A Christmas Reflection

The Meaning of Christmas

What is the meaning of Christmas in the year of Our Lord 2013?

How do we explain it?

I am suspicious of theologians or biblical scholars who purport to answer those questions.

Saint Paul does not tell us what Christmas means, nor does he try to explain it.  He simply says what it is: “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law.”[1]

Saint Matthew goes further, for he tells us a story: a wonderful story of angels and dreams and eastern sages and wicked kings and, above all, of a maiden mother Mary and one born to her who will be “Immanuel, … God with us,” and “shall save his people from their sins.”[2]  But Matthew, too, does not presume to tell us what the story means, nor does he explain it.

Saint Luke also tells us a story, though a somewhat different story.  Here there are no wicked kings or eastern sages.  But there are still angels, together with shepherds and an inn and a stable.  And Luke’s story still has the same center as Matthew’s: a maiden mother Mary and one born to her who is to be “holy, the son of God,” of whose kingdom “there shall be no end.”[3]  Yet Luke, too, does not explain it or tell us what it means.

Then Saint John: his hymn-prologue goes back to something like the simplicity of Paul’s earlier statement, though with a lapidary magnificence and a particular use of Hellenistic Jewish imagery that is all its own: “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” and “we beheld his glory, glory as of a unique son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”[4]  But John does not say what it means, either.

What then of the creeds?—for I trust that those who read this note have recovered from the curious nineteenth century aberration insisted on by Benjamin Jowett and others which suggested that the creeds were irrelevant to the original message of Scripture and a barrier to understanding it.  According to Jowett and those who thought like him, the task of biblical scholarship was to interpret the biblical text without reference to the creeds, since these were “of other times.”  So stated, their proposal involved a fundamental historical error, for the faith of the creeds was not “of other times.”  The faith and the texts evolved together. There never were New Testament texts that did not witness to the faith that the creeds enshrine, and that faith never existed apart from the living witness to it that the New Testament texts enshrine.[5]

What then of the Creeds?  Do they explain Christmas or tell us what it means?  No, I’m afraid they don’t.  They, too, simply state it.  The Apostles’ Creed is brief and to the point: Jesus Christ was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary”—and even that is verbose compared with the Latin, “conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria virgine.”  The Nicene Creed by contrast is not brief at all, but piles noun upon noun, assertion upon assertion in a stunning anaphora that finally allows us no escape from its central claim, and is designed not to, as it speaks of belief “in one Lord Jesus Christ, 
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, 
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, 
begotten, not made, 
of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. 
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man (εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν Μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων, Φῶς ἐκ Φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο· τὸν δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου, καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα).”

But still, even in the midst of all this stunning assertion, we are not told what it means.  It is not explained.

At this point I remember a story told of the ballerina Margot Fonteyn.  After she had completed a dance, someone asked her to explain what it meant.  “If I could explain what it meant,” she said, “I would not need to dance it.” By the same token I feel a certain irritation with that kind of teacher who asks students to “unpack the meaning“ of a great Shakespearean speech by writing it out in modern prose.  The exercise is, in my view, a piece of nonsense.  All that will result from it is a feeble paraphrase, wherein students may even be encouraged to feel that they are wonderfully clever, able to say what Shakespeare said, only more clearly.  But they will not have done that.  The only way to learn the meaning of great poetry is to listen to it.  If you do not get it the first time, then listen to it again.  And again!  Listen to it interpreted by great actors.  Listen to it until you do get it.  The meaning of the speech is in the speech.  It is nowhere else, and it is certainly not in some piece of milk and water prose cooked up by a twenty-first century student in order to get a grade.

So it is, and more so, with Christmas.  Its meaning is in itself, and nowhere else, so that a child who listens to the story wide-eyed in wonder before the Christmas crib is certainly closer to “getting it” than an educated expert who claims to understand and explain it. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.”  “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[6]

None of the foregoing should be taken as implying that when faced with the Christmas story we check our brains at the door.  Margot Fonteyn studied music and motion in order to become a great dancer.  Any good Shakespearian actor will study hard and thoughtfully the meanings and nuances of Elizabethan English, Elizabethan theater, and the iambic pentameter, before undertaking a great Shakespearian speech.  And with regard to the Christmas proclamations in scripture and the creeds, no one is asked to suppose that they are all the same kind of proclamation, or always use language in the same way.  Literary and historical judgment, rhetorical and sociological understanding—all have their place in understanding them.  But at the end of the day, and whatever skills we may develop or find useful, if we would understand the dance, a speech in Shakespeare, or the Christmas story, we must finally pay attention to them—on their own terms, as far as possible.  That, indeed, is the only real point of valid scholarly study: that by means of it we learn, or at least try to learn, how we may approach the works that we study on their terms and not ours.  “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass.”[7]

Will the effort be worth it?  That’s the fun and the risk of the thing—we cannot possibly know until we have tried!

One thing we can know is that the experience of saints over centuries—indeed millennia—has been that the Christmas story is worth it.  As George Steiner points out, “No stupid literature, art or music lasts.”[8]   Neither do stupid stories.  Paul Ricoeur claimed that some stories are indeed by their nature “interpretative,” by which he meant “the ideological interpretation these narratives wish to convey is not superimposed on the narrative by the narrator but is, instead, incorporated into the very strategy of the narrative.”[9]  I believe that Ricoeur was right, and such a story is the Christmas story.  “Your life is hidden with Christ in God,”[10] is its claim: that God in Christ has lived our life, born our sorrows, suffered our temptations, endured our death, and overcome them all.  But why does what a Galilean rabbi did or suffered two thousand years ago have anything to do with my life now?  Why did it even have anything to do with Luke’s shepherds as they kept the night watches with their sheep?  An angel told them that “a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger”[11] would be the sign to them that it did have something to do with them.  Yet how on earth could a thing like that be a sign of anything, save a helplessness and poverty that the shepherds doubtless already knew quite well for themselves—possibly better even than Mary and Joseph did?  That is the question that mere reason might have put to the shepherds, but the heart knew more than reason, and suggested something else.  “Let us now go to Bethlehem, and see this thing that has come to pass!”

“Be anxious for nothing,” Paul said to the Philippians, and continued, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”[12]   Note—Paul did not tell them that they would feel at peace.  The chances are that sometimes, like us, they did; and sometimes, like us, they did not.  All that is beside the point: for the true peace, the peace of God that would guard their hearts—that peace (as Paul pointed out) passes all human understanding: which means that at times it may not seem like peace at all.  Yet the promise is clear.  It will guard our thoughts and hearts in Christ Jesus, and it will bring us to heaven.

And that is the promise of the Christmas story.

But be suspicious of any who purport to explain it to you.

They probably know less than you do.

If God could have explained what it all meant, God would not have needed to become flesh.





[1] Gal. 4:4.

[2] Matt. 1:21, 23.

[3] Luke 1:33, 35.

[4] John 1:14.

[5] Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” in Essays and Reviews, 8th ed. (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861), 334.  By contrast several theologians and biblical scholars over the last decade or so have emphasized the importance of perceiving the Biblical story as the essential unifying theme of the Scriptures, and of the Rule of Faith as the key to understanding them. See e.g. Bernard Sesboüé, L’évangile et la Tradition (Paris: Bayard, 2008), ET Gospel and Tradition, Patricia Kelly, transl. (Miami: Convivium, 2012); Robert W. Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2010); cf. Paul Ricoeur, “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation” in Ricoeur, Essays on Biblical Interpretation, Lewis S. Mudge, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990), 77-81; Ricouer, “Interpretative Narrative,” David Pellauer, trans., in The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory, Regina Schwartz, ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 236-57.   See also my own, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (Lanham, Maryland: Cowley, 2002) 10-13, 25-26; Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 68-69.

[6] 1 Cor. 13:9; Mark 10:15.

[7] Luke 2:15.

[8] George Steiner, Real Presences (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 11.

[9] Paul Ricoeur, “Interpretative Narrative,” David Pellauer, trans., in The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory, Regina Schwartz, ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) 237.

[10] Col. 3:3.

[11] Luke 2:12.

[12] Phil. 4:6, 7.

Christopher Bryan