Wise men from afar, angel visitors to shepherds in the night, a child cradled in a manger — through what lens shall these stories be viewed? Are they to be placed in the same mental file with “The Legends of King Arthur” — or are they events with names and places that occurred in human history? Are they viewed as fact or fiction?
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. Do preachers reflect on these stories in public at Christmas, hiding the assumption that they are no longer perceived to be history, realizing only too well that if such convictions are voiced a significant portion of their listening congregations will be upset? Do peoples’ minds disengage with history at Christmas while old CDs (records?) are played? Is there any intelligent alternative?
At All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, on Jan. 16, 1977, Bishop Kenneth Cragg, the venerable Anglican scholar, offered some succinct reflections on the nature of the Gospel accounts. His unpublished comments speak profoundly to the above questions. Cragg noted, that for some Christian scholars, what matters is not the “Jesus of history,” but the preaching, believing in him, the mystery which is symbolized in “what the possessing church finds him to mean to them … .” What is read, argues this view, cannot be linked to dependable events. The only “facts” are “facts of belief.”
Cragg continued by affirming that:
… plainly, this attitude is not the New Testament. There is interpretation: there is possession by love and wonder. But there is also history in the simple sense of events that happened, deeds that were done, suffering that was borne, a death that was died and a rising that happened. The Gospels, as documents, are certainly interpretative. But they interpret and present what they clearly believe to be event and fact. The fact, nevertheless, is of the nature to develop, and to require, its own poetry.”
The problem, as Cragg observed, is the mentality that only grants the status of “fact” to that which is demonstrable in test tubes or provable by ‘verification.’ Such a mentality is unable to deal with the “inter-relation of both event and mystery” (emphasis his). Cragg offered a telling parable which I will take the liberty to quote in full.
Let’s take help from a parable. November 22nd, 1963. Suppose I say: “A man with a rifle from a warehouse window shot and killed another man in a passing car.” Every word here is true (assuming we accept the Warren Commission). But how bleak and meager the facts are — so sparse as to be almost no facts at all. The event is not told at all. But suppose I go further and say: “The President of the United States was assassinated.” This is more deeply factual because it is more fully related. The victim is identified, the killing is told as political, the perspective is truer. But we are still a long way from the meaning of the tragedy. Let us attempt a further statement: “Men everywhere felt that they had looked into the abyss of evil and people wept in the streets.”
That third statement tugs at the heart. It is true with a different sort of truth. It pre-supposes what the others state, but goes beyond into dimensions that begin to satisfy the nature of the fearful thing that happened. Without something like that third story the event would remain concealed in a part-told obscurity so remote as to be, in measure, false.”
The Gospels, Cragg argued, are the third kind of statement “deeply involving heart and mind in a confession of experienced meaning — meaning tied intimately to history and to event.” Even so, affirmed Cragg, the story of Jesus, ” is not neutrality, bare record, empty chronology, but living participation and heart involvement.” He continued, “For Jesus’ story, like all significant history (emphasis mine), cannot be told without belonging with the telling in mind and soul.” This “belonging” in the Gospels and Epistles, “is no myth-making, no fantasy, no dimmed Arthurian legend. For it is rooted in a narrative where events occur and dates belong and places figure.” The Gospels make us “to know dependably, within history” and through that dependability we come to know the nature of God. That is why we see Jesus as “the Son of God.”
Christian faith is fact, but not bare fact; it is poetry, but not imagination. Like the arch which grows stronger precisely by dint of the weight you place upon it, so the story of the Gospels bears, with reassuring strength, the devotion of the centuries to Jesus as the Christ. ‘What is music,’ asked Walt Whitman, ‘but what awakes within you when you listen to the instrument?’ And Jesus is the music of the reality of God and faith is what awakens when we hearken.
If the desire is to know “what really happened,” and if what actually happened is “neutrality, bare record, and empty chronology” then the true story of the death of Kennedy is that “a man fired a rifle from a warehouse window and killed another man in a passing car.” But no, such a report is, in reality, a lie — for it totally fails to unlock the meaning of the event it describes. With this description, the event remains “concealed in a part-told obscurity.” Instead, the Gospels are history, theologically interpreted. They are facts, but “bare facts” will not do.
Those of us who were adults when Kennedy was shot remember precisely where we were when we received the identity-wrenching news that he was dead. Significance cannot be separated from facts and the facts of Kennedy’s death cannot be altered — those who were witnesses to them will not tolerate any alteration. We the “eyewitness and ministers of the word” will and have passed on the tradition to faithful witnesses who, in turn, will tell others. Identity-forming tradition which blends history and mystery will never lack for faithful witnesses to the last syllable of recorded time. We, who have found our “belonging within the telling” of the story, will continue to witness to that story and will insist on exercising control over its telling. The story is too important for us to fail that trust.
At the manger in Bethlehem, history and mystery, event and interpretation, hearing and telling, remembering and reciting, all come together in a unique way as we participate in the re-formation of who we are. Indeed — it’s all about incarnation!
Surely our task is to rejoice in both history and the meaning of that history as the two are set forth together by the evangelists. A “part-told obscurity” will not serve. Yes, there was a report of “one Jesus, who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive” (Acts 25:19). Such a report is a “true” yet empty statement like the report of a gunman in a book distribution center who shot another man in a moving car. Instead history and mystery flow together in the story of a child lying in a manger “who loved me and gave himself for me.” Woe to any who choose to keep the story in “a part-told obscurity so remote as to be … false.” May the light that shone that night brighten our days and dispel the darkness of our nights — again — this Christmas time.
Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies living in New Wilmington, Pa.