Monday 25th December, 2005

Fr Henry Charles
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The metaphors of Christmas

Putting Christ back into Christmas still gets the lion’s share of attention from those concerned about the religious diminution of the feast. It’s the standard “difficulty” stressed regarding Christ and Christmas.

The cultural challenge has made more people perhaps pay more attention to the religious meaning of the feast, but a more subtle difficulty tends to go unnoticed. It arises not so much from culture as from the Christmas story itself; more accurately, from a combination of both.

Many find it hard to believe that the “infancy narratives,” as they are called, depict events that were actually historical.

With traditional presumptions suspended or gone, all they seem left with is Christmas sentiment without Christmas. For a few fleeting moments, on Christmas Eve, perhaps, doubt gets trumped by “O Holy Night.” The story seems real again then, temporarily.

Like the Genesis stories of creation, the infancy narratives have been a source of conflict among Christians. Some insist that they must be seen as factually true, that wise men were really led by a special star to Bethlehem, and angels really sang to shepherds in the night sky.

Factuality is often made a test of orthodoxy.

Others see the narratives as metaphor, not historical reports, mainly because they sense the deeply symbolic elements and motifs in them.

I remember a time, here in Trinidad, among Catholics, when to refer to Genesis in any manner other than historical was a sure way to be labelled a heretic.

Interpretation today as mythical narrative (where “myth,” as Thomas Mann once said, means “a story about the way things never were, but always are”) hardly raises an eyebrow.

I suspect the same is or will be true of the infancy narratives, and basically for similar reason. There is greater openness to the implications of metaphor in biblical interpretation.

There’s obvious benefit in including the standpoint of metaphor, in looking at biblical material. So much of the Bible is metaphorical. It speaks, for instance, of God having hands and feet, eyes and ears, whereas God obviously has no such features. It speaks also of Jesus sitting at God’s right hand, whereas there is no “seat” near to God where anyone can sit.

Sometimes the Bible uses actual history as metaphor. For example, the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC really happened, but the way the history is later recalled in the Old Testament invests the telling with metaphorical meaning. It becomes a narrative of exile and return, one of the more important biblical images of the human condition (alienation) and its remedy.

At other times, there’s little history behind the stories. The stories in Genesis, as I have implied—creation, the Garden of Eden, the expulsion of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel—are all mythical or metaphorical narratives. They are not reporting the early history of humanity. Yet, as metaphorical narratives, they convey profound though, not factual truth.

Western culture is practically tone deaf to metaphor. It’s part of what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, calls our “linguistic bereavement” after the Enlightenment. We prefer factual reporting. A standard question to any of the narratives in the preceding paragraph is: “Is it true?” Which means “did it happen?” If didn’t actually happen, its truth value is nil.

Metaphor, in a modest definition, is a figure of speech in which we speak of one thing in terms suggestive of another. It’s naturally at home in religion, because while we speak about supernatural things, we have no supernatural language. All we do is “suggest.”

It’s the reason why mystics in all religions have spoken differently from theologians. It’s the reason why St John of the Cross, for example, chose “nada”/“nothing” as his favourite word for the divine.

What does a metaphorical reading of the Christmas story yield? The special star and the glory of the Lord filling the night sky suggest that this is the story of light in our darkness, that, in the language of the gospel of John, Jesus is the “light of the world,” the “true light that enlightens every person.”

The story of non-Jewish kings, or “wise men from the East,” coming to Bethlehem affirms that Jesus is meant not only for Israel but for all nations and cultures. On the day of the Epiphany he is made “manifest” or disclosed to all.

The story of the shepherds as the first to be told of the birth, affirms that the good news of the gospel is especially good news for the poor and the marginalised.

The song of the angels declares that Jesus is Lord and Saviour—and thus Caesar, who uses these titles for himself, is not.

The story of King Herod ordering the slaughter of male babies echoes the story of Pharaoh issuing a similar order in the time of Moses.

It suggests that Jesus is a new Moses, that a new exodus is about to happen, and that the Pharaohs and Herods of this world always try to destroy the bearer of God’s liberating word, but their efforts are in vain.

Read metaphorically, the story means all of this, and a great deal more. A factual interpretation can distract from it all. When factuality is emphasised, the miraculous elements inevitably become objects of contention.

The issue becomes a matter of settling whether any of the events actually occurred. An endless, sterile debate ensues between those who think they did and those who think they didn’t.

The rich, metaphorical meanings, which move beyond the inadequacies of rational discourse, end up by the wayside.

Christmas need not be an experience of existential juggling between faith and nostalgia, or faith and fiction.

One can enter into the story as fully as one always did. It’s a matter of approach and interpretation.

If you think you see it now correctly as only poetic fiction, its real meaning will escape you. If you come at it with an eye and ear alert to the suggestions and resonances of metaphor, you may find in it more to appreciate than you ever did.

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