was brought up, like most of his neighbors, on the Jewish Scriptures (which Christians now know as the Old Testament). Making someone called Joseph a recipient of prophetic dreams would evoke an earlier dreamer of the same name: the Joseph whose sleeping visions of fat and lean cows in the Book of Genesis helped pull his people into Egypt and indirectly to their destiny at Mount Sinai as recipients of God’s covenant laws. Matthew’s Joseph too will soon move to Egypt, fleeing there to save the child who, according to Matthew, will both continue and replace God’s compact with the faithful.
Luke’s version of the Annunciation is very different. It is the one we are more familiar with, in which the angel Gabriel greets Mary with the lines Catholics have often recited as “Hail, Mary, full of grace:’ It continues with a much more complete description of what came to be known as the virginal conception, and goes on through Mary’s acceptance: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
For centuries, Christians expended vast interpretive energies on that last phrase. Long-standing arguments between Catholics and Protestants revolved around whether Mary inherently possessed the grace enabling her to accept the divine will (making her more worthy of Catholic-style reverence) or was granted it on an as needed basis. These days, however, some feminist readers like Vanderbilt University’s Amy-Jill Levine, editor of the forthcoming Feminist Companion to Mariology, are more interested in what might be called Mary’s feistiness. After all, Levine points out, the handmaid line does not follow immediately upon the angel’s tidings that “thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and call his name Jesus.....” Rather, Mary poses the logical query, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” Says Levine: “She asks, ‘How’s that going to happen?’ And when his answer makes sense to her, she in effect gives permission: ’ Was this what Luke had in mind when he put the scene down on papyrus? Probably not, but such readings may be an inevitable consequence of his daring decision to write from Mary’s point of view.
Other readers focus on Luke’s ornate narrative context for the Annunciation. Before Mary gets the news, the angel alerts the family of her cousin Elizabeth that she, a barren woman, will bear “a child that will be great in the sight of the Lord”; that is, John the Baptist . After Mary’s Annunciation, she visits Elizabeth, and the fetus in Elizabeth’s belly miraculously leaps up in recognition of God’s promised Messiah. Surrounding this and other subplots are a series of stunning poems, or canticles, which the church later gave Latin names like the Magnificat and the Benedictus. Later Luke will provide a full angelic chums to accompany Jesus’ birth.
Such filagree, scholars concur, would have been foreign to Matthew, who wrote sometime after A.D . 60 , a decade or two before Luke. “He would have found it very odd, very goyish, perhaps even offensive:’ says the University of Texas’ White. But that, he contends, is the point. Unlike Matthew, Luke is thought to have been a pagan rather than a Jewish convert to Christianity, writing in fine Greek for other non-Jews and so using references they would find familiar. His version’s heraldic announcements, parallel pregnancies, angelic choirs and shepherd witnesses bear a tantalizing resemblance to another literary form, the reverential “lives” being written about pagan leaders in the same period. In such sagas, a hero is not a hero unless his birth reflects the magnificence of his later achievements, and such super-nativities, originally attached to great figures from antiquity like Alexander the Great, were at that point bestowed upon Roman leaders within decades of their actual deaths. Was Luke selling out the Jewish tradition that had helped shape Jesus and Matthew? Hardly. He clearly cared about Judaism, paraphrasing frequently from the Scriptures and setting scenes of Jesus’ later youth in the great Jewish temple. But by the time Luke wrote, says John Dominic Crossan , author of The Birth of Christianity, “Christians are competing in a bigger world now, not just a Jewish world ... And in this wider world, Alexander the Great is the model for Augustus and Augustus often becomes the model for Jesus.”
THE VIRGIN BIRTH
“Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child!
Holy Infant so Tender and mild.”
OF ALL THE MIRACLES SURROUNDING THE NATIVITY, THE MOST CENTRAL AND ESSENTIAL ONE IS JESUS’ BIRTH TO A WOMAN WHO HAD NEVER KNOWN A MAN” In Luke, the angel Gabriel explains to Mary about her son’s conception as follows: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called th e Son of God:’ Although neither of the Nativities marks a moment for the beginning of her ensuing pregnancy, Christians have long assumed it followed directly upon her “Let it be” response.
To suggest that this (and Matthew’s verse, “that which is conceived in [Mary] is of the Holy Ghost”) is anything other than reported fact is to court blasphemy. The Holy Spirit’s role in the conception in Mary’s womb of God’s Son, so spectacular and yet also touchingly intimate, is part of Christianity’s theological bedrock and began entering the faith’s creeds by the 2nd century. (Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy’s beliefs go further, maintaining that Mary remained a virgin during and after Jesus’ birth.) says John Barclay, a New Testament expert at the University of Durham, England: “Theologically, this is the one thing that people will go to the stake for. If they defend the historicity of anything in the Christmas stories, they will defend this:’
Raymond Brown was one who did not. Brown, author of the landmark work The Birth of the Messiah , dean of historical Jesus scholars until his death in 1998 and a Sulpician priest, observed that the idea of divine conception in the womb appeared to be part of a theological progression . The very first Christians thought that Jesus had become God’s Son at his Resurrection. Mark, the first Gospel written, seemed to locate the moment at his baptism in the Jordan; and it is only by the time that Matthew and Luke were writing that believers had dated his Sonship to before his birth. Thus, if Mary was the eyewitness source for the Holy Spirit’s direct involvement in Jesus’ birth (and who else could it be?), her testimony was lost to Christians for half a century before Luke somehow picked it up. Weighing this, facts like Jesus’ relatives’ seeming ignorance of his messiahship in Mark and John and other clues, Brown concluded that both Matthew and Luke “regarded the virginal conception as historical, but the modern intensity about historicity was not theirs.” Applying modern standards, he called the question “unresolved:’
Such irresolution irks other Christians, who see Luke’s line that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart,” as a sign that she simply delayed telling people, and who must fight claims, some 2,000 years old, that the Nativities got the virginal conception wrong. Fellow Jews early on challenged Matthew’s Gospel assertion that it fulfilled a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah that the Messiah would be born to a “virgin:’ (Isaiah’s Hebrew actually talks of a “young girl”; Matthew was probably working from a Greek mistranslation.) Critics may also have alleged that Jesus’ birth early in Mary’s marriage to Joseph was the result of her committing adultery; much later Jewish sources named a Roman soldier called Parithera. Those accusations, some scholars believe, account for the verse in Matthew in which Joseph considers divorcing Mary before his dream angel allays his doubts. Related notions of Jesus’ illegitimacy have never totally disappeared. Jane Schaberg, an iconoclastic feminist critic at the University of Detroit Mercy, has long maintained that parts of Luke’s introduction to the topic echo the beginning of an Old Testament passage on rape (“If there be a virgin betrothed to a man, and if another ... should have lain with her”), suggesting violation as the cause of Mary’s pregnancy. The Holy Spirit, in Schaberg’s version, transmutes a ritually taboo pregnancy into an occasion of glory and the birth of the Holy Child.
As New Testament scholars have delved deeper into the pagan faiths that competed with early Christianity for followers, Mary’s virginity has been challenged from the opposite direction—not as an impossible novelty but as a theme borrowed from the literature of the non-Jewish world. Stephen Patterson of Eden Theological Seminary lists divinely irregular conceptions in stories about not only mythic heroes such as Perseus and Romulus and Remus but also flesh-and-blood figures like Plato, Alexander and Augustus, whose hagiographers reported he was fathered by the god Apollo while his mother slept. “Virgin births were a rather Gentile thing,” says the Very Rev. John Drury chaplain of All Souls’ College at Oxford University. “You get it in a lot of the legends in Ovid where the god impregnates some young girl who has a miraculous son.” This line of thought, with its possible implication that the Gospel writers imagmed the Holy Spirit and Mary engaged in the kind of physical divine-human inter- course that vividly marked many Greek and Roman myths, is one of the most rancorous areas of the new scholarship. Brown found no merit in it . “Every line of Matthew’s infancy narrative echoes Old Testament themes.” he argued. “Are we to think that he accepted all that background but then violated horrendously the stern Old Testament [rule] that God was not a male who mated with women?” Other scholars claim that Luke especially might have been familiar with pagan models closer to the spiritual interaction that today’s Christianity believes marked Jesus’ conception.
“0 little town of Bethlehem! How still
we see thee lie.”
—O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM or would “O LITTLE TOWN OF NAZARETH” be more accurate? Strange as it may seem, a majority of scholars now lean in the latter direction. Those sticking with Bethlehem point out, not unreasonably, that both Matthew and Luke place Jesus’ birth there. The skeptics note that they reach the town by such extravagantly different means that one has to wonder whether they weren’t trying too hard to get there. By Matthew’s account, Joseph and Mary are Bethlehem residents and Jesus is born at home. But his very birth necessitates their flight to Egypt (and eventually Nazareth) because Jerusalem’s vicious regent, Herod, is determined to murder the Bethlehem child he has learned will one day be King of the Jews. None of that gripping story, how ever, can be found in Luke. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary, Nazarenes, are on a brief if inconvenient visit to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, complying with a vast census (“All the world should be enrolled”) ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Meanwhile, Mark, written closer to Jesus’ actual lifetime, omits Bethlehem and refers to Nazareth as Jesus’ patrida, or hometown.
That variation has produced three responses among scholars. Traditionalists promote theories meshing Matthew’s and Luke’s versions. Says Paul L. Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University: “Radical New Testament critics say it’s a hopeless jumble. I myself do not think it’s impossible to harmonize them:’ Others champion one Gospel writer while discounting the other. A growing majority however, conclude that there is simply not enough textual agreement to declare Bethlehem a historical given.
Rather, they see the destination as having been a theological necessity. Bethlehem had been King David’s hometown. And in a confused 1st century theological landscape in which many Jews expected a mighty new leader but disagreed on his nature, David’s biblical status as God’s “anointed one” (or “Messiah”) provided a potent precedent of divinely sanctioned kingship. Binding Jesus to him by family (through Joseph) and birthplace consolidated that definition, which then matured into Christianity’s far grander messiahship. says White. “No Bethlehem, No David No David,...No messianic prototype... Matthew and Luke both understood that” The way each Gospel writer got the Holy Family there, by contrast, reflected his particular preoccupations. Matthew was once again trying to tie his Nativity ever tighter to the Old Testament so that potential Jewish converts could feel comfort - able with the new religion. The clue is Herod, whose failure to track down Jesus leads him to order the death of all local children under age 2. That “Slaughter of the Innocents” is a near replay of a much earlier infanticide: Pharaoh’s murder of all the male infants of Israel in Exodus. Jews would recall that Pharaoh’s most famous escapee (via those bulrushes) was Moses, who eventually received the Law from God at Sinai. Through the echoing narrative, Matthew was arguing for Jesus as Moses’ successor. says The Birth of Christianity’s Crossan: “One of the things Matthew’s going to do later in his Gospel is have Jesus up on a new mountain giving a new law. We call it the Sermon on the Mount.”
And Luke, of course, once again had his eye on the pagan world. His key term is the census. In Jesus’ time, the immensely popular Emperor Augustus was setting himself up not just as the ruler but also as the semi-divine savior of the world. Wherever his censuses reached, his aggressive version of the Roman civic faith followed (along with his tax collectors).
Luke’s description of an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus’ birth, with Palestine’s part conducted by the Syrian governor Quirinius, seems inaccurate. There is no other record of a census in Palestine at the time, and Quirinius was not yet governor. But he did administer an infamous census on Augustus’ behalf some 12 years later, in A.D. 6. Resentment over it sparked a rebellion by Jewish messianic zealots that seethed for decades and finally backfired horribly in the Romans’ razing of Jewish Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Luke would have remembered that slaughter. By documenting Joseph and Mary’s compliance with Quirinius’ census, he was broadcasting to Roman readers that his fellow Christians were not that kind of messianists, intent on armed revolt. But by framing Christ’s birth in the context of that empire-wide tally, he was also suggest -ing that not just Jewish Palestine but also the entire known world was a possible horizon for Christ’s kingdom. It was a delicate line. The adult Jesus would later put it nicely (although Luke may have inherited this particular phrase from the earlier-written Mark): “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.”
“O star of wonder, star of night/
Star with royal beauty bright”
----WE THREE KINGS
IT IS DOUBTLESS ONE OF THE BEST-LOVED ELEMENTS OF THE CHRISTMAS TALE. To scholar Brown tracing its path in Matthew, however, the star was a puzzle, a celestial body engaged in a maneuver a little like a car attempting a three-point turn . “A star that rose in the east, appeared over Jerusalem, turned south to Bethlehem, and then came to rest over a house;’ he ruminated, “would have constituted a celestial phenomenon unparalleled in astronomical history. Yet it did not receive notice in the records of the time:’
Brown was aware of the star’s theological importance to Matthew. For some Jews it probably brought to mind a verse from the Old Testament book Numbers alluding to David’s messianic status—“A star shall come out of Jacob and a [king] shall rise out of Israel” By making the star the object of the non-Jewish Magi’s curiosity, Matthew showed that if he lacked Luke’s detailed pagan background, he at least had some knowledge that stellar displays had meaning to non-Jews as well. In fact, stars were associated with the founding of Rome and the fall of Jerusalem, plus the birth of the usual suspects: Alexander the Great and Julius and Augustus Caesar. Even Herod reportedly had his own.
The blank space that Brown reported in the 1st century astronomical accounts where there should have been notice of Jesus’ star has not prevented thousands of enthusiasts from attempting to locate it retroactively. Supernovas, comets and planetary conjunctions have all had their day. No less an eminence weighed in than the astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose laws first accurately plotted the planets’ revolutions around the sun. He noted that a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, which he observed in 1604, could produce an appropriate extended effect. Moreover, he calculated that it recurs every 805 years, which means that it came around in 6 B.C., the year usually assigned (because of changes in the calendar to Jesus’ birth. More recently, the nova theory has received a boost with the discovery of Han dynasty Chinese and Korean records of blazing stellar bodies at about the same time. Finally, some analysts have suggested that Matthew was so impressed by Halley’s comet in A.D. 66, and by the testimony of very old Christians who had seen it in 12 B.C., that he wrote it into the story.
For those not astronomically inclined, however, the star continues to work just fine as a symbol. With skepticism but not without poetry, A.N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life, notes, “Astronomers will never find the real star of Bethlehem be-
cause the real star of Bethlehem is a thing of our imagination. It’s the light shining over the Christ Child.”
We three kings of Orient are!
Bearing gifts we traverse afar”
WELL, FROM WHERE EXACTLY IN THE ORIENT (which means simply “East”) were they, anyway? Matthew’s word Magi is a vague clue, since it can mean astronomers, wise men or magicians and was applied to people from all over. The gifts they bore—gold, frankincense and myrrh—hint at Arabia, since unrelated Bible stories describe camel trains of similar tribute emanating from Sheba and Midian, both on that peninsula. Their interest in stars suggests Babylon, famous for its astrologers. The happiest guess of all turned out to be the one made in the 4th century by the decorators of the Church of the Nativity in Palestine, whose golden entry mosaic featured the Magi dressed as Persians, also renowned stargazers. When actual Persians came marauding in 614, it was the only place of worship they didn’t torch.
In any case, Matthew’s wise men were a classic ease of fish out of water. (“Like a meeting of Iranian ayatullahs in Nebraska” quips Theodore Jennings Jr. of the Chicago Theological Seminary.) This impression may have been no accident, since it expressed Matthew’s growing frustration at the majority of fellow Jews who dismissed his messianic claims for Jesus and may have ostracized and persecuted some of his co-believers. Thus it was the Magi rather than Jews who followed the star to Jerusalem and innocently alerted Herod In a dire foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion Matthew reports that rather than being helpful, the half-Jewish King and his Jewish “chief priests and scribes conspired to kill the Christ Child. The Gospel has the Magi briefly co-opted into his scheme as advance scouts. But on finally locating Jesus, Matthew says, they fell down and worshipped him:’ “They responded well, and the insiders didn’t says Fr. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Indeed the Magi are sometimes used simply as a way of expressing Christianity’s openness to the far-flung and the unlikely.
The Magi had a lively post-biblical career . As early as the 2nd century they were promoted to kings, probably because frankincense is associated with royalty in one of the Psalms. Their number, which varied in different accounts from two to 12. eventually settled on three, most likely because of their three gifts . By the 700s they had achieved their current names—Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar— and multi-culti composition. “The first is said to have been ... an old man with white hair and a long beard reads a medieval Irish description. “The second ... beardless and ruddy-complexioned ... the third, black-skinned and heavily bearded:’ Scholars have suggested that the mix either was intended to underscore Christianity’s world-wide ambitions or referred back to an earlier diverse threesome, Noah’s sons - Shem, Ham and Japheth.
The wise men seem to have kept busy well into their golden years, at least according to a calendar of saints at the great cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where their alleged remains are housed: “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel:’ it reads, they met one last time in Armenia. “Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died. St. Melchior on Jan. 1, age 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6th, age 112; and St. Gaspar on Jan. 11, age 109.”
Away in a manger! No crib for His bed!
The little Lord Jesus! Laid down His sweet head”
MOST CHRISTIANS WHO VISIT THE HOLY LAND GO TO SEE Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. When they get there, some are surprised to be led not to a stable but to one of a series of basement grottoes where they are informed Christ was born. The Nativity Church may not be the best possible guide, since it was built well after the fact, circa 324, by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Emperor to become a Christian . Nonetheless, she was heeding strong oral traditions that seem to have prevailed in the region for many years, and the idea of a cave is not so exotic as it might seem. Then, as now, many West Bank houses were built onto natural caverns that function as rooms and basements and, yes, even mangers.
In keeping with his view of Joseph and Mary as year-round residents, Matthew has the Magi visit a “house.” Luke introduces the manger as part of his view of them as involuntary short-timers. The English word manger, like the original Greek word phatne in Luke, is even more modest than our usual understanding of it. It
means not a stable but simply a feeding trough or at best a stall. Either word would be consistent with the kind of rural poverty that has inspired poor people and their champions throughout the history of Christianity. Today’s crèche scenes, even the more elaborate ones, actually descend from an attempt by the 13th century ascetic genius St. Francis of Assisi to recapture this humble ideal. Put off by the jewel-encrusted and gilt-covered recreations in the noble courts of his time, he borrowed some real farm animals and real straw and convened his midnight Mass on Christmas Eve of 1223 around a back-to-basics pageant that, as he wrote, showed “how He suffered the lack for all those things needed by an infant”
Oh, yes, the animals. Luke did not include any. The ox and ass first appeared much later, in artistic renderings like a 4th century Roman sarcophagus that shows them peeking over the side of Jesus’ crib . Cute as it was, the image served an inter-religious enmity, employing for Christian purposes God’s annoyed statement in the Old Test ament Book of Isaiah that “the ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows its master’s crib, but Israel has not known me:’ By contrast, the camels that pop up in many Nativities are relatively innocent. A passage from the medieval compendium of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend tells how they solved a logistical problem for a perplexed church father: “Now it may be demanded how, in so little space of 13 days, [the Magi] might come from so far as from the East unto Jerusalem, which is a great space and a long way. S. Jerome saith, that they came upon dromedaries, which be beasts that may go in one day as an horse in three days:’
In excelsis de-o”
-----ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH.
THE ACTUAL BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT IS IN LUKE 2:11. An angel proclaims, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. . . for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord:’ And “suddenly,” Luke continues, “there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men:’
How do the experts interpret these lines? As you might guess, they wonder where Luke got them. The first angel’s language, some note, was less biblical than ..... imperial. Brown called it “a ehristology phrased in a language that echoes Roman imperial propaganda. Recent scholars have said it is a near parody of one of the Emperor’s titles at the time: “Son of God, Lord, Savior of the World, and the One Who Has Brought Peace on Earth
Was the resemblance accidental? Some of the more left-leaning interpreters doubt it. They claim that as Luke’s Nativity went on, it became more openly critical of the Roman system and supportive of the struggles of its poorer Palestinian subjects. Mary’s Magnificat for instance, reprises some of the more radical sentiments of the Hebrew Bible: [God] hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree/ He hath filled the hungry with good things;/ and the rich he hath sent away empty:’
Exegetes like Eden Theological Seminary s Patterson think the angel’s birth announcement embodies the hope that Jesus’ coming kingdom will turn political as well as religious worlds upside down. “Luke can’t be saying anything other than ‘You think you have a son o f God in Augustus?’ ”he says. “‘You think you have a savior in the Emperor? It’s all foolishness. If you want to know the peace of God, not the Pax Romana, you have to look somewhere else.”’ Since the ‘60s, such readings have inspired Christian social activists from civil rights preachers to Catholic liberation theologians.
Other scholars think this interpretation is significantly overdrawn, and suggest that the angel’s language may be a straight-forward homage to the Augustan official style. However anti-Roman the Gospels’ undertones, they point out, they were certainly not offensive enough to prevent Constantine from eventually adopting Christianity as an official religion of his empire in A.D. 313 and exporting it around the world.
MOST CHRISTMAS WORSHIPPERS, OF COURSE, are not currently focusing tightly on the Gospels’ backstory. In this holiday season, they will be less interested in analyzing Matthew’s message than in celebrating it, less concerned about parsing Luke’s sentiments than in singing them. The beauty of Christmas carols is that they can retrieve the drama that the eye may quickly skip over on the page. Luke’s description of “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” is certainly vivid. But does it truly express—the way, perhaps, the single word glory, extended in five-part harmony over four delirious musical measures in Angels We Have Heard on High can—the awesome irruption of heaven’s fearful and beautiful phalanxes into our modest reality? As both Matthew and Luke were well aware, it is not enough just to have a Gospel. You need a congregation to truly contemplate the event. Even among congregations inclined toward the most politically progressive analysis of Scripture, when the angel in their pageants intones, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord:’ valid issues of Christianity’s relationship to empires (past and present) recede; hearts hear a simple joyous proclamation of salvation.
The Rev. Dr. Dianne Shields understands this. Shields became a pastor at Arlington Heights First Presbyterian in 1991. She calls her religious politics “moderately liberal” She studied her New Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary and has preached her share of scholarly sermons on the Magi and the — meaning of Mary’s answer to Gabriel.
But during the Christmas pageant rehearsal on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, she was not concerned with any of that. Instead, she was unpacking a shimmering, silver gown with two large cardboard wings trimmed with gold stars that she will Velcro to her shoulders a couple of weeks from now. A floral wreath, spray-painted gold, will bedeck her head. All eyes will be upon her. But the costume will not be the draw . In the Arlington Heights pageant, she will play the angel who carries the baby Jesus to the manger at the front of the sanctuary.
Last year she had a chance to move up to a singing part. Another pastor retired, and Shields was in line to become a wise man. She declined. “I wouldn’t give up my angel role:’ she says. The mother of three grown children, she thrives on the long walk up the center aisle, the infant in her arms. “I love holding the baby,” who this year will be 5-month-old Emma Zintara, Shields says. “I walk very slowly, so that everyone can see her and touch her And as they do, many will cry out, if only silently within their hearts, Hallelujah!
—With reporting by Broward Liston/Orlando,
Amanda Bower/ New York, Helen Gibson/London
and Marguerite Michaels/Arlington Heights
TIME & Life Building, Rockefeller Bldg., New York, N.Y. 10020-1393
Cover Story - Secrets of the NATIVITY
December 13, 2004. Vol. 164, No. 24. (Pgs. 48-61)
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993