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The Christmas story; behind the garish trappings of the shrine at Bethlehem, a traveler discovers the true meaning of the Nativity.


The Holy Land is full of history, written in stones, and with the faces in the streets for alphabet. Yet it was not history I found there, but some other deeper and more exhilarating truth that lay beneath the stones, the faces, and all the hubbub and the fraudulence.

I remember the precise moment of illumination very well. It was in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I was sitting in the crypt waiting for the time when the public were excluded and we could begin to film. Earlier in the day we had been filming in nearby fields where, reputedly, shepperds were tending their flocks when they heard the tidings of great joy, that a Saviour had been born in Bethlehem whom they would find there in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Sure enough, in the fields there was a shepperd with his flock--sheep and goats duly separated, just as required. When he caught sight of us and our equipment he picked up one of his sheep in his arms, precisely as in the coloured pictures I remembered so well from Scripture lessons in my childhood. Then, when he had established his posture, and our cameraman was focusing for a shot, he put down the sheep and came forward to haggle over his fee.

It was after settling this unseemly transaction, and getting our footage of the shepherd and his flock, that we went into the Church of the Nativity, having the greatest difficulty in making our way because of the press of beggars and children offering picture postcards, rosaries, and other souvenirs for sale.

Still smarting from their president importunity, I had found a seat in the crypt on a stone ledge in the shadow cast by the lighted candles which provided the only illumination. How ridiculous these so-called "Shrines" were! I was thinking to myself. How squalid the commercialism which exploited them! Who but a credulous fool could possibly suppose that the place marked in the crypt with a silver cross was veritably the precise spot where Jesus had been born? The Holy Land, as it seemed to me, had been turned into a sort of Jesusland, on the lines of Disneyland.

Everything in the crypt--the garish hangings which covered the stone walls, the tawdry crucifixes and pictures and hanging lamps--was conducive to such a mood. The essential point, after all, about Jesus' birth was its obscurity, which made a perfect contrast with an Aphrodite rising in all her beauty and splendour out of the sea, or an Apollo radiant and masterful even by comparison with his fellow deities. How foolish and inappropriate, then, even from the point of view of fabricating a shrine, to furbish up what purported to be Jesus' birthplace with stage effects, decking out his bare manger to look like a junk shop crammed with discarded ecclesiastical bric-a-brac! Rather, the shrine should surely aim at accentuating the bareness, the lowliness, of the occasion it celebrated, so that the humblest, poorest visitor might know that the Son of God was born into the world in even humbler, poorer circumstances than his.

As these thoughts passed through my mind I began to notice the demeanour of the visitors coming into the crypt. Some crossed themselves; a few knelt down; most were obviously standard 20th-century pursuers of happiness for whom the Church of the Nativity was just an item in a sightseeing tour--as it might be the Taj Mahal, or the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Show in London, or Lenin's embalmed corpse in his mausoleum in the Red Square in Moscow.

Nonetheless, as I observed, each face as it came into view was in some degree transfigured by the experience of being in what purported to be the actual scene of Jesus' birth. This, they all seemed to be saying, was where it happened; here He came into the world! here we shall find Him! The boredom, the idle curiousity, the vagrant thinking all disappeared. Once more in that place glory shone around, and angel voices proclaimed: "Unto you is born this day. . .a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!" thereby transforming it from a tourist attraction into an authentic shrine. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name," Jesus promised, "there I am in the midst of them." The promise has been kept even in the unlikeliest of places--His own ostensible birthplace in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Looking for Jesus in history is as futile as trying to invent a yardstick that will measure infinity, or a clock that will tick eternity. God moulds history to His purposes, revealing in it the Fearful Symmetry which is His language in conversing with men; but history is no more than the clay in which He works. Who would look for Michelangelo's Pieta in the quarry where the marble to make it was procured? Or for Shakespeare's King Lear in history? If this is true of mortal genius, how much more so when the artist is God Himself, concerned to send us a self-portrait in the lineaments, and using the language of mortality to open up for us new vistas of hope and understanding.

This was the Incarnation, described in the opening words of the Fourth Gospel, in a passage surely among the greatest ever to be written at any time or by any hand. From its triumphant opening: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," to its beautiful and comforting conclusion: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. . .full of grace and truth," it conveys with perfect clarity why the Incarnation had to be, and what it meant for mankind, at the time and forever after.

So the story of Jesus has to begin with the Incarnation; without it, there would be no story at all. Plenty of great teachers, mystics, martyrs, and saints have made their appearances at different times in the world and lived lives and spoken words full of grace and truth, for which we have every reason to be grateful. Of none of them, however, has the claim been made, and accepted, that they were Incarnate God. In the case of Jesus alone the belief has persisted that when He came into the world God deigned to take on the likeness of a man in order that thenceforth men might be encouraged to aspire after the likeness of God, reaching out from their mortality to His immortality, from their imperfection to His perfection.

It is written in the Old Testament that no man may see God and live; at the same time, as Kierkegaard points out, God cannot make man His equal without transforming him into something more than man. The only solution was for God to become man, which He did through the Incarnation in the person of Jesus. Thereby, He set a window in the tiny, dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a vista, and offering a way of release from the servitude of the flesh and the fury of the will into what Saint Paul called "the glorious liberty of the children of God."

This is what the Incarnation, realised in the birth of Jesus, and in the drama of His ministry, death, and Resurrection, was to signify. With it, Eternuty steps into Time, and Time loses itself in Eternity. Hence Jesus; in the eyes of God, a man, and in the eyes of men, God. It is sublimely simple; a transcendental soap opera going on century after century and touching innumerable hearts; from some bleak, lonely soul seeking a hand to hold when all others have been withdrawn, to vast concourses of joyful believers signing their glorias, their Kyries, their Misereres. There have been endless variations in the script, in the music, in the dialogue, but one thing remains constant--the central figure, Jesus.

After the great Jehovah before whose wrath even the Gentiles bow down, the Lamb of God; after the immutable Law handed down to Moses from on high, grace and truth embodied in a Gospel of love; after the Creation, the Incarnation, when the momentous announcement: Fiat lux! which begins our human story finds Its fulfillment in another: Ecce homo! Let there be Light!, and then, Behold the Man! With the Light came th universe, and all its creatures, illimitable space to be explored, and the tiniest atoms to be broken down into yet tinier ones. With the Incarnation came the Man and the addition of a new spiritual dimension to the cosmic scene. The universe provides a stage; Jesus is the play.

The exigencies of the play require that His birth shall be both miraculous and ordinary. Wise Men attend it, and also shepherds; a new star announces it, and yet it takes place in the lowliest of circumstances--in a manger, with the beasts of the field housed there looking on expressionlessly as Jesus emerges from his mother's womb. Gifts of gold, frankincese, and myrrh signify a royal birth, the coming of a prince of the House of David; the homely greetings of the shepherds welcome a friend of the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed--a man for others.

Similarly, Mary, in delivering Incarnate God into the dangerous world, has to be, at once, the most radiant and warm-blooded of mothers whose breasts gush with milk, and a virgin untouched by any sensual hand or carnal experience. The Holy Child has to come, fleshly, out of her flesh, and, at the same time, not through fleshly processes. As she proclaims in her Magnificat, God has regarded her lowliness and made her blessed in the eyes of future generations, by bestowing upon her the inestimable privilege that in her womb the Incarnation happens.

Until comparatively recent times, Christians found little difficulty in combining these two themes of perfect motherhood and perfect virginity. The Madonnas of the Middle Ages, endlessly painted, sculptured, celebrated in verse and prose and plainsong, are glowingly alive without being involved in our human concupiscence. One comes across them in obscure churches as in great cathedrals and abbeys--faces of transcendental beauty that are also enchantingly homely, and even droll, in wood and stone and marble, with candle flames flickering in front of them and flowers heaped before them, and figures kneeling, touched with wonder. Such faces, blending physical and spiritual beauty into a sort of celestial coquetry, are likewise to be seen among nuns--or were until they put aside their habits and rules to follow Demas and the fashions of this present world.

In humanistic times like ours, a contemporary virgin--assuming there are any such--would regard a message from the Angel Gabriel that she might expect to give birth to a son to be called the Son of the Highest as ill tidings of great sorrow and a slur on the local family-planning centre. It is, in point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary's pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a Saviour more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed, would be too humane to allow one to be born; too enlightened to permit the Light of the World to shine in a darkness that grows ever more oppressive.

To a 20th-century mind the notion of a virgin birth is intrinsically and preposterously inconceivable. If a woman claims--such claims are made from time to time--to have become pregnant without sexual intercourse, no one believes her. Yet for centuries millions upon millions of people never doubted that May had begotten Jesus without the participation of a husband and lover. Nor was such a belief limited to the simple and unlettered; the most profound and most erudite minds, the greatest artists and craftsmen, found no difficulty in accepting the Virgin Birth as an incontestable fact--for instance, Pascal, who in the versatility of his gifts and the originality of his insights was regarded as the Aristotle of his time.

Are we, then, to suppose that our forebears who believed implicity in the Virgin Birth were gullible fools, whereas we, who would no more believe in such notions than we would that the world is flat, have put aside childish things and become mature? Is our scepticism one more manifestation of our having--in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's unfortunate phrase--come of age? It would be difficult to support such a proposition in the light of the almost inconceivable credulity of today's brainwashed public, who so readily believe absurdities in advertisements and in statistical and sociological prognostications before which an African witch doctor would recoil in derision.

With Pascal it was the other way round; while accepting, with the same certainty as he did the coming of the seasons, the New Testament account of Jesus' birth, he had already seen through and scornfully rejected the pretensions of science. Now, three centuries later, his intuition has been amply fulfilled. The dogmatism of science has become a new orthodoxy, disseminated by the media and a State educational system with a thoroughness and subtlety far exceeding anything of the kind achieved by the Inquisition; to the point that to believe today in a miraculous happening like the Virgin Birth is to appear a kind of imbecile, whereas to disbelieve in an unproven and unprovable scientific proposition like the theory of evolution, and still more to question some quasi-scientific shibboleth like the population explosion, is to stand condemned as an obscurantist, an enemy of progress and enlightenment.

Through the eye of faith, then, Jesus is seen as, at once, God and Man, as Mary is seen as, at once, Virgin and Mother. Suddenly, almost with a click, like a film coming into sync, everything has meaning, everything is real; the meaning, the reality, shine out in every shape and sound and movement, in each and every manifestation of life, so that I want to cry out with the blind man to whom Jesus restored sight: "One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see." How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before?

Wherever and in whatever circumstances Jesus was born, there was, we may be sure, a real baby, wrinkled and wizened and full of wind, as babies are, and a doting mother to offer her breast and look down with pride and joy at the tiny head of the little creature ardently sucking at it. Though in our time motherhood has been greatly devalued, and the sick phrase "unwanted child" been given currency, it still remains true, as any nurse or gynaecologist will confirm, that it is extremely rare for any child at the moment of birth to be other than wanted in its mother's eyes.

Once when I was in Calcutta with Mother Teresa she picked up one of the so-called "unwanted" babies which had come into the care of her Missionaries of Charity. It had been salvaged from a dustbin, and it was so minute that one wondered it could exist at all. When I remarked on this, a look of exultation came into Mother Teresa's face. "See," she said, "there's life in it!" So there was, and suddenly it was as though I were present at the Bethlehem birth, and the baby Mother Teresa was holding another Lamb of God sent into the world to lighten our darkness.

If God chose to become Incarnate as Jesus, then His birth, whatever marvels may have accomplished it, must have had the same characteristics as any other, just as, on the Cross, the suffering of the man into whom the Bethlehem child grew must have been of the same nature as that of the two delinquents crucified beside Him. Otherwise, Jesus' humanity would have been a fraud, in which case, His divinity would have been fraudulent, too. The perfection of Jesus' divinity was expressed in the perfection of His humanity, and vice versa. He was God because He was so sublimely a man, and Man because, in all his sayings and doings, in the grace of His person and words, in the love and compassion that shone out of Him, He walked so closely with God. As Man alone, Jesus could not have saved us; as God alone, He would not; Incarnate, He could and did.
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Author:Muggeridge, Malcolm
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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