The Christmas anecdote I like the best is the one about the school nativity play in which the inn- keeper plays a starring role. When Joseph knocks the door and enquires if there is room in the inn for himself and his pregnant wife, the boy playing the inn-keeper replies compassionately, “Aye, of course, we’ve plenty room, come away in.”
How did the play recover from that or live up to it?
What I like is the fact that you can prepare as meticulously as you can and find the event goes completely squeewiff because there are human beings involved with their dangerous freewill. And while we may think that this freewill is even more damgerous than the unpredicatability of the basic elements of the universe, it is in fact part and parcel of that more fundamental habit of the cosmos, to chuck banana skins in the way of order, a habit which has led some philosophers to call it “chaosmos.”
Right down to the smallest particles of energy, it would appear that the creator has accompanied everything regular and determined with something irregular and surprising. Time and time again the surprises of nature and humanity disturb our fixed plans, often in ways that are not at all funny. As Angela Merkel pointed out yesterday in the wake of the killing of shoppers at a German market, people who were looking forward to Christmas with families and friends are suddenly dead. When anti-terrorist experts were asked how this sort of thing could be prevented in Germany or the UK, they admitted it could not be prevented because of its unpredictability.
Often religion can be presented as a bulwark against the unpredctability of the world: in face of randomness here is divine law; in the face of chaos, order; in the face of change, continuity; in the face of novelty, tradition; in the face of doubt, certainty. It’s clear that religious communities which offer this kind of sure bulwark to their adherents, are more popular than those that do not. The spread of fundamentalisms throughout the world is testimony to the appeal of this kind of cosmic accident insurance.
Even in non-fundamentalist churches, the Bible can become an unchanging tradition in the midst of a changing world. Think of what we call the Christmas story in the gospels. Year after year churches tell a mish-mash composite version of two gospels only, Matthew and Luke, ignoring their mutual contradictions, and the awkward fact that the other two gospels, Mark and John, have no birth stories at all. Did their authors not know any birth stories, or did they perhaps regard them as spurious? We don’t know the answer to that question but perhaps the differences amongst the gospels authorise us to free the birth stories that we have from the dead weight of pious repetition, as did the pupil who was playing the innkeeper.
Because we repeat them every year, Luke’s and Matthew ‘s stories become like a set liturgy communicating God’s determination of the Christmas scenario. But their authors intended exactly the opposite. Yes, it’s true rhat both have angels directing some of the dramatic traffic, and in their different ways both appeal to words of prophecy from the Jewish scriptures. So they want their readers to see God as one of the determiners of events. But only one: human beings are given choices and make them, introducing their own determinations into the stream of events, like the decision of Joseph to stick with Mary, or that of Herod the kill the children of Bethlehem. What God wants is both obeyed and thwarted by human beings, who have their own agendas, requiring God to persuade them to a creative compromise, if He can. God can draw attention to what’s happening, as with the shepherds, but they decide to go to Bethlehem. Or God can accept Herod’s refusal to welcome his Son, including it in his plan, even in advance of it happening. “This happened in order to fulfil what was said through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘A voice was heard in Rama, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, because they were no more.'”
The creative birth stories of the evangelists balance the initiative of God with the agreement or recalcitrance of human beings; and some fine messes, like Jesus being born in a stable or Bethlehem’s boys being massacred are part of their witness. They intend to show that randomness (no room in the inn) and evil (Herod) influence the flow of events, while God tries to persuade people, not always successfully, to go his way. The world to which he abandons his son is the world we know.
So maybe we can be a bit creative with the Christmas stories, like the boy in the play, focussing now on the pregnant teenager, now on the zero -contract shepherds, now on the Roman imperialists, now on the state exterminators. In doing so we may be able to relate Christmas to the unfinished love story of God and his/ her human partners, which, in spite of all its tragedy, may have a happy ending.