David Edgerley Gates
I stopped being particularly religious about the age of fifteen, but Christmas still casts a spell. There's something about the narrative. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." (St. Luke) The rhythms of the King James have enormous grace. They may not reflect the Aramaic, or its later translation into Greek, which is what those English guys in the early 1600's were working from, but I don't think it matters. The same is true of the Anglican version of the Book of Common Prayer, also revised under the same roof, by James I. Whether or not you follow the doctrine is beside the point. What counts is the cadence of the language, its discipline and ambition.
Years ago, I'd go with my mom to the Christmas service of lessons and carols at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. it was a somewhat severe venue, low-end Episcopalian, with the names of Harvard men who'd died in the world wars engraved in panels on the walls, a chill presence, bearing witness to their sacrifice, but at Christmastime the church was decorated with a lot of warmth, holly boughs and aromatic pine swags and poinsettias, all brightened with candlelight. It was comforting. And the familiarity, too. O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Good King Wenceslas looked out (I always finished the verse mentally with on his feets uneven, a nod to Walt Kelly). The effect on me wasn't ceremonial, but a conjured myth of childhood, surrendering to innocence. I've got no argument with sentimentality. Sentimentality's okay by me.
Suppose, on the other hand, that we cast a colder eye on the narrative, and give it a more sinister spin. David Morrell, in THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, does a little back-to-front, where the guy retells the Nativity as an espionage story. This works pretty well, if you think about it. The circumstances of a clouded birth, then the Flight into Egypt, to escape Herod's assassins, the boy later apprenticed to his carpenter father, God's witness protection program. (What did Joseph imagine in all this, anyway? He didn't knock the girl up.) The kid's head gets turned - John the Baptist an active recruiter for some as yet unnamed spook outfit, so to speak - and the Nazarene starts to preach sedition. Jesus, in effect, mounts a false-flag operation, and draws Rome's attention away from Barabbas, who by all accounts is politically more dangerous and puts his money where his mouth is. In this reading, Jesus of Nazareth is the Lee Harvey Oswald, a patsy, or a stalking horse, and not the hero at all. I know this is irreligious, of course, but why spoil a good story for lack of the facts?
Well, enough of that nonsense. Taken at face value, unto us a child is born - no room at the inn, the shepherds tending their flocks by night, the journey of the Magi - it still works its magic. You don't have to believe it's the hand of God, necessarily. Probably doesn't do any harm, either. The hopes and fears of all the years. We bring a lot of baggage to any story. Maybe we bring more to this one than most. It's an investment. We all believe in a child's native innocence. The loss is our grief. If, for sake or argument, we don't know the story's end, but only how it begins, then the birth of Christ is the stirring of hope. We embrace the myth because it's our own, each of us born, each of us begun. Destiny waits to be chosen.