Reading the Nativity Story

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I was right.

I said in a sermon several days ago that my congregation should expect the usual presentations on various parts of the Christmas story, the thrust of the articles (and letters to the editor) being about how either they did not occur on a literal level or how they did occur. This goes on every year. Some scientist throws around the latest Christmas theory about the star, (comet, supernova, etc.), and how we know this occurred, or did not. The same can be said about the Roman taxation, the journeys to Bethlehem and to Egypt.

Thus I was not disappointed to find at least one of these in my morning paper, and another in a letter to the editor the day before. It’s just evidence that the public (including scientists) have no idea of how to read Scripture. The Scriptures, as used in the Orthodox Church, are decidedly the Church’s Scriptures, and cannot be rightly read apart from the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church.

Literalism is a false means of interpretation (hermenuetic) and is a vain attempt to democratize the Holy writings. If they can be read on a literal level, then everyone has equal access to them and everybody has equal authority to interpret them. Thus certain forms of Protestantism, caught up in the various modern theories of the Reformation, sought to do to the Scriptures what many sought to do with their governments. Kill the princes! Kill the priests! Everyone can be his own king, his own priest. Smash the images and any claim to authority. Of course these extreme forms always failed quickly, to be replaced by some version of moderation.

Thus the Scriptures are not purely democratic – some interpreters are more equal than others.

But these stories become the fodder for newspapers and self-appointed interpreters when they venture onto the holy ground of the Gospel with no instruction or insight – and certainly without the liturgical life of the Church – without which there can be no proper reading of Scripture.

Here mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve I have already completed two of the services of the Christmas Cycle. The Royal Hours this morning which contained psalmody and readings from the Prophets as well as Gospels – all preparing for the feast that was beginning to break in on us. The second service, the Vesperal Liturgy, contained another nine or ten readings from the Prophets as well as one of the traditional Epistles and Christmas Gospel readings. This evening’s Vigil will bring yet more.

And the pattern, according to a very ancient arrangement, is the same as that of Pascha, for the simple reason that the event of Christmas cannot be understood until one understands Pascha (the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ). That event is the central event of Christianity and colors everything we do. The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is occasionally referred to as the “Winter Pascha.” Here the God whom the universe could not contained is contained in a Virgin’s Womb, born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. At Pascha, He whom the universe cannot contain is contained in Hades (the ultimate dark cave), wrapped in fine-linen and placed in a tomb. But the tomb does not hold Him. He tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life. By the same token, the point of the Christmas story is Christ’s Pascha, not the minutiae of Roman history. Every element of the Gospel account will point to Pascha. Indeed, every element of the Gospel points to Pascha. Christ preaches the coming of Pascha at every turn.

None of this is to remove the events of the Gospel from history. But in the Gospels, Pascha shapes history – and not the other way around. To quote St. John’s Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

But history is not the vehicle of our salvation: the Church alone has been ordained by God to be such a vessel. The radical historicization of Scripture is another part of the leveling of Reformation radicalism, seeking to democratize what God has not put in the hands of every man. Democracy is useful, and I like living in a society that resembles a democracy, but the Gospel has never been put to a vote. Christ died for us without so much as a plebescite. By the same token, the Scriptures (New Testament) were written by the Apostles who left their authoritative interpretation as the life of the Church, governed by its Bishops and the liturgical life of the Body of Christ. The same Apostles gave us a “matrix” by which we read the Old Testament, that itself is to be found in the Creeds, liturgical works, and writings of the Fathers. Again, no democracy was ever involved.

The understanding of caves, mangers, wise men, journeys to Egypt, stars and massacres will not be explained to us by the culture’s mavens of meaning – the masters of the objectivity (the academy). Those institutions, like all the institutions of this world, are not the mediators of the salvation that comes from Christ alone. Those who speak from such positions in our culture have earned the right to speak – but not about Christ. The authority to speak about Christ is given to those whom He has chosen and ordained.

But the seasons come and go and the media cannot resist speaking of what they do not know. And so they ask those who do not know to speak on their behalf. But if we would know Christ and the wonder of His incarnation, then we would do well to listen to those who have been appointed to speak and to hear them in the context given to us for listening – the liturgical life of the Church.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

20 Responses to “Reading the Nativity Story”

  1. bríde Says:

    It is not always incorrect to interpret passages of Scripture literally, though, is it?

    Of course, one should not suppose that his interpretation is authoritative, and so should be willing to lay it aside when correction comes by way of the Church. But take into consideration the epistles of St. Paul. For instance, when he writes that “Christ is the image of the invisible God” in Colossians, I should be understanding his statement literally, should I not?

    Thank you for your continuing insights, Father.

  2. Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Says:

    Christ is born! Glorify him!

    And it came to pass that Mary was enrolled with Joseph the old man in Bethlehem, since she was of the seed of David, and was great with the Lamb without seed. And when the time for delivery drew near, and they had no place in the village, the cave did …

  3. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    The world is always seeking to debunk the Truth. It is as old as Genesis 3 and inspired by the same agent.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Bride,

    Obviously many things in Scripture are written in a “literal” fashion. The obvious sense is always the preferred sense in the Fathers.

  5. The Sun Does Rise in the East « Οἱ Λόγοι Says:

    […] This post, from a blog that I feel obligated to highly recommend, simply and quietly deals with that annoying new tradition of Christmas specials that are self-proclaimed quests for the “historical Jesus.” These sorts of things annoy me to the point where a normal discourse becomes labored, bogged down by my desire to string a thread of expletives together as a useful and economical way of expressing my wrath. […]

  6. Reading the Christmas Story (Fr. Stephen) « into the light Says:

    […] 25, 2007 by kevinburt A good post on how to read the Christmas narrative (and the Scriptures), by Father Stephen […]

  7. bríde Says:

    Then, I guess my question is, when practicing personal exegesis, how does one determine what the “obvious sense” is? To me, this implies defaulting to the literal.

    But why stop there? Various kinds of literature are capable of having multiple, non-contradictory readings. The Scriptures, being far superior to these literatures, do as well. St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses” demonstrates this quite clearly, I think. I would honestly like to know, since by condemning certain interpretive devices (like “literalism) you allude to one that stands apart from them – what is the Orthodox hermeneutic?

    Forgive me if I am making a nuisance of myself. I only mean to be inquisitive.

  8. Mark A Hershberger Says:

    Bride,

    Any answer I can give will not carry authority, but I answer is that the Orthodox do not have individualized (as opposed to personal) exegesis. We understand and interpret scripture within the church.

    Of course, as you point out, scripture can (and does) have multiple interpretations, but the literal interpretation, while often the most obvious, is also usually the weakest.

    Personally, when (coming from a fundamentalist, Protestant background) I first understood that Mary was figuratively related to the Ark of the Covenant, I was thrilled. Wow! Here was something with depth!

    I’d never experienced that before and I am rarely capable of such insight during my own reading of scripture.

    For what it is worth, the Orthodox Wiki has an article on Hermeneutics that they’ve sourced from an Orthodox seminary class. Perhaps that is a good place to begin?

  9. Fr. Gregory Hallam Says:

    Excellent article Father. They are at it of ciourse in the UK as well. This year it was some tedious tendentious piece about where the “real” Bethlehem was. The post-Protestant cultural position in the UK is that the Bible must submit to my judgement and if not me then any attention grabbing pundit will do. The loopier the theory and the more conspiracy laden the better.

  10. bríde Says:

    Forgive me if this posts twice – I have been having difficulty with my internet connection.

    Saying that Scripture must be interpreted within the Church, though absolutely true, does not provide a hermeneutic device. How does the Church interpret Scripture? How can individuals read Scripture in a way that accords with the Church, without having it interpreted for them 100% of the time? I am not trying to replace the Church, but to figure out how to participate in her understanding of Scripture.

    I must disagree that the literal interpretation is usually the weakest. What I see as weak is any system that relies exclusively on one particular kind of interpretation. Literalism, in that sense, is problematic. However, there are many instances – think of St. Paul’s epistles! – where one must take Scripture literally. There is nothing weak about accepting that “Christ recapitulates all things in himself” or “He is the image of the invisible God” based on their literal meanings. In fact, I doubt that there are many other ways to understand such verses.

    The interpretive device by which one might show others that Mary is analogous to the Ark of the Covenant is called “typology”. It is, admittedly, one of my favorites, but it only works if there is a past event/thing that prefigures a later event/thing. There are myriad examples of it that I could draw out. However, typology does not make sense of many important passages of Scripture that Protestants feel to be important, such as the Pauline epistles.

    My concern is for those outside the Church. Many Protestants seek a literal understanding of Scripture, and so too much allegory and typology tend to alienate them. I would tend to contest that, the majority of the time, a literal can be given to them without sacrificing Orthodox truth. After all, if the Scriptures are part of/contained by/have arisen from Tradition, then their plain and literal sense should be Orthodox! It is only a matter of showing this to be so.

    Again, therefore, I must ask – how do the Orthodox interpret Scripture, especially in light of the negative sentiments towards literal interpretation?

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Bride,

    Again, there are obvious places where the “plain sense” is obviously the best readings. How the Church interprets is always a question of being in the Church – seeing how the hymnography uses a particular Scripture or how the Fathers have generally treated something. Thus as someone noted, it’s just that there is no “individualized” interpretation. Any individual, of course, can read it, though this has only truly been possible largely in the modern era when individual copies became cheap and easily available to all. But no Orthodox Christian should read and then develop “private” interpretations such that the book is used for their person oracle, etc. Obviously it speaks to all of us, but the book alone, without the context of a living community, including a confessor, would be dangerous. We read, if I seem to be directed to something, it’s wise to share such a thought with a confessor, for example.

    Reading Scripture with good commentary (ies) is also wise. Many bring many of the comments of the Fathers to bear. And this saves us lots of trouble.

    It is the Scripture seen as more or less self-sufficient, God’s individual message to each individual, who is him/herself qualified to read it alone and reach such conclusions that is the modernist invention of those who have sought to democratize the Christian faith, substituting various manmade interpretations for the Tradition of the Church. The overall thrust of these modernist movements (of which I include the Reformation) has been to reinvent Christianity as a largely individualized religion with the Bible substituting for the Church. The Bible is not the vehicle of salvation, and is never called the “Pillar and Ground of Truth” (the Church is called that), though I certainly accept the full authority of Scripture. But it has its proper place within the life of the Church, and it is in the context of that life that it is properly read, interpreted and life-giving. The Scriptures should never be used to destroy the Church Christ has founded and to substitute a modern individual “relationship” (so-called) with Christ. This is not the faith Christ established.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Bride,

    Your proper concern for not giving too much offense to Protestants, may need some reaching out and teaching on the role of Biblical ecclesiology – i.e. what the Scriptures say about the Church. Many are hungry for something more than what they have seen.

    Obviously, much of the epistles would have a common reading, but there are places where Protestants, in reaction to Rome, have over-emphasized certain passages to the detriment of others, or have brought false principles to bear on their interpretation.

    But I can’t think of where the Orthodox violate the plain sense of an Epistle. Or where we should have too much difficulty in that conversation.

  13. bríde Says:

    So, if I understand you correctly, there are two things you would suggest:

    1) Push people on Biblical ecclesiology. This makes a lot of sense, since getting a proper understanding of the function of the Church and the Tradition will open up the use of that Tradition in discussion.

    2) Scriptural Holism. After all, the cure for over-emphasis on a part is to rediscover the whole.

    Both of those things seem reasonable, and are probably what I have leaned towards intuitively.

    Thank you for bearing with me. As the new guy, I appreciate it greatly.

  14. William Says:

    In response to Bride’s concern about how individuals can read Scripture in a way that accords with the Church, without having it interpreted for them 100% of the time: I think it’s reasonable to say that the Church and the Fathers themselves encourage individual Christians to read Scripture for themselves. This necessitates some degree of individual interpretation at times, but an individual in the Church will (or should) also be listening to the Church and will be bringing his own views into harmony with the Church’s views. I think most Fathers seemed to have confidence that individuals who hold fast to the Church will have few problems understanding most passages of Scripture (even though that understanding is never final, always growing). It’s the individuals who don’t hold fast to the Church, who don’t heed the Church’s correction, or who have an amorphous idea of what the Church is, who are most susceptible to get into trouble with the Bible.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    William,

    I fully agree. One difference, of course, is that today everyone can own a Bible, which has only been economically feasible for the past few hundred years. So, on the whole, the Fathers never imagined a world in which everyone has the kind of access to the Bible that we have. Nor did they ever imagine the multiform nature of Protestantism.

    One small example. Someone who grew up in Utah, and was therefore inundated with Mormonism, could not read the Bible safely. The culture would have fed them so much misinformation that they would need a great deal of Christian Tradition around them in order to rightly read the Scriptures.

    To a lesser extent, but still the same, is our American culture which has been permeated by various Protestant ideas which are not particularly Scriptural, some of which are hostile to Christian Tradition.

    In these kinds of cases, we need ever more to read in the context of the Fathers and the worship life of the Church.

    We should understand that we (not I, but we) will understand the Scriptures, and therefore will need to be putting themselves in the context of “we” as much as possible.

  16. William Says:

    Thanks, father, for adding the needed emphasis on “we.” It’s so important.

    As an aside, though, I thought I’d mention that, having grown up Protestant deep in Mormon country (southeast Idaho), I’d have to say that the Mormon reading of the Bible doesn’t seem to hold much sway over the non-Mormons around them. A non-Mormon would usually have to first get involved with the LDS church before getting real exposure to the kinds of doctrines that separate Mormonism from Trinitarian Christianity. But your example certainly holds true for anyone raised in a Mormon household, devout or not. And as you have already pointed out in your posts about two-story living, our culture’s attitude of “practical atheism” or “secular Protestantism” mean that all of us need to cleave closely to the Tradition of the Church when we read Scripture to avoid picking up the aberrations of our time and place.

  17. bríde Says:

    “We” versus “I” is a very good distinction. I’m sure you have said this many times, Father, but I believe it bears repeating:
    Most of the problems of Protestantism developed as a result in the switch from a group-, we-centered to an individual-, me-centered perspective. Salvation doctrines, particularly, suffered from this. It was no longer a Body, the Church, that Christ gave himself up for, but individuals. How such an understanding is at all reconcilable to Christianity baffles me.

    Once this change was made within Protestantism, it opened the door for culture at large to become individualistic. Non-Christian, and downright atheistic philosophy boomed when the Reformation hit. The impact that has had on secular culture . . . I shiver to think of the damage done, and the license given to the godless.

    All of this makes me very sad. God have mercy on us all!

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