In the northern hemisphere, it is the Winter Solstice, when the balance between dark and light shifts once again and the Light begins to return. The moment has been celebrated as far back as we can search in human history, a tradition born from the movement of the heavens, with a message of rebirth and new beginnings not too dissimilar to the Christian ideal, though its roots lie in beliefs already ancient when Jesus was born.
There are some messages that seem common to all faiths and paths and which seem to come together at this point in the year. “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men…” from carols to cards, this traditional phrase seems to encapsulate the essence of the season in a way that can speak to all men, across time and place, regardless of faith or creed. It is the hope for humanity that rules in most of our hearts; that we might emerge from the darkness of prejudice, fear and hatred into the light of love.
The fact that there is scholarly argument about the precise translation of this biblical phrase is unimportant…it has entered into consciousness and we even speak of Christmas as the ‘season of goodwill’. If we were obliged to look merely at the facts of the Nativity, we might be surprised at how much of what we ‘know’ of the story is based in tradition rather than in the historical record. Quite apart from the plethora of translations now available of the biblical texts, a greater understanding of the times has altered how we see and read the meagre verses that have given birth to the familiar and much-loved tale.
The ‘inn’ has, in many later translations, disappeared to become a ‘guest room’, using the same word that refers to the upper room where the Last Supper was held. The lower floor in houses of the time often sheltered the animals too, so a manger would not be out of the question in a house. If there was no place for the couple in the guest room, then the warmth of the lower room might have been offered. Which leaves the innkeeper, who is not mentioned in the biblical story, redundant. The animals may well have shared the space, but the Ox and the Ass as we know them are not mentioned. The Magi are neither called kings nor are they numbered… only the three gifts are counted… and they may have visited the Holy Family up to two years after the birth if Herod’s decree is anything to go by. Even the date of Jesus’ birth is a based on a decision rather than facts.
There are other discrepancies between the biblical verses and the traditional Christmas story we have come to know and love. Various branches of the Christian faith attribute more…or less…importance to different passages and celebrate at different times. Many who are Christian only in name, not by personal faith, also celebrate this season and few can be unaware of the traditional and much loved tableau of the shepherds, the wise men and the stable where the Child sleeps beneath the star that shines brightly in the frosty night air.
The details really do not matter. Nor do the lines between fact, fiction and tradition. When something speaks directly to the heart, it does so in the wordless voice of truth. The story, as a story, is simply beautiful. As a symbolic tale… that the heavens rejoice as Divinity is born into the lowliest human form… it is also beautiful. For those who believe in either the story or its essence, it is the birth of Light in the darkness.
As I set up the little wooden figures of my nativity scene this year, I placed the Child in the manger with reverence, not for the small, crudely carved figure. Not even for the biblical Jesus. My reverence was for what that Child represents within the soul of humanity… and within every heart. In the darkest of times, the Light lives within each one of us, and we are one with the nameless One.