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John W. MartensDecember 10, 2013

The baby Jesus still grabs our attention, and the sweet obsession of the gypsy Yerko in Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels for the “Bebby Jesus” reveals that deep attraction. After a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where Yerko sees a medieval crèche scene, he returns to Toronto and works on his own nativity scene “with his great skill as a woodworker and craftsman to make it the most splendid thing of its kind his imagination could conceive.” Yerko had fallen in love with Bebby Jesus.

The narrator of the novel, Yerko’s niece Maria, is working on a doctorate, and she says, “I was not pleased with Bebby Jesus, who went contrary to what I hoped was my scholarly austerity of mind, my Rabelaisian disdain for superstition, and my yearning for—what?” What she yearns for is what she calls a Canadian conventionality, in which religion is seen but not heard and which does not upset polite society. Maria is scared the two professors she has invited over for the Christmas feast will take offense at the gaudy Christmas scene, but Yerko loves Bebby Jesus more than the conventions of polite society.

Yerko explains to the two academics the gifts that the Magi bring to Jesus, saying: “It is in the story. I saw it in New York. The kings say, ‘We bring you Gold, Frank Innocence, and Mirth.’” The Anglican priest Simon Darcourt responded saying, “Sancta simplictas.... And Frank Innocence. Oh Yerko, you dear man.”

But while Yerko grasps the truth of Jesus in a malapropism, Jesus’ birth does bring us “frank innocence.” Darcourt sees the “holy simplicity” in Yerko’s love of the infant king. Such innocence and simplicity define the baby Jesus and attract the love poured out on the symbol of transcendent goodness, but the virginal conception and birth have also attracted learned questions. These questions stretch from the early church fathers to the magisterial study of Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah.

The ancient questions revolved around a word in the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14, almah (“young girl”), which in the Greek version of Isaiah (the Septuagint) was translated as parthenos (“virgin”). So who would give birth to Immanuel, a young girl or a virgin? This claim of a virginal conception created debate between ancient Jewish and Christian scholars about the intent of the Isaian prophecy, since it was initially written in Hebrew, not Greek. Matthew’s Gospel, which relies upon the Septuagint, naturally has parthenos, and Jesus’ conception is seen as miraculous: the child “conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” For all the linguistic questioning, though, what draws us to this account is the powerful statement that our God came to us not as a mighty warrior nor as a Roman emperor in triumphal procession, but in frank innocence and sacred simplicity.

I warn my students about not confusing the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. But when I envision the baby Jesus, I do not see discrete infancy narratives, but the Lord’s choice to send among us a child to bring a saving message to the world, a child who is innocent, vulnerable and dependent. I see parents and an extended kinship network in the ancient world—at a time of high maternal and infant mortality, perhaps as high as 40 percent—thankful that both mother and child survived the birthing process, in love with a newborn infant. I see that God chose Jesus to be born in the midst of a family, with a father still processing the child’s origins, a mother uniquely gifted with a child and relatives happily welcoming the birth as they would any other.

Yes, there is more, for when we speak of the son of God, the son of David, a child conceived and born of the virgin, we speak of the destiny of humanity, of the purposes of human life, of the arrival of the newborn king we have eagerly been awaiting. But does that not make it all the more wonderful that this came about because of simple, innocent responses to God? “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.” Together, they brought this new life into the world and raised the baby Jesus. God with us. Holy simplicity. Frank Innocence. It is in the story.

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