The following is the Christmas story that I know, or I guess I should say that I like (along with Jean Shepherd’s): my only-slightly-tweaked version of the Bible story that I and so many others grew up on. This is the origin of traditional crèche Nativity scenes dusted with snow on the village green, the Xmas parts of “The Messiah” [UPDATE: Well, no, the wise men are not in “The Messiah”], the festivals of lessons-and-carols, etc. The narrative below blends and trims a big chunk of Luke 2 with a small chunk of Matthew 2 (Luke and Matthew are the only Biblical gospels with any Nativity story), and the last line is one of my favorites in all of both Bibles — not that I know all or even most of the lines even in one of them. It’s all King James. Further remarks on sources and significance follow today’s reading.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, behold, there came wise men from the east, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
1. That last line may be a breakthrough in narrative technique. Not sure. Anyway, the sudden close-up of psychological realism, humanism, intimacy — and yet mystery — of what the young mother may have been making of all these things is kind of breathtaking. It first got to me somehow when I was, I think, about six.
2. That human moment, with a zoom-in on the female, is said to be characteristic of the Gospel of Luke, from which it and most of the rest of the selection are drawn. Luke’s is often called “the gospel of the underdog,” and it’s in Luke’s Nativity narrative that we get the outsider/working-class/low-born idea of Jesus (despite the royal-lineage connection to Bethlehem): no room at the inn, the stable, the manger, the shepherds, etc. That’s all Luke. The crèche and our carol traditions kind of cutse-y it all up, but the fact that this first-time mother had to put her swaddled baby right down there where the animals eat, and etc., would not have struck the original listeners as nice. The redeemer is born in the middle of the lowest, least clean, least warm, farthest-from-home place you can go. That’s Luke. The previous chapter tells the story of Mary getting word that she’s going to be pregnant even though she’s a virgin, and of her relationship with her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, who insists to the circumcising priest that John will not be named Zachariah. For all the supernatural stuff, and the submission to God, the whole narrative is unusually human, psychological, and female-focused. In Luke, the Nativity is Mary’s story.
3. The wise men have come wandering not only from the east but also from Matthew — they’re not in Luke — and get shoehorned into the narrative, in my version, before we go back to Luke for the shepherds. A nice thing about this cobbled-together version — the crèche version — is that it gets the “three kings” out of the male-focused, Joseph-focused, prophecy-fulfilling, upscale narrative in Matthew (no manger, no stable, no “no vacancy” sign, no shepherds, just someone’s house) and gets them in there with Luke’s animals, falling down and worshiping. I’ve cut out a part that I do recall sometimes hearing as a kid, and getting scared, where Herod tries to make the wise men into his agents in order to find out where the baby is and kill him. Which leads to the flight into Egypt. Hate to bowdlerize too much, but for various reasons, the Herod part, while key as part of a study, gets pretty tricky for a Christmas story, to me, since it connects with the anti-Jewish-establishment element in so many narratives of the life and death of Jesus.
4. So I haven’t read Sarah Palin’s book on getting the Christ back in Christmas, but I always wonder what the “literal truth of the Bible” crowd makes of the contradictory nature of the two Nativity narratives (was it literally a house, or literally a stable? because it can’t literally be both), and the fact that our supposedly all-important traditions are cobbled together, not only by me, but also by everybody else, including the gospel authors, from edited scripture, itself cobbled from a multitude of sources, and yoked to longstanding seasonal fertility ritual and so forth. What I love about this story, and why I think it’s great, should really give them some problems. Conflicts regarding sources and editing and redacting mark every book in the Bible, of course — but where “literal truth” meets “the war on Christmas,” it gets especially hard for me to imagine how they reconcile these matters. Mostly, I assume, they don’t.
Some of the old-school Protestants — the original fundamentalists! — hated Christmas, and really, I assume, the whole liturgical calendar: pagan ritual, perpetrated by the Papist Antichrist, pedaling magic. I share the old Prots’ skepticism, their anti-clericalism (not their anti-Catholicism). But come on. It’s Christmas!