independent

Saturday 20 September 2014

Christmas a time of joy and wonder

FR BRIAN WHELAN

Published 25/12/2012 | 21:39

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CHRISTMAS IS traditionally a time when people exchange gifts, giving and receiving to show how treasured and loved we are for each other.

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Some people go to great lengths to wrap their gifts and present them immaculately, only for the wrapping to be ripped off by the gleeful recipient to reveal what's hidden inside. Even the most mundane of presents takes on a whole new vibrancy when it's wrapped up in glistening Christmas paper with a little bow on top. How things are presented can sometimes make all the difference, adding to the suspense and the surprise and the delight!

It's not surprising them that how something is presented to us, can make all the difference in how we receive it, and it's also true for stories that are told to us and reports that we hear. Only a few weeks ago the Pope got a fair lambasting in the media for trying to cancel Christmas - some newspapers presented the story as the Pope saying that "Killjoy pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions". Apparently the Pope had decided that there should be no animals in the crib anymore, and that the whole crib idea was actually wrong. The amount of people who asked me about this, who wanted to know what was going on, was astounding. It was as if the animal rights campaigners were up in arms because all the animals in the world were about to be annihilated!

Needless to say, I was a bit worried myself, so I decided to investigate. When I peeled back the wrapping on this little story that had shocked the world, I soon discovered that what actually happened was that the Pope has written a new book called ' The Infancy Narratives - Jesus of Nazareth'. In the book the Pope stated that in the gospels there is no reference to the presence of animals in the stable, and he went on to suggest that Jesus may even have been born in a cave.

The part of the story that wasn't presented to the world was that later in the book the Pope says that notwithstanding the fact that historically this was most likely the reality of Jesus' birth, no representation of the crib is complete without animals and he says that the traditions that have developed over the centuries matter more than unverifiable facts.

In other words, there's absolutely nothing wrong with placing animals in the stable and angels hovering above it, and honouring that as the nativity scene. But, that's a whole lot different than believing that what constitutes these traditions is historical fact.

Our representations of Jesus' birth by means of the crib and all of the bits and bobs that go with it nowadays, is our attempt to tell the story in such a way that people can see it and understand it. Saint Luke wrote the Infancy Narratives, the biblical account of the birth of Jesus, and it's a pretty sure bet that Luke wasn't there at the birth, and I've a fair idea that the Pope himself wasn't there either.

What Luke does is tell the story of Jesus' birth as he envisaged it, presenting it in a way that people could understand it and appreciate it too. Even Luke's account of the birth isn't something we can be historically sure about, because Luke wrote with poetic licence using his imagination that envisaged a beautiful peaceful scene with angels hovering overhead.

The only real fact, that we know for certain is that Jesus was born, he came into world as a baby, and that was how God chose to present himself to us. He wasn't wrapped up in shiny Christmas paper, he was most likely wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in manger so that all those who were there could behold the beautiful present inside. - May all of us be touched by the joy and wonder of Christmas.

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