Friday, 5 December 2014

The Nativity- A Universal Story

                                 Detail from The Census at Bethlehem by Breugel the Elder

Joseph consoled and encouraged the Holy Virgin. He was so good: he suffered so much because the journey was so painful to her. He spoke to her about the good lodgings which he expected to procure at Bethlehem: he knew of a house belonging to some very honest people, where they could be well accommodated at reasonable expense. He praised Bethlehem in general, and said anything he could to console her. This gave me anxiety, as I knew things would turn out otherwise.
The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich

As we draw closer to the day when we celebrate The Greatest Story Ever Told (the Nativity, of course, as opposed to the Downton Abbey Christmas special), let us meditate upon the importance of narrative truth. Can we please bring back “the journey”? Or at least some semblance of any actual reality? 
Reality TV badly needs a dose of reality by Viv Groskop

This idea, published in the aggressively secularist Guardian newspaper, that the Nativity story is in some ways the model for an account of "the journey" set me thinking about why this might be so,or regarded as so by many. One of the appealing features (apparently) of Reality TV is that ordinary people go on an "incredible journey" from humble obscurity to fame (or at least celebrity) and fortune (or at least enough money to buy a tastelessly decorated house and some bling). An arc which takes our hero from a log cabin to a pink house. This basic plot line has appeared in thousands of format throughout history from the Hobbit to that saying of Napoleon which goes- Every private in the French army carries a field-marshal's baton in his knapsack.

All of this seems a long way from Joseph and Mary setting out from Nazareth to Bethlehem until we look at the core elements of the story. Our Lady is heavily pregnant and the terrain they must cover is not easy. Thus the journey is a difficult one but they are filled with hope, the child of promise will be born to them when they reach their destination. At journey's end there is disappointment since they cannot find a suitable place to stay. They end up in the poor shelter of a grotto. And then, into the midst of this rejection and poverty a new life is born, angels rejoice, shepherds and wise men celebrate all is life and light, joy and hope. It might be argued that our need to hear this story is so great that imagination has added in details which are not warranted by the extant texts. Without going into the argument about the relative priority of Tradition and Text I propose to look at why each of us feels need to hear the story of "the journey" and why it appears in so many different contexts.

In some ways its obvious that the external elements of the tale are something to which most of us can relate. Very often our lives can be characterised as journeying in hope, facing disappointment and/or rejection and then surmounting those difficulties if not in our own person then through our proxies be these our children, our sports team, our political party or whatever. But then any old quest story would do, and goodness knows we have plenty to choose from, so there is something particular about the Nativity which speaks to us beyond the simple externals of it. The specifically Christian element obviously speaks to Christians and to some extent those culturally influenced by Christianity. That is, we recognise something special in that mother and in that child. They somehow embody both an Everywoman/Everyman quality as well as an emblematic one, standing as signs of goodness and virtue. That is they are paradoxically inspirational figures encouraging us to change ourselves and mirrors of our better selves. Yet even these two combined, the external facts and the Christian content would do not serve to make the story as universal as it is.

There are, I think, two chief elements which combine to universalise the appeal of the Nativity narrative and they are both centered on the figure of Mary. Firstly and necessarily she is pregnant. There are relatively few "journey" stories which feature pregnant women for reasons too numerous to list. One factor would be that pregnancy itself is a journey. Whether our Lady travelled to Bethlehem or not a child would have been born to her, her life would have been transformed. The external details of the trip are simply a reflection in the outer world of a development which in any event was taking place in her inner world. The drama of pregnancy and childbirth is one in which all of us have been involved in, sometimes in more than one capacity. So, insofar as the Nativity describes not only an historical (or quasi-historical for non-believers) event but also an intimate and personal one to each person who hears it then it is a universal story.

                                   Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem- Hugo van der Goes

Again, though, pregnancy is so universal that you might think that any old story would meet our need to encounter this tale, to reflect upon it and celebrate it. Another element is required and this is to be found in Mary's virginity. The appeal extends beyond those who will accept this virginity as a dogmatic truth (as I emphatically do) and includes all those who suspend disbelief for the sake of the inner logic of the story with which they are interacting. There is a Catholic axiom that at the Annunciation our Lady conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived Him in her virginal womb. Her joyful consent to the plans of God was the foundation to everything that followed and has an essential part in the whole economy of salvation. From the narrative point of view this means that the new hope which Mary carries within her has the force of an Idea. That is to say that she is not simply heavy with child but that she is also filled with everything that that child represents and all of this does not depart from her at the birth of our Lord but remains with her and imbues all that she does not only in relation to Him but in relation to all whom she encounters and all that she does.

This axiom universalises the story because it recasts pregnancy and the journey of pregnancy into a form which everyone, male and female, young and old, can personally identify with. Each of us carry within ourselves ideas, plans, dreams, hopes. We constantly seek to bring them out of our head and hearts and into the world. Our journey through life is an attempt to reach our Bethlehem, to give birth to our child of promise, to share it with a rejoicing world. One of the effects of the doctrine of the Incarnation is that embodies abstract ideas into material realities, it draws together two worlds which often seem far apart. This speaks to a real human need which is why, for example, Protestant denominations which resolutely resist the idea of candles and icons, statues and incense because they think physical objects detract from spiritual worship of the spiritual God will annually re-enact or represent the Nativity. For humans ideas are not enough we need to see them inhabit physical space at least once a year for them to remain real and vital to us.        

The universality of the Nativity narrative is a mixed blessing for the Church. Whilst it ensures that the annual outing of the story is guaranteed a huge audience it contains within itself a seed of temptation. The more the universal is emphasised the bigger and more responsive the audience becomes. However, the evangelical purpose of the Church is to convert lives, to change them, not simply to affirm them, to suggest that everything that people do now is just fine. Always the shadow of the Cross over the crib is to be remembered. Mary is not just a representative figure for all those who carry ideas and hopes towards fruition. She carries a specific Idea, a single Word one whose coming is necessitated by our own fallen and broken state, our propensity to selfishness and sin. Jesus comes into the world to heal the breach that we ourselves have created and the reconciliation is effected by His Passion and death at Easter. Sin is as universal as hope and it hovers over the Nativity story as one of its effective causes (the other being God's infinite causeless love for us). In their efforts to broaden their appeal by the use of an archetypal story which is their peculiar possession Christian's must resist the temptation to dilute its message by focussing exclusively on hearts and flowers to the detriment of thorns and broken life's. As perceptive readers will already have noticed the English word universal has the same meaning as the Greek derived word catholic. In its retelling of the Nativity the Church must always aim to recount it as a Catholic story in every sense of the term.


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