A true story that makes the world catch its breath - Bishop David
Bishop David Wilbourne
It is true! by Bishop David
And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
John Betjeman, in his epic poem, Christmas, poses a good question. Many people think the Christmas story, albeit beautiful, is a fancy. Even Christians have doubts about a story overlooked by St Paul and two of the four Gospels, and wonder whether it was invented by the early Church to read back elements of Easter into the Saviour’s birth. As a student reading Theology, majoring on New Testament studies, I have to admit I have gone there. My first Christmas eve, following my ordination, I spent fiddling around with an angle-poise lamp which was arched over the crib figures in our so cold church in Middlesbrough – my boss had given me fierce instructions that the Christ child should cast no shadow, since he is the Light of the World. As I heard the world outside partying, my vote went with those radical New Testament scholars who avoided taking the Christmas story too literally!
Yet very quickly sceptism about the Christmas story was replaced by a sceptism about the sceptics themselves, for several reasons. Through two thousand years those touched by the truth of the Christmas story had been inspired to produce the most marvellous pieces of music, Handel’s Messiah and Berlioz’ L'enfance du Christ amongst them, which invariably move me to tears. And then there are thousand upon thousand works of art, tender scenes, the Holy Family, shepherds, wise men, all bearing the marks of the artists’ own culture, casting the Nativity afresh for their time. Not to mention the myriad poems and plays which point to new depths and insights in this timeless story. What treasures have those who deny the veracity of this story produced?
Then there is the way the story never fails to impact upon the world year in year out. We bang on about the over-commercialism of Christmas missing the festival’s real point, yet we cannot fail to notice that every Christmas the world catches its breath as people become a touch more tender to each other, pursue quite striking acts of kindness. In 1914 even the Western Front paused as sworn enemies suspended terrible hostilities and played football. And then the commercialism itself runs with the grain of a story, where a profligate and extravagant God ridiculously throws caution to the winds and gives himself.
But what finally tipped me in favour of the story’s truth was the year by year experience of ministry. Anglican congregations in England and Wales tend to be talented, articulate and urbane. I have worked hard with the laity to enable ministry, trying to produce and enhance striking acts of worship and teaching material, but more often than not, the mountain labours and produces nothing more than a mouse! Certainly no Christian congregation which I have ever encountered would ever be capable of concocting a story with a thousandth as much depth as the Nativity. As I realised that inventing the story was a far, far greater miracle than the story actually happening, I opted for the lesser miracle, as it were, that the events really took place. And why shouldn’t God-in-Christ, the Word made flesh, speak to us through event as well as word?
Recently reading Belief or Non-Belief by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martini made me realise I wasn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. Eco, an informed agnostic who takes the late Cardinal to task, by the end of the book comes to this conclusion:
‘Try to think for a moment there is no God: that man appeared on earth through a clumsy accident, consigned to mortality but condemned to be aware of this, and that therefore he is the most imperfect among all animals. This man, to find the courage to face death, would out of necessity become a religious creature and aspire to construct narratives capable of providing an explanation and a model, an exemplary image. And of those that he can dream up – some illuminating, some terrible, some pathetically self-consolatory – in the fullness of time, he has at a given moment the religious and moral and poetic strength to conceive the model of Christ, of universal love, of forgiveness of one’s enemies, of life offered in terrible sacrifice for the salvation of the other.
'If I were a traveller from a distant galaxy and found myself before a species that knew how to construct such a model, I would be captivated, I would admire all this theogenic energy, and I would judge this wicked and miserable species, this species that committed so many horrors, redeemed solely because it had succeeded in desiring and believing that all of it was the Truth.
'Even if Christ were only a character in a great story, the fact that this story could have been imagined and desired by featherless bipeds who only knew that they didn’t know, would be as miraculous (miraculously mysterious) as the fact that the son of a real God was incarnated. This natural and earthly mystery would never stop stirring and softening the hearts of non-believers.’
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Entered By Anna Morrell - 21.12.12Anna Morrell, Archbishop’s Media Officer
Church in Wales
39 Cathedral Rd
Cardiff CF11 9XF
Email Address: email@example.com
Telephone: Work: 02920 348208 Mobile: 07919 158794