I belong to that generation who, back in the seventies, were theologically weaned off Christmas in favour of Easter’s role as the pivotal celebration of Christian faith. So convinced were we, that it seems odd to be attracted back to Christmas, to be called to contemplate the Incarnation anew.
No doubt, in forming the infancy narratives, Matthew and Luke were anticipating what happened in Jesus’s adult life, anticipating the significance of that later life — much as John did via his quite different prologue. They expected us to be better able to understand the later life by understanding the early life — written creatively to show the hand of God active from Jesus’s very beginnings.
Once you suspect what the evangelists were up to, it is horribly tempting to make theological hay about how God is revealed in the exquisite vulnerability of a newborn infant; in a child of unusual, if not uncertain, birth; in a rejected child, soon to be persecuted, soon to become a refugee. The clear anticipation of the pattern of Jesus’s later life is almost too obvious. But good theology stems, at least in part, from good prayer; and the challenge of re-appropriating Christmas is perhaps more than getting the hermeneutics or the theology right. The greater challenge is to think a little bit less and to wonder a whole lot more. In his notion of the second naiveté, Paul Ricoeur spoke of the need to let the creative aspects of these stories strike us, even with our critical reading strategies.
That’s why I like to ponder the verse in Matthew depicting the Magi falling to their knees, or the verse in Luke saying how the shepherds went back to their fields glorifying and praising God. As Ignatius of Loyola said, ‘it is not much knowledge but the inner feeling and relish of things that fills and satisfies the soul.’ Perhaps Christmas is an invitation to put theology temporarily on the back seat, and to try to let these stories tell themselves. The evangelists had their purposes in passing on these stories, but those purposes were served by these stories themselves, not by a study of the evangelists’ motivations. Perhaps rather than try to explain the significance of Jesus’s birth, we’d be better off asking God to let us experience that significance, to be bowled over by it, to hear, as if for the first time, just how this utterly surprising birth could be a great joy for the whole world. Again, rather than worry too quickly about the two natures of Christ, we could first ask God to let us taste and relish the divine glory as we re-imagine that infant’s birth. Who knows, we may find ourselves flopping to our knees, just as the Magi purportedly did.
Theology can wait another day.
Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham University.