This enchanting book is a boost and a tonic for the faith we celebrate at Christmas time. Christopher Hayden shows us how immensely relevant, practical and challenging our Christmas faith is.
Carefully setting the stage for the birth of the Saviour, he gradually populates the crib with all its different characters, explaining the significance of each one. Each chapter concludes with some points to ponder, making this an ideal book for preachers, as well as for prayers.
The book combines sensitivity to the concerns of biblical scholarship with a popular approach style. It is intended to help people enter prayerfully and reflectively into the spirit of Christmas.
Christopher Hayden is curate of Coolfancy and Shillelagh in the parish of Carnew, Ferns Diocese. He holds a PhD in New Testament studies, and has a particular interest in biblical spirituality and the relationship between faith and culture. He has contributed to Scripture in Church and is the author of Lectio Divina (with John Dutto, 1999), The Diocesan Priesthood: An Explanation and an Invitation (2000), Praying the Scriptures: A Practical Introduction to Lectio Divina (2001) and Come, Let Us Adore: Exploring the Crib at Christmas (2010).
The Christmas story, captured evocatively in the scene represented in the Crib, never fails to awaken in people an enchantment that opens up new horizons for them. The spectacle of Mary and Joseph, surrounded by farm animals at the birth of the Infant Jesus, sparks memories, calls forth hope, and spurs on those who behold the scene to regain a sense of the peace and happiness that is associated with the season of Christmas. In this short book Father Hayden offers ten reflections on various characters associated with the crib - Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, King Herod, etc - and how they might open up new channels of mediation for us. It is similar to the method of prayer that encourages one to imagine oneself in a Gospel scene and to identify with particular Gospel figures. This is a richly scriptural book, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. A verse from a poem opens each chapter and it closes with `Points to Ponder', which offer the reader a useful précis of that chapter's reflections. This work will be helpful for those who wish to mark the Christmas season with a renewed sense of the wonder of Immanuel, God-with-us.
- The Furrow, Dec 2010
- Setting the Scene: The Real Nature of Things
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
Now they are all on their knees,
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in heartfelt ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
Come; see where the oxen kneel
In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Thomas Hardy (1840, 1928), The Oxen
December 24th , 1915. Christmas Eve. Europe is at war. The trenches of Flanders have been running with blood. Casualties run in the hundreds of thousands. The youth of the nations is being shredded by machine gun fire, suffocated by poisonous gas, reduced to a bloody pulp by shellfire. Gallipoli, Ypres, the Marne , these are among the all-too-familiar names of unthinkable carnage. Innocence is lost in the long night of war, and hope seems hopelessly fragile.
On that date, Christmas Eve 1915, Thomas Hardys poem, The Oxen, appeared in The Times of London. Hardy, like many of the literary and intellectual figures of his time, was an unbeliever; he had long abandoned the Christian faith of his earlier life. But on that Christmas Eve, writing as an old man in an immensely dark period of history, Hardy expressed a longing for the reassurance of faith. The focus of his longing was the Christmas story, and the image that drew him was the image of the oxen in the crib. Hardy, like countless others then and since, longed for innocence, but innocence in a dark and broken world seemed no more than a fancy few would weave.
What is it about the crib that evokes such intense nostalgia? What is this strange hold the Christmas story has on the imagination? Is it merely that the story, and the crib which captures it so graphically, fills us with a longing for lost innocence and a lost simplicity? Or could it be that the crib scene resonates with an innocence and a simplicity that we have not lost? Perhaps the crib touches so many people so deeply precisely because it taps into qualities within them that may be largely forgotten, but are not entirely lost. In the gloom so poignantly captured by Hardys poem, it could be that the crib does not so much weave a spell of compensatory fantasy, as remind us of the real nature of things.
The real nature of things. This will be the starting point for these reflections: the conviction that the crib, far from inviting a flight from the harshness of reality, speaks of and to reality. Of course, the crib can be a vehicle for saccharine sentimentality, for a kind of soft emotionalism posing as religion; the crib can appear to provide a justification for the notion that religion is , largely if not exclusively , for children. But this need not and should not be so. The crib is not a sweet but inconsequential collection of toys. It actually represents a reality that has the potential to change lives and societies. The early Christians discovered this quickly, as did their opponents, who feared the change that had been heralded by the coming of Christ. In fact, the earliest opponents of Christianity may have understood better than the Christians themselves that, far from inviting complacency or passivity, the Christmas story shatters complacency and invites active engagement. While the modern despisers of Christianity may resort to scorn and ridicule, their earliest forbears feared the enormous potential that had been unleashed at the first Christmas. It was this fear that motivated those who sought to stamp out its potential. Herod, as we shall see, tried to do so at Christs birth, in an act of indiscriminate slaughter. The chief priests tried to do so after Christs resurrection, by spreading the rumour that he had not risen from the tomb, but that his body had been stolen. If the enemies of the Gospel could take Christ so seriously, it behoves those who would claim to be his friends to do no less.
It begins to become clear that the crib, which captures the beginnings of Christ and the beginnings of Christianity, has a certain paradoxical quality. On the one hand, it evokes tremendous nostalgia, the kind of nostalgia that inspired Hardys wartime poem; the kind that continues to instil a mood of sad longing in many people each Christmas. On the other hand, properly understood, the crib is a call to action, to a new and fresh way of thinking and of living. Heaping paradox upon paradox, we could say that the real reveille is sounded not by a soldiers trumpet in a wartime barracks, but by the angelic trumpet heralding the birth of the Prince of Peace. The trumpet sounds, not for war, but for peace, yet it is also a call to arms. A few decades after Christs birth, Saint Paul would write that these arms include truth, righteousness, faith, and confidence in the promise of salvation.
How should we approach this paradox of the crib, so that it might both touch our emotions and impact on our lives? Without doubt, we should affirm, rather than shy away from, the wonderful emotional appeal of the crib. The Christmas scene truly is, in the broadest sense of the word, magical. We do no disservice to a robustly adult faith by allowing ourselves to be charmed, touched, and romanced by the crib. If the crib fills us with nostalgia, if it moves us, we can accept this with gratitude, mindful that the noblest actions result from individuals being moved to act. In the poem Advent, Patrick Kavanagh writes that the point of Advent preparation is to charm back the luxury / Of a childs soul. The innocence of a childs soul is indeed a precious possession, one that adults have generally lost, at least in part. But if it is a luxury, it is not an expensive one, and it can be charmed back by the simplicity of the crib. The emotional appeal of the crib can find a chink in our all-too-adult armour, a place where the full message of Christ can begin to enter, and set about its steady work of transformation.
What Kavanagh describes as charming back the luxury of a childs soul, has much in common with the thinking of some religious scholars, who have described this as re-enchantment. Individuals can, of course, be disenchanted by the disappointments, tragedies and hardships of life; but in many ways the world itself has become disenchanted. With science offering ready explanations and technology offering limitless, instant information, there seems to be less room for mystery, for a sense of wonder and enchantment around the unexplained edges of things. Some people insist that this is the way it should be, that the disenchantment of the world is part of the coming of age of humanity, that religion and mystery are being left behind by technical progress and scientific understanding. But this insistence does not take account of the virtually limitless human thirst for the transcendent, which can be seen in an explosion of all kinds of spiritual interests in our time. The more rigorous proponents of a strictly scientific view of the universe may look on askance, but today, the human spirit is doing its own thing, dancing its own dance. Countless groups and individuals are reaching out, at times in undisciplined or unenlightened ways, seeking and demanding the re-enchantment of the world.
The crib can re-enchant: it can draw us back into the mystery of God. Far from fostering a flight from the world and its concerns, such re-enchantment leads us straight to the heart of reality. In the story captured by the crib, we find good and evil, acceptance and rejection, love and hatred, darkness and light. This is the stuff of real life, not of escapist fantasy.
But just how real is the crib itself? It is worth dwelling on this question for a moment, since there is a certain kind of austere biblical scholarship that would consider the crib to be merely an object of devotion, and one that does not take sufficient account of the nature of the Gospel stories. The crib includes characters from two of the four Gospels; it places Matthews magi alongside Lukes shepherds; it includes Matthews star and Lukes angel. Of course the crib would not be complete without the humble ox and ass, and a meek lamb draped over a shepherds shoulders, and yet these creatures are not mentioned in the Gospels at all. We could say that the crib combines different casts of characters, but without taking account of the different , and separately written , dramas in which the characters were originally involved. To use a word beloved of biblical scholars, the crib conflates different accounts: it blithely mixes and mingles, drawing together two originally separate versions of the story of Jesus birth, but without attaching any particular significance to the distinctive origins of each story.
From the point of view of academic biblical scholarship, this could indeed be considered a mistake. Matthew and Luke each tell the story of Jesus birth in their own way and for different audiences. Luke writes his Gospel for a rather poor community. Unlike Matthew, Luke takes care to note the poor circumstances in which Jesus spent the earliest hours of his life: he was placed in a rough feeding trough , a manger. Furthermore, the only visitors Luke mentions are poor shepherds. Matthew writes to a better-off community: he makes no reference to the circumstances of Jesus birth, and he does not fear making his readers feel excluded by his mention of some obviously wealthy visitors , the Magi, who had been able to afford a long trip, and who had brought expensive gifts for the newborn child.
We shall reflect further on the differences between Matthew and Luke when we come to consider the visit of the wise men. For now, suffice it to say that the tradition of the crib is greatly enriched by the fact that the Gospels give not one, but two accounts of the birth of Jesus. And the fact that the crib combines them does not diminish this enrichment. The crib scene does not impoverish our understanding: it enriches our imagination. It is replete with all the richness of the Gospels , a feast for the eye, the heart and the mind. It is not an academic commentary on a set of Gospel passages, but a vivid and faithful presentation of the coming of the Saviour. The kind of academic austerity that would caution against forgetting the particular concerns of Luke and Matthew need not concern us unduly, yet we will take care to keep our reflections grounded in solid scholarship. Scholarship is a blessing to believers: in allowing ourselves to be guided by its insights and its concern for historical detail, we guard against letting the priceless gift of imagination degenerate into fantasy.
The crib is not as old as the story it tells. Some depictions of the story of Christs birth date back to the early centuries, and the ox and ass already figure in a Roman carving from the middle of the fourth century. It was Saint Francis of Assisi who pioneered the crib as a popular devotion. In 1223, using live characters, he created a crib that captured peoples imagination, and the custom of setting up cribs began to spread. It is worthwhile to recall that in the time of Saint Francis, the vast majority of people , though not Francis himself , were illiterate. Rather like the ancient Irish high crosses, which were often covered with engravings of biblical scenes, the crib was a text that everyone could read.
Illiteracy is, of course, no blessing. Yet in the case of the crib, illiteracy proved to be a cloud with a silver lining. Like illiteracy, propaganda is a negative-sounding reality, but , again like illiteracy , it has a certain serendipitous connection with the crib. Luke begins his Christmas story with a mention of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Augustus was a brilliant military leader; he had brought an end to decades of civil war, and by the time of Jesus birth, he was being revered as a bringer of peace, the lord and saviour of his people. But the peace brought by Augustus did not come about through reconciliation between enemies , it was a peace brought by the sword, by the utter and merciless defeat of the enemies of Rome. Political propaganda is no modern invention; the reign of Augustus was buttressed by widespread propaganda. One particularly striking example of such propaganda read as follows: The birthday of the god was the beginning of the good tidings for the world. These words, found on an inscription commemorating the birthday of Caesar Augustus, date from the year 9 BC, yet they sound tailor-made for the birth of Christ. The angel in Lukes Gospel proclaims to the shepherds the birth of a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord, while the heavenly host proclaims peace on earth.
The similarity between the birthday acclamation for Caesar Augustus and the annunciation of the birthday of Jesus is not accidental. Luke the evangelist is deliberately hijacking the language of imperial propaganda; he is indulging in counter-propaganda of the most blatant kind. To spell out the message of Lukes counter-propaganda is not difficult: Yes! The Saviour has been born. No! It is not Caesar. Yes! The bringer of peace is among us. No! It is not Caesar. Yes! God is in our midst. But no! Not in the person of Caesar. As for the crib, it continues this none-too-subtle propaganda, applying it to our own time and our own lives: in the newborn child, our God is here, among us bringing peace. But God is at work in hiddenness, in littleness, in poor and humble circumstances. We need not look to greatness, wealth, triumph or power. While we may hope for progress in politics, we need not expect any worldly power to deliver definitive justice or peace. There is no utopia waiting to be ushered in by coercion or by some paradigm shift in human attitudes. Rather there is, the angel tells us and the crib reminds us, Gods own offer of peace on earth to people of goodwill. In the face of the glittering promises and propaganda of this world, the crib gently and insistently proclaims Gods own counter-propaganda.
We have mentioned that staying grounded in solid historical scholarship helps to keep our imagination from running out of control. Imagination is, as we noted, a priceless gift; unchecked, it has the potential to lead us astray, but without it, our faith might consist of little more than a series of abstractions. At the very least, religion devoid of imagination lacks texture, depth and colour. The crib both taps into and invites religious imagination. In the most positive sense of the expression, we can say that the crib is a perfect target for pious embellishment. How many people, for example, imagine Jesus to have been born on a sultry, rainy afternoon? He was born, the imaginative words of a Christmas carol tell us, on a cold winters night that was so deep. Obviously, we know nothing about the weather conditions, but another carol assumes that on the night of Christs birth the wind was not blowing: O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! These small details of pious embellishment carry their own truth. They capture the insight that the world into which the Saviour was born was dark and becalmed: a world that was stuck, motionless, a world without light. The one born into that dark stillness would grow up to proclaim: I am the light of the world. And while he would calm a storm on the Sea of Galilee, he would also bring about the mighty, world-changing wind of Pentecost.
We might think as well of the innkeeper, earnest supporting actor in countless childrens nativity plays. He is not mentioned in the Gospel story, which merely tells us that there was no room at the inn. Nor, for that matter, does the innkeeper figure in the crib. Yet he figures prominently in the Christian imagination. It is he who acts out that part in each of us that would, at least from time to time, say to the Lord, Go away, I have no room for you. Popular imagination and its offspring, pious embellishment, can be excellent teachers. While we may need to approach them with a degree of reserve, we may do well to heed what they have to say.
Illiteracy, propaganda and pious embellishment are at first glance perhaps not the most auspicious of concepts, yet they have attributed to the emergence of the crib as a significant emblem of Catholic faith. These terms have begun to set the stage, to convey the fact that God does not work according to the established canons of human efficiency. We can also bear in mind the pastoral initiative of Saint Francis of Assisi, the wartime nostalgia of a brilliant but unbelieving poet, the determined protestations of diminutive inn-keepers in school nativity plays. All of these, combined with the details of Roman history and the Gospel accounts of Christs birth, invite us to take a fresh look at the nativity scene. Sentiment and imagination find a ready welcome at the crib, but only to be refined there, as they encounter the reality of what God was doing and continues to do in the person of Christ the Saviour.
POINTS TO PONDER
The Gospel of Luke offers a suggestive insight into the attitude of Mary the mother of Jesus. Luke tells us that when the visiting shepherds had told their story, everyone who heard them was struck with wonder. Mary, however, seems to have taken a more measured and reflective approach: the Gospel tells us that she held on to or kept all the details she had heard, and pondered them in her heart. Mary was not swept along by the immediacy and intensity of the general reaction to the angels announcement. She intuited that there was more happening than could be understood straight away, or processed in a moment of enthusiasm. As we reflect on the crib, we will be guided by Marys example: at the end of each reflection we will offer some thoughts for further reflection. These thoughts will be offered as a way of holding onto and pondering some of what we have seen. At the end of each chapter, the final thought will include an invitation to ponder a passage of scripture that may further illuminate our reflections.
Every year, many believers feel something more than simple nostalgia: they feel excluded from the spirit of Christmas by loss, depression, or other suffering. Without doubt, there is a superficial, hyped-up way of celebrating Christmas that can exacerbate the sense of exclusion felt by the most vulnerable. We would do well to reflect on how we might pursue a more thoughtful and authentic way of celebrating , one that might make it clear that Christmas is most relevant to those who are in darkness.
Our Christian faith has a solid intellectual core, yet there is very much more to faith than a list of doctrinal truths. At the centre of our faith is a person: Christ himself. Imagination and emotion need no more be a hindrance to a relationship with Christ than they are to any other relationship; in fact, imagination and emotion can provide enrichment to our spirituality. Hopefully, our contemplation of the crib in the pages that follow will help to lead us to a faith that is more heartfelt, a faith that has caught fire, a faith that does not simply know the truth of Christ, but is touched and enchanted by that truth.
In the prophet Isaiah (55:8-9) we read: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. By Gods providence, the combination of illiteracy, propaganda and pious embellishment proves to be, not an obstacle, but a powerful vehicle of grace. The crib invites us to reflect on areas in our own lives where God may be acting in ways that are hidden or surprising, in ways that seem contrary to human wisdom.