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A Review of the Christmas Story

The God who is the strength of widows and orphans gives food to the stranger. The universal God who is partial to the poor revealed himself in the particular, in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. God cannot be conceived as indifferent or abstract as in Greek philosophy, as unknowable as in Jewish theology or instrumentalized as an "empire-builder".
A Review of the Christmas Story

By Ulrich Greiner

[This article originally published in: Die Zeit 01/ 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2004/01/L-Bibel.]

What is the beginning of literature? The written tradition preceded the oral. Thus everyone who passes on a human story and adds a new different chapter is part of the endless story of literature. But when and where did the story begin?

En archa an ho logos, in the beginning was the word, says the Evangelist John. But he adds: Kai ho logos an pros ton theon, kai theos an ho logos - and the word was with God and the word was God. If that is true, it means the trinity of God, beginning and literature. What a bold idea! The Christmas story or narrative is one of the best known texts. However one knows well-known texts and doesn't know them.

Who created the story? We don't know who told it first. We only know who were the first to write them down. The evangelists Matthew and Luke. They told of the procreation and birth of Jesus down to the last detail. Their two Christmas narratives complement and also contradict one another. The third Christmas story of John is the shortest and most magnificent: in the beginning was the word.

We know the Christmas story from the marvelous store of European painting and music. Mary's proclamation, the worship of the kings, Herod's murder of children, the flight to Egypt, the shepherds in the field and the baby in the manger are pictures that have influenced and enriched the imagination across the centuries. The most precious works of music imitated the song of the heavenly host.

Can the Christmas story be reviewed? Obviously yes, since it is a work of literature. Obviously not because it is part of our cultural subconscious - where it is reduced to the manger figures in the shop-window.

Performing the "Christmas story" by Heinrich Schutz has been part of the tradition of my school (Frankfurt high school) for many years. I belonged to the men's choir (though we were pimply youths) who had to sing with the wise men from the East: "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?/ We have seen his star in the East/ and have come/ to worship him."

I admit I was surprised when I finally compared Schutz' Christmas story with the text of the gospels. The Christmas story by Schutz (that is also the story narrated in all churches) is a combination of Matthew and Luke. This tells of the stable and the shepherds, Herod and the wise men. More exactly Schutz begins with Luke 2,1-21, continues with Matthew 2,1-23 and ends with a blend of two Lukan verses (1,80 and 2,52): "And the child grew and was strong in spirit, full of wisdom, and God's grace was with him."
Luke narrates like breathless children

So it came to pass... The story begins as though it were a pure report about an historically proven event. At this time, it is said, Quirinius was governor in Syria and emperor Augustus ordered a census. Therefore Joseph and Mary set out for Bethlehem. Mary gave birth to a child whom she wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger "because there was no room in the inn".

However without changing the structure of the narrative, the lay historian Luke turns all of a sudden to the realm of miracle and appearances: "And there were shepherds in the field guarding their flocks by night. And the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone all around them and they were sore afraid. And the angel said to them... "

All the sentences begin with "and" as children relate who are out of breath. This is a syntax of simple people: and then... , and then. Luke is said to be the best writing evangelist. In other passages, he was capable of more complicated constructions. The more enormous the event that he reported, the simpler were his sentences. The revolutionary event was only communicable in the main clause and the indicative as a fact without relativization. Language must be silent so the event itself can speak: "Fear not! For lo I bring you glad tidings of great joy", the angel exclaims. Then the heavenly host came and sang: "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth."

The question whether this really happened or whether one can believe this is not even permitted by Luke. The enhancement of the sentences and the appearance of the supernatural allow no other conclusion than the one drawn by the shepherds: "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass."

Matthew turns the event into the political. The news that a new king of the Jews was born was a threat for the rulers. "When king Herod heard this, he was frightened along with all Jerusalem." Matthew made a kind of world-historical event out of this birth. Kings arrived and bowed before a baby. He ordered the event in the prophecies of the Old Testament. All the events that he reported happened in an inevitable way because they were prophesied. The murder of the children was the fulfillment of what Jeremiah wrote: "On the mountain a cry was heard, much lamenting and howling. Rachel mourned her children and would not be comforted because she was with them."

At the end of Moby Dick, Ischmael was driven into the ocean. The Pequod was shipwrecked along with Ahab and the whole crew. "On the second day, a sailing boat came to me. This boat was the wandering Rachel. Searching for her missing children, she found only another orphan." That was the biblical end of one of the greatest works of world literature.

The question whether everything happened as Herman Melville related is not raised. Moby Dick is a novel and its truth is not dependent on historical facticity. But what about the Christmas story? From Hubertus Halbfas' work written for the laity, one learns much about the different narrative strategies and traditions of the evangelists. They were not historians in the modern sense. They wanted to write down what people told one another as an unquestionable story, giving it a form and a direction. Every gospel proclaims a certain theology. The right interpretation of absolute events is central, not the question about faith and holding as true.

What really happened in the sense of a positivistic historiography? Very little, Halbfas says. Jesus lived in Nazareth and was a carpenter. He was executed by the Romans, probably on account of messianic intrigues. The share of Jews in this sovereign act was trifling. A few verifiable minor details occurred but not Jesus' birth. One cannot know when and where he was born, Halbfas says.

If the evangelists were not historians, what were they? They were writers or authors. The truth of literature knows many ways. The way of the authentic and correct is the most modest and unassuming way. In his clearly written and stimulating work "The Truth of Literature", the literary scholar Burghard Damerau describes the iridescent aspects of truth and its transformations. Firstly, there is the aesthetic truth. A work can be so beautiful, consistent and well-rounded that it makes possible a new perception or feeling. Then there is the moral truth. A work portrays human characters as thoiugh they existed and acted as described so we can draw conclusions for our own conduct from the course of the story. The modern age has inverted many of these approaches to truth into the negative so even the intentionally ugly or anti-moral work can show a truth in its reflection.

Whether something really happened so exactly is not of great significance for the truth of literature. This is also true for the evangelists with the reservation that the core of reality of the event first gives the explosive force to their message. They were interested in the inner truth, not the outer truth. Their message is true because it follows a great idea and because their message is unconditional and imperious. When one regards it as true, then nothing less follows than revolution and conversion, upheaval of the status quo and conversion of individuals. People often feel overstrained by the message. The message can only be rejected when the gospel is not regarded as true but merely as an invention of highly-strung souls.

The Christmas Story Ends Arbitrariness

Normally we don't raise such embarrassing questions when we read a literary work. We are accustomed at avoiding these questions with a diffuse range of truths and are halfway satisfied when a text makes sense poetically. The message should be modest. Literary criticism tends to raise so-called good writings with shrewdness and refimnemtn to the top. The gospels are neither shrewd nor refined but very simple. Nevertheless they outline a radical utopia and proclaim the extreme.

Whether literature is true in this sense or whether it seeks the extreme is hardly a concern as a rule. Perhaps that is a mistake. In the beginning was the word, Whether the word, the Logos, is true in the most extreme sense is decisive. "Whoever is of the truth hears my voice", Jesus says in John (18,37). Pilate raises the famous question "What is truth?" The Christmas story gives the answer. This answer can be contested but the arbitrariness is ended. We understand: truth is not the same as truth. There are truths of different gravity.

Thus it came to pass. The story begins this way. The results cannot be indifferent.

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