The Mystery of Christmas

Last night CBS reran "The Mystery of Christmas," which cast doubt, or at least tried to, on some of the more popular parts of the Christmas narratives, including the shepherds, the magi, and so on. Ben Witherington, III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, did his usual fine job of not only pointing out the credible historical evidence for many of these specifics, but also reminding viewers that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Did the birth of Christ look like this portrait above? Perhaps it looked exactly like that. Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, it was more likely to have taken place in a cave, with the manger being a stone trough; or even in Nazareth, and during an entirely different time of the year. (That shepherds were in the fields with their flocks suggests a springtime birth.) If you want a fuller story on the historical backgroud of the birth of Christ, which can add to our appreciation of the event and supplement our prayer, you might try two magisterial books: Raymond Brown’s "The Birth of the Messiah" or John Meier’s "A Marginal Jew." Either will give you all you’ve ever wanted to know about the Nativity. In the meantime, however, you might enjoy this passage from Henri Nouwen’s book "Gracias," written during his sojourn in Latin America: "God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us. The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone. Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him-whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend-be our companion." Merry Christmas from the editors and staff of America magazine. May the joy of the newborn Christ fill your heart with hope.
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10 years ago
Fr. Martin: Your openness to the historicity of the Gospel Infancy Narratives and your suggestions that Brown and Meier are the go-to guys for studying up don't match, for as detailed and fascinating as both are, both also conclude that most of the details of the Infancy narratives, from the birth in Bethlehem to the Angels to the Magi, are nothing more than midrash and post-Resurrection credal reflection. Which might be true, but neither would agree with Witherington,and that's my point. Catholic scholars are notably more skeptical about the historicity of the narratives than Protestants like Witherington.
10 years ago
Another good resource is a new book, The Christmas Week, by John Dominic Crossan and W. Borg. It footnotes Raymond Brown's work. Basically, they review the Lucan and Matthean nativity stories by starting with the question - "it is not fact or fable?" rather the question with the nativity stories is: "What is the meaning?" That gets us away from arguing about precise, literal events, time, objects, etc.
10 years ago
Thanks for that quote from Nouwen. As someone a bit lost on the Catholic journey I found it really comforting to read about a fellow journeyer, who wants to listen to my rants! It is a very peace-giving quote. Margaret
10 years ago
Good point! But what I was recommending was having readers take a look at Brown and Meier, sift the evidence, meditate on the church's tradition, and decide for themselves which pieces of the story are historically accurate. And in many cases in his book, for example, Father Meier uses the category of "non liquet," which (though my Latin is non-existent) I understand to mean that the matter is not able to be proven. In any event, I like to know what the historical-critical method reveals, but then remind myself that with God all things are possible. And I tend to think that, though I am no scholar, many of these pieces of the story that cannot be proven conclusively (and even those elements that find echoes in other traditions, which is often a reason for scholars to "reject" their claims) are usually based on traditions that may very likely have a great deal of basis in fact.


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