Last fall I heard a radio interview (on NPR's "Living on Earth") with scientist Roberto Trotta, author of the new book The Edge of Sky . In it Trotta wrote the story of the cosmos with only the thousand most-used words in the English language. He wanted to get rid of scientific lingo and restore the wonder of the universe in terms everyone can understand. The project challenged him creatively as a writer — for example, because words like science, moon, energy, physics and gravity were not on the list, he had to come up with new language to express those ideas. Universe became "the all-there-is"; a galaxy a "star-crowd"; the Milky Way the "White Road."
I was very taken with the poetry Trotta was forced to manufacture and started to cast about for a similar project to duel with my creativity. Recently I printed off the thousand-word vocabulary list, and then I thought of the Bible. Its texts have always challenged my understanding, so I decided to experiment with my favorite passages, the nativity. I think I love them for the humanness they show in Jesus, basically a story of birth, the one physical fact we have all held in common from the beginning. I pulled out my Bible to read and next transpose the language. My favorite nativity story is Luke's, the one with the shepherds, so I chose that version instead of Matthew's [2: 1-12], the one with the Magi.
But I realized the words — with the exceptions of proper names — were largely already the ones we most use and there weren't many I could replace. That's part of the Bible's genius, I believe — spare, even elliptical language with plenty of space for a reader's own ideas. The test of such a nondirective text is to the litheness of our thinking. What, then, was I hoping to accomplish with this exercise? Accessibility, I connected. That was at bottom what Trotta addressed with his rewrite of the story of the cosmos. My task, however, was not one of simplifying. Quite the opposite, I would have to add complexities from my era's perspective to make the nativity accessible, I. e. relevant to myself as a modern human. For example, at the time Luke was writing, there existed no notion of "history" as a discipline for observing and corroborating events in the past. Consequently, there are some jarring mistakes in his timeline that I would need to correct — or at least explain parenthetically — in my present-day version.
Here is the new story, entitled "The Nativity Reconstructed." (And for those readers who are interested in comparison, I've included Luke 2: 1-19 [RSV] as an addendum at the end.) The underlined portions of the story are my changes. Where I merely rephrased original words I did not underline. Ellipses were used to show where parts of Luke's nativity were left out. Further backgrounding follows the narrative.
… [A] decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all of the Empire, which was the world in those days , should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city, including the Jews . Though they were accustomed to being one people, chosen by the one God to occupy the land, they obeyed the decree and traveled to be counted as persons each by each . And so Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child, not of his seed. Mary remembered the conception as the time of ecstasy and voices of angels, her earthly desire and the strength of her obedience to her people customs filling her with confusion, later settled by God. A virgin of receptivity, she questioned not that she was fulfilling the future; the hugeness of her was the hope for the world, which was love. Nor did Joseph doubt, so he gave his name as father.
And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered of her first-born son. She gave birth in pain and innocence. She wrapped the babe with cloths in the manner of her tribe, so that he might feel the close safety of her womb as though he were yet a part of her. She laid him, for comfort, in the soft hay of the feeding trough for the animals , because there was no place for them in Bethlehem's inn, crowded with the others come to be counted for the census. God remained with her and provided. Mary's gratitude overflowed for the blessing of the innkeeper's leave, a covered place warm with animals behind the inn.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear; … they knew not why the Lord would send a messenger to such common men as they, for their people history told that the Lord spoke to them through leaders and chieftains, their tribe's holy fathers. But the voices of angels assured them, and they came to see their own tie to God , who was pleased with the peace that was among them.
… [T] he angels went away from them into heaven, into conjoined lights blazing as though they were one star, and moving across the night sky to beckon the shepherds . They said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste, for they were shepherds and knew of the trials of birthing . They found Mary and Joseph, … and they helped Mary, God remaining with her and providing. When they beheld the babe lying in a manger, swaddled, they could see, in the way that all the world can see in its uncommon children, the babe's emanation . They made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child, that to them and to all the world had been born a savior, the hope for the world, which was love .
And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. As she had carried the future in her womb, she knew she would become the memory for the past. And she would recall not the Son of God but the son of her, of flesh and of blood, therein the hope for the world, in his humanity .
I struggled with the title, which at first was "The Nativity De constructed." That meant, according to a technical definition, that I had "analyzed in order to expose hidden internal assumptions and contradictions and subverted apparent significance or unity." Whereas, with the nativity story, I was actually not trying to subvert or discredit a Christian belief, which is as important to me as a Christian as to the next guy. Rather, I stretched the seams to include historical surmise, emotional logic, cosmological shifts of that age, and broadened language so that the story could accommodate traditional and progressive assumptions concurrently. I rebuilt the story, I did not tear it down. I saw the nativity anew.
Here I'll defend Luke's discrepancy about the date of the first world census by pointing out that he fudged history for retroactive prophetical legitimacy of Jesus. So, for purposes of the gospel, he was perpetrator of justifiable assault. Quirinius ruled as governor of Syria 6-9 CE (by some accounts 6-12 CE) and called for the census in 6 CE Jesus's birth is estimated to have been in 4 BCE, and he would have been about ten at the time of the great enrollment. Luke sought to establish not factual accuracy with his account but to prove Jesus as the foretold messiah; and Jewish prophecy required that the messiah ("anointed one") be of the lineage of King David. Scholars theorize that Luke used the historical detail of the 6 CE census as a reason for Joseph and Mary to be in Bethlehem, the city of David, at the time of Jesus's birth, and not Nazareth, their actual home.
Throughout my updated story there were several mentions of cosmological change that came about at the start of the first axial age, a time period for which Jesus himself is a marker. The radical nature of his teachings at the time reveals itself in two key themes: one, no longer would tribe prevail in human consciousness as it had for eons beforehand, replaced by an awareness in humanity of themselves as individuals; two, as individuals each had a relationship with a personal God, not through anyone else as before, and that God was a loving, sustaining one.
Not so modern in the nativity story, whether mine or Luke's, is the issue of unwed motherhood. It was a hot-button subject in biblical times and remains so today, mostly. Luke chose not to deal with Jesus's paternity, but I chose to address it because the virgin birth is such a fundamental faith point of Christianity. You can believe in it or not. If you do, God is the miraculous biological father; if you don't, either the biological father is unknown or he was the Roman soldier Pantera of recent scholarly speculation. I hope the language I included on this topic is roomy enough for all points of view and offensive to no one. One thing is indisputable — Joseph was not the biological progenitor of Jesus, but he agreed to stay with Mary and be a father to her child. As father, Joseph supplied also the vital link for Jesus to the house of David.
Lastly, a few words about that celestial light, which appears also in Matthew's story (Matthew 2: 2, 7, 9-10). For those of you who may think by now that it was a figment of Luke's imagination (or mine … or Matthew's) added for atmospherics, consider this fluky astronomical fact. There was an actual ancient event in the heavens of the northern hemisphere, about 2,000 years ago, conventionally known as the Star of Bethlehem. One of the explanations ( BBC News Magazine , 23 Dec 2012, Victoria Gill reporter) is that it was a series of events known as "a triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, with the two planets coming close together in the sky three times over a short period. This happens when you get an alignment between the Sun, the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn … And once the planets lined up in their orbits, Earth would 'overtake' the others, meaning that Jupiter and Saturn would appear to change direction in the night sky. " Whether or not the incident heralded the birth of Jesus, it was certainly part of the common lore at the time the gospels were written, and both Evangelists used the phenomenon to signify the nativity, adding to the prophetical evidence.
May the Star of Bethlehem, harbinger of newness and hope, shine in your thoughts this season. May the true spirit of Christmas be renewed in you through a treasured story, whether it's old or modern, traditional or from today's perspective. And in the New Year may you find — and keep — your own means to Christ's ends, ever developing love with ever evolving openness to the future.
Please enjoy the beauty of Luke's nativity story from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
Luke 2: 1-19. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. " And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."
And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.
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