Thursday, December 20, 2007

Traditional Trouble

I have voiced my disagreements with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the past, in particular for his voiced support of something I called "designer scriptures." I also believe he has personally done little to understand or even attempt to assuage the problems of the Episcopalian church in this country, and that has led to its current internal struggles to remain a cohesive body of believers.

For all that, the Telegraph in London began its report of an interview held with the Anglican prelate with this misleading headline:
Archbishop says nativity 'a legend'
It's the kind of headline that is designed to get readers' blood boiling, and mine went pretty quickly into a full roil until I read the actual article. In the interview, Dr. Williams actually does a decent job of separating scriptural fact from the traditional views held of the Nativity by millions of Christians world-wide. (Note: there's a link to the actual transcript in the article, and it's worth a read.)

The article leads off with the concept of the Three Wise Men. Traditionally, the Wise Men (always three as depicted through the centuries) were kings or magi who travelled from eastern countries to bring their gifts of incense, myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus. Scripturally there are problems with this romanticized view, and Dr. Williams was pointing out those inconsistencies. Firstly, the scriptures say nothing about the number of wise men who sought out the infant. The number three merely corresponds with the three gifts mentioned in scripture. The wise men depicted as kings were likely the invention of artists who wanted to aggrandize the birth of the Savior, thus introducing artistic license into the story of the Nativity.

It is also a misconception to depict the Kings surrounding the infant. Jesus was, by the time the wise men arrived, already a toddler. If memory serves, the family did not remain long in Bethlehem. They had probably relocated to Nazareth by the time of the visit from the wise men, and then moved hastily to Egypt after Joseph was divinely informed that Herod wanted to kill all the male children who were around the Savior's age.

Unfortunately, when your statements are summarized by a reporter, that reporter's world-view is the baseline assumption. For that reason we see this line in a later paragraph:
The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story.
No, I'm afraid the Archbishop did no such thing. What he did, precisely, was attempt to dispel the traditions surrounding the story and remind people that the scriptural record is scant on detail.

For example, even without our latter-day revelation indicating that the Savior was in fact born in April, it has always seemed highly unlikely to me that this story took place in the winter. I could never understand what shepherds were doing out in those fields in freezing conditions (does it even snow in that part of the Holy Land? I have no clue!) to begin with. The story makes much more sense when it plays out in the springtime. The winterization of Christmas was the result of deciding to celebrate this event during the old pagan Winter Festival celebrations, when bored pagans around the world found time to break the winter monotony. Roman officials decided to keep the festival going after adopting Christianity, but changed the theme so as not to anger the Church. A wise move, but one destined to confuse large portions of believers for centuries to come.

True believers, however, with or without the traditions that have long embellished this story, understand the true significance of the Savior's birth. The Redeemer of the world and Only Begotten of the Father was born in the humblest of circumstances. His earthly life and ministry would reflect that humility. His atonement and ultimate sacrifice would also be lowly; dying much the same way as countless common criminals of that day died. We see the baby in a stable, and aspire to live as He did. We are grateful, more than we can ever express, that He chose to come and live among us so that we might some day return and live with Him.

I don't agree with everything the Archbishop says or teaches, but I believe that he defended the original Nativity quite nicely. It is not a legend, it's just a victim of embellishment by well-meaning, if misguided, people.

Merry Christmas, traditional or otherwise!

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