Meanings of Christmas: The story so much wiser than we are

Monica Furlong, closing our series of Christmas reflections, suggests that the point of all stories - including that of the Nativity - is to help us to understand pattern in our lives.
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The Independent Online
Oh help! Bishop David Jenkins doesn't like Nativity plays, and is afraid they make Christianity look like a fairy story, and a Vicar doesn't like Father Christmas. Actually, there aren't any fairies in Nativity plays, merely small children dressed as angels or shepherds or wise men and a room full of parents moved to tears. (Sometimes tears of laughter. I remember a Mary with a cold, thoughtfully wiping her nose with her hand before drying her finger on her dress. It brought the house down.)

So is a Nativity play a travesty of Christianity? I can't see that, I suppose because I think what matters most about Christmas is the story, and any thoughtful and well-meaning re-enactment of it is good enough for me. Whether Jesus was born in December or June, in 0 AD or 4 AD; whether there were, historically, any wise men or shepherds or a horrific massacre of babies, whether there was, astronomically, an unusual star, I find less interesting than the quality of the story, and the extraordinary power it has had, over the centuries, to capture and influence the human imagination. Painters depicted the scene innumerable times, often setting the scene of the birth in local places and in contemporary costume, as if they knew perfectly well that it was not history that was the point, but something nearer to home.

So what was the point? The point of all stories, I suppose, is to help us to understand pattern in our lives, the pattern that adds up to meaning. This is the reason that, in one form or another - fairy stories, novels, television serials, soap operas - we all lap these stories up so avidly.

The best stories hold us spellbound not so much because of the ingenuity of the plot, as because plot itself suggests an underlying purpose in the ebb and flow of events. There are small stories describing, often very enjoyably, lesser happenings in the human drama - flirtation, say, or machinations over a will - and there are bigger stories which take us more deeply into life, which tackle love, or family conflict, or sacrifice, or war. But there are bigger ones still, which ask, and try to answer, the most profound questions of our existence; regardless of the characters involved - they don't have to be saints or in the Bible - these are religious stories.

The greatness of Christianity and its story lies in the profundity of the questions it wrestles with, questions of good and evil, of ultimate suffering, of death and life, and above all, of whether there is a God who knows or cares about any of it. It is illuminated by two great stories, both of them focused on the historical figure of Jesus, and within these stories and around them there are any number of subplots, one of the stories, that of Easter, explores hatred, cruelty, suffering of a very extreme kind, and the life that springs out of death. The story does not explain our tormented condition, but it recognises it fully and finds purpose and dignity within it - the dignity and purpose of God.

The other story, that of Christmas, is as fundamental as that of Easter, and in a sense precedes it in meaning. Before God can hang upon the same cross upon which humanity hangs, he (who is also she) must be found, born within the human condition, in the stable of our loss and confusion and failure.

Jesus is born, as was each of us, in a woman's pain and distress. The story, so much wiser than we are, says that - even when we feel lost and abandoned - God is here, with us and within us. Medieval people without the kind of intellectual sophistication that finds a Nativity play silly, or that horrible kind of modern quibbling that thinks it matters whether Jesus was born four years later, knew in a direct way that this event was cause for tremendous rejoicing, was the sort of insight that changes lives.

We too are at liberty to use the Christmas story by discovering that the meaning, the purpose, the love, the hope, the joy, is right here in the middle of our lives. Where we are most happy, or most troubled, most successful or most foolish, most proud of ourselves, or most ashamed, most secure or most anxious, most cheerful or most depressed, the divinity is already present. Like the shepherds or the wise men, we have simply to recognise that we are touched by the marvellous event. It is as unlikely as winning the lottery, but a great deal more interesting.