Friday, 1 December 2017

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

This blog first appeared on the BCYS site

  1. How did Mary travel to Bethlehem?
  2. How long before Jesus’ birth did Mary arrive in Bethlehem?
  3. Which animals were present at Jesus’ birth?
  4. How many innkeepers did Mary and Joseph speak with?
  5. What kind of building was Jesus born in?
  6. When did the angels appear above the stable?
  7. How many wise men visited Jesus?
  8. What did the angels sing?

Despite the Nativity being one of the most frequently told, and certainly acted out, stories in the Bible. It is often inaccurately shared and its richness, depth and complexities overlooked. Few Christians realise that it only features in two of the four Gospels, that the Magi probably visited anything from six months to a year after Jesus was born, and that only Luke refers to the shepherds. Even Pope Benedict XVI felt the need to address commonly held Nativity myths in his book, Jesus of Nazareth - The Infancy Narratives [2012], after which the Daily Mail labelled him a ‘killjoy’ who ‘crushed’ nativity traditions.

The word Nativity has it’s roots in the Latin nativus ‘arisen by birth’, and gives us the start point of Christianity; the moment “God became flesh through Virgin Birth”. This monumental occasion deserves the undivided attention of all Christians; can we afford to be ill informed about such an event?

Often people's’ understanding of the story can be vague and superficial. Indeed the classic retelling of the story of the Nativity through primary school plays has adapted so that a cast of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men is no longer sufficient. Reportedly in some schools there are now parts for aliens, punk fairies, Elvis Presley, footballers, a lobster and a drunken spaceman. Naturally carols have also been replaced with Christmas-themed pop songs including those by Justin Bieber and Michael BublĂ©.

As an RE teacher, I try to cultivate a love and interest in scripture study with my students. Anyone who says the Bible is boring or dull really hasn’t bothered to invest any time into understanding it’s rich and varied cultural, historical and poetic content. An example of this is its intricacies and complexities in the story of the Nativity.

It is easy to look at the two accounts and dismiss their differences as evidence that they are inaccurate. However to look a little closer, with even the most basic background knowledge, it becomes evident that they are far easier to reconcile than on face value. Luke is writing to a Roman official and Matthew is writing to Christians who were formerly Jews. In simple terms, Luke is writing to the oppressor and Matthew is writing to the oppressed.

Luke carefully omitted those things that would upset the Roman official, Theophilus, or any other Roman official that Theophilus might show Luke's gospel to. This included the Roman atrocity of Slaughter of the Innocents and the highlighting of Jesus’ Messiahship, which could be considered a political threat to the Empire. The shepherds were lowly, marginal visitors and so permitted for inclusion.

Matthew has similarly left out those things that would upset Jewish Christians. He only briefly deals with the virginal conception and birth of Jesus and then rushes on to the Magi. This story, with gifts of exotic and expensive gifts would have impressed a Jewish audience. Luke doesn’t include it as the Romans may have suspected that the Christians were making alliances with powerful people beyond the empire.

Such prudence is not sinful as St Paul says, "...try to fit your answers to the needs of each one." (Colossians 4:6) and as Jesus instructs, "... be cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16).

The symbolism of the story has been discussed by biblical scholars for generations. It was clear that there is much of Jesus’ nature and purpose being shared right from his birth, thirty years before his mission really began. Not only did he arrive without fanfare and riches, but his concern for the lowly was evident as he dwelt among humanity. The wisemen provided an insight into Jesus’ life to come with their gifts indicating his kingship (gold), priestly mission (frankincense) and significant death (myrrh).

When we look at the non-Biblical additions to Nativity scenes, it is important that we realise that many are there for a reason. The swaddling on Jesus is a symbol of the burial shroud, Mary wears red (lifeblood) and blue (sky and heaven) as the link between God and mankind, the Magi are often portrayed as coming from Europe, Africa and Asia to represent all nations. The ox represents patience, the ass humility, while the lambs are reminders of Jesus’ role as the Lamb of God; a cock is also often present in prediction of Peter’s denial. Sometimes you will also find contemporary figures linking the timeless importance of the Nativity.

This Advent, first of all consider carefully the story we are celebrating. Take the time to return and reflect upon the scripture. Read what is there, yet allow time to consider what is unwritten. Also look carefully on any Nativity scene you look at, what is included beyond the scripture? Why? The Nativity story is perhaps the greatest story ever told because over time it has grown into the story not only of Jesus’ birth but also the entire story of Jesus’ life, mission and ministry, as well as the story of our own salvation. The Nativity is unexpected, complex, yet absolutely joyous.

Back to the quiz...

  1. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  2. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  3. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  4. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  5. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  6. We don’t know, it doesn’t say that they did.
  7. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  8. We don’t know, possibly nothing. Read more <here>

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