QUESTION and ANSWER
Fr. JOHN SYMON
Question — Would you please explain if the details of Christ's birth as given in the Gospels are true? I have always been taught that they are, but recently t was astounded to hear that they were simply fables.
Answer — I would like to begin with a general observation which I hope does not sound too pretentious and which, it must be added, is certainly not directed at this week's questioner.
If at the present day the Church needs the specially religious virtues of penance and persevering private prayer. she is also in need of the ordinary and not particularly religious virtues of a sense of proportion and also of a sense of humour which are very inua the same thing as common sense.
What I have in mind is the havoc which can ensure when, after many blissful years during which we have heard successive Christmas sermons speaking of the Gospel details of our Lord's birth as if they were all literally true, we are suddenly told quite bluntly that this is not the case.
We need to keep a sense of proportion. This means we should remember that, if modern scholars have shown that many of the less important details are not intended as an exact account of what happened, it is equally true that the same scholars have confirmed our central beliefs.
These are that Jesus did exist, that he was horn of Mary, and that he lived in the Holy Land and then died by crucifixon outside the walls of Jerusalem. Again, modem scholars have also shown how ancient a tradition it is in the Church that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus had no earthly father.
There is a tendency to assume that, if we accept scholarly doubts about the details of Jesus' appearance to the Shepherds or the Wise Men, we will end up by denying the central beliefs of our faith. This is very far from being the case.
We need to use common sense. It is against common sense — and anyhow it is very bad teaching technique — suddenly to tell people that what they have taken as literally true is simply false.
If we read a newspaper account of one of the recent series of disasters and we can show that the reporter is wrong in his facts, then we know either that he is mistaken and therefore incompetent or that he is deliberately trying to deceive us.
In the case of the Infancy Narratives, as they are called, neither of these is the case. St. Matthew and St. Luke were not themselves deceived nor were they trying to deceive their readers.
When their accounts of Jesus' birth and infancy came to be composed, the remainder of the Gospel, about the life and death and resurrection of our Lord, had been in existence for a long time.
For Jesus' birth and early years very few eye-witnesses, if any, were available. Matthew and Luke might have confined themselves to the bare facts, but instead they used a technique common enough at the period, but a far cry from our twentieth century style of factual and literal reporting.
Around the central facts they wove a number of other incidents, not so as to deceive their readers, but sd as to explain through symbols the meaning of Jesus' mission.
Thus they show us Christ as the new Moses who comes to lead us from sin to the Promised Land of Heaven. They show him as the son of David who, unlike his namesake, is to have an eternal kingdom. They show Christ as the saviour of all, not merely of the Jewish poor exemplified by the Shepherds, but of those who are not Jews and are exemplified by the Wise Men.
There is no need to worry as if St. Matthew and St. Luke had been wrong and our modern scholars have shown them up. What modern studies have done is to illustrate what the Gospel writers were really trying to do.
So far from having lost something, we modern Catholics arc fortunate in that we can appreciate much more exactly the deep meaning of the beautiful stories read to us in the Christmas Gospels and depicted for us in the crib.