Michael Wright considers the stories that make up the fabric of our childhood
The gospel readings report wonderful, fantastic events. A virgin, visited by an angel, is told she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son. Believe it or not – she agrees to this. When the boy is born a choir of heavenly angels sing joyful melodies in the heavens. Shepherds on night duty leave their flocks untended as they hasten to pay their respects.
Eastern astrologers follow a bright star, which, unlike any other star, beams its searchlight onto a single cattle shed. These astrologers, helped by a star with a unique focus of light, find the tiny child and give him exotic, symbolic presents that signify his divine status and future destiny. The family then become asylum seekers in Egypt and, in doing so, evade the slaughter ordered by the wicked king.
These stories are the fabric of our childhood. In the rich majesty of the readings and carols from King’s College, Cambridge, they evoke the little town of Bethlehem, seen amid the winter snow.
Historical research, and critical study of the Bible, show these stories to be pious fictions. They are part of a long tradition in the ancient world of boosting the stature of a significant person with tales of miraculous happenings to them. The loss of such wonderful illusions can be shattering: leaving faith an empty shell. But wait, the truth of these stories lies not in their historical veracity, but in their power to inspire.
The truth of any scripture (of any faith tradition), can only be assessed by the lives of the people enriched and changed by its teaching. When the beauty, simplicity and wonder of scriptures inspire us to practice in our own lives the highest, the noblest, the most compassionate and just ways that we can envisage – then those scriptures contain profound truths, with transforming power.
The Bethlehem stories can inspire joy and tenderness; love, faith and hope; compassion, hospitality and generosity; a resolve to overcome evil with good and to work for peace on earth, goodwill to all people.
I return now with a glad heart to the gospel stories. I can value afresh the beautiful carols and Christmas music, the superb paintings depicting these gospel scenes, the poetry and sermons that extol these events. I can even treasure the kitsch little donkey and the manger full of hay.
Just as psychotherapists use the classical myths of ancient Greece and Rome to explore profound insights into human nature, so we can use the Hans Christian Andersen-type stories of the infancy narratives of Jesus to explore profound spiritual, social and ethical insights.
We can explore and ponder the many small details of the narratives. We can reflect on ways of behaving, relating and nurturing our relationships with other people. We can be refreshed with thoughts of the joys of giving and receiving, of visiting and being visited, of offering shelter to those in need and of providing sanctuary for those in danger of their lives.
We can also be touched by a spirit of awe and wonder, of joy, compassion and service. Our spirits can be sustained by the fellowship and nurture of our shared worship, of friendships and of family life, as we are open to that which is divine in the ordinary events of life.