It was somewhere here, in the neighbourhood of the present day Bethlehem, that Christ's birth took place; on any showing the most momentous event in the history of our Western civilisation.
In the exposition and portrayal of it, literally billions of words, oceans of paint, acres of canvas, mountains of stone and marble, have been expended, not to mention, in recent times, miles of film. Is there, then, anything left to say? I ask myself rather disconsolately, and decide that there isnot because of me, but because of him. The man and his story are inexhaustible, and continue to attract the minds and the imaginations of the pious and the impious, of believers and unbelievers, alike; mine among them.
Christ's mother, Mary, conceived him out of wedlock, but believed when an inner voice, or angel, told her that her pregnancy was divinely ordained. Joseph, a poor carpenter from Nazareth who married her, likewise understood that the child to be born to her had a special destiny in the world. Every son of every mother is a son of God, but Mary knew that her son was to have a unique relationship with God and a unique role in the lives of men. She expressed her joy in this knowledge in the greatest of all the songs of motherhood; the more wonderful because, in her particular case, the circumstances of the birth-tobc were so dubious and so lowly:
My soul cloth magnify the Lord, end my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden:
For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name.
It was to this couple that Christ was born, coming into the world, as all of us do, to the accompaniment of cries of physical pain and inward spiritual ecstasy. As Blake put it:
The placea stable or outhouse, a cave, maybeno other more suitable accommodation being available, or within the meagre means of Mary and Joseph.
Beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a silver star marks the alleged precise spot where Christ was born. A stone slab nearby is supposed to be the actual manger where he lay. The Holy Land is littered with such shrines, divided up, like African colonies in the old colonialist days, between the different sects and denominations the Greeks, the Armenians, the Copts, the Latins, etc.and often a cause of rancour between them. Most of the shrines are doubtless fraudulent, some in dubious taste, and none to my liking. Yet one may note, as the visitors come and go, ranging between the devout and the inanely curious, that almost every face somehow lights up a little. Christ's presence makes itself felt even in his alleged birthplace.
The essential point, as I see it, about Christ's birth is that it was so poor and so humble. The Son of God was born into the world, not as a prince, but as a pauper. So, to deck up the legendary scene of his nativity with precious hangings, pictures, glittering lamps and other ornamentation, is to destroy whatever valid symbolism it might otherwise have. Truly, we human beings have a wonderful faculty for thus snatching fantasy from the jaws of truth.
I find it marvellous that the Christian religion should thus have begun, from a worldly point of view, so inauspiciously in Bethlehem, where, despite her advanced pregnancy, Mary had come with Joseph from Nazareth because a census was being taken. Probably no child born into the world that day seemed to have poorer prospects than Christ did. It would have taken a perceptive eye indeed to see in the child in the manger one who was to be worshipped through the centuries by all conditions of men as their unique Saviour.
Some shepherds, we are told, watching their sheep in nearby fieldsthese fields, at least, unchanged and unadornedwere given the good tidings of great joy that Christ had been born, and rejoiced accordingly. There is also word of some wise men or kings from the East who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Judging by our own wise men, I find difficulty in believing that any such would recognise God's son in Mary's. Let the vastly more numerous unwise go on marvelling at that stupendous moment in history when, for the first time, God was revealed to men, not in the guise of power or wealth or physical beauty, but of weakness, obscurity and humility.
Christ was born into a world as troubled as ours, and into one of its more troubled corners. The mighty Roman Empire, seemingly larger and more magnificent than ever, was already beginning to decompose, as even a carpenter's son on its periphery might vaguely realise. Then it was Jewish insurrectionists who made the trouble; today it is Jews ruling over their State of Israel who have to contend with Arab insurrectionists. According to the Gospel narrative, Joseph was induced to take Mary and her baby into Egypt to escape a murderous decree by King Herod ordering the killing of all children under two. If this indeed happened, they would not have been the first refugees in this part of the worldnor the last. One has a sense here of people endlessly on the move, carrying with them children and poor bundles of possessionslike the Arabs making their way across the River Jordan from the triumphant Israelis; displaced persons, to use our own sick expression, who haunt our twentieth-century feast of affluence. After Herod's death, Joseph settled in Nazareth, and it was here that Christ grew up. We know nothing of his childhood years and young manhood, and must assume that he received such formal education as he had from the rabbis. As they teach now, so, we may suppose, they taught then, basing themselves on the Law and the Prophets.
A few miles from Nazareth w as the Lake of Galilee, teeming with life and people. This was the countryside he knew, where the most important months of his life were to be spent. From the beginning he was aware of a special destiny to reveal to men the ways of God, and their duties one towards another, as all children of God. One cannot live by bread alone, he was to say, thinking, I dare say, of the bread and circuses, the avid pursuit of wealth and luxury, the permissive morality and eroticism, which characterised Roman society at that time, as it does ours today.
Each generation of Christians inevitably seeks to fashion its own Christ; from the austere figures carved in wood of the early Middle Ages, through the ebullient Renaissance Christs, to the weird efforts of our own time, sometimes clerically sponsored, to devise a Hipster Saviour. Yet behind all this there is a real man; born, growing up, reaching maturity like other men; turning his mind, as I have tried to turn mine, to what life means rather than to what it provides; trudging through this self-same dust, and sheltering from this self-same sun; Iying down at night to sleep, and rising in the morning to live another day.
I, too, have my notion of what he was likethis man in whose flesh God deigned to live and die. I seem to catch a glimpse of him on these hill-tops, ever looking for new horizons; I note a vague suggestion of him in the face of some young rabbi. Did I hear his voice coming from afar, faintly across the Lake of Galilee? Is that his dust where some solitary traveller disappears into the distance? Here, where he lived, the very air I breathe carries his wordsthose sublime words about losing one's life in order to save it, about how it is the spirit that gives life while the flesh profits nothing; words which have changed human life and history as no other words ever have.
Christ's own circumstances were humble enough certainlya carpenter's shop in Nazareth where he doubtless worked as a youthbut did not preclude awareness of the Roman Empire and all its luxury, self-indulgence and ostentation. Troops came and went; the Roman Governor lived in state at nearby Caesarea; King Herod had one of his pretentious palaces at
Tiberias by the Lake of Galilee; there were the games, and all the riff-raff who followed them, and the pagan gods and their rites. How the rabbis must have hated it all; alien then, as now, to their strict monotheism ! The Jews bore their yoke as subject people as best they might, with the added humiliation that their own ruler, Herod, shared all the Roman vices and lived obsequiously in the shadow of Roman power. It was the messianic hope, written into their scriptures, undying through the centuries, which kept alive in them the prospect of deliverance from their Roman conquerors as they had been delivered from past ones.
We must assume that Christ, as a Jew, resented the Romans' presence in his country, and looked askance at the cities they built therelike Caesarea, where the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, lived in state. Theirto a Jewidolatrous cults; their luxury and vice, particularly the games (providing, like television today, vicarious thrills and excitement all this would have been abhorrent to him.
Christ's mission on earth, however, reached far beyond considerations of national independence or servitudeto the roots of power itself, and the fearful passion men have to dominate other men. His famous answer to the trick question whether the Jews should pay tribute to Caesarthat they should render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's and unto God the things that were God'sremoved him for ever from the role of freedom-fighter in our modern sense. He was no Garibaldi or Tito or Gandhi. What he offered was a larger freedom of the spirit, available evenperhaps especiallyto slaves. He proclaimed as the only true freedom the glorious liberty of the children of God. He called men to a service that is, itself, perfect freedom, releasing them from the gruelling enslavement to their own egos and appetites. All other freedoms, once won, soon turn into a new servitude. Christ is the only liberator whose liberation lasts for ever.
Since Christ's death a whole succession of Caesars have come and gone, all demanding tribute. The ruins of their cities stand one on top of anothergreat slag heaps of history, the past piling up in dust. It is only now, centuries later, that Jews again rule in Judea. They have become their own Caesar, and are busily constructing their own Caesareas.
In Christ's day the extreme Jewish nationalists, or Zealots, represented one reaction to Roman domination; another was to be seen in the exacting asceticism practised by sects like the Essenes, who sought illumination and escape from the world's humiliations and passions in the practice of drastic mortification of the flesh and total detachment. The chance discovery, in a cave near one of their monasteries in the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea, of scrolls belonging to the time of Christ clearly indicates a certain inter-relation between their teaching and his. As the pagan world moved to its close such ideas were prevalent; they always are when the vanity of earthly hopes and human glory is about to be luridly demonstrated once more in history's unfolding drama. Besides belonging to eternity Christ belonged to his times; on the outskirts of a dying civilisation he spoke of dying in order to live. Today, when our civilisation is likewise dying, his words have the same awe-inspiring relevance as they had then.
The most famous of the ascetics was John the Baptist, who in the style of the old Hebrew prophets denounced the backsliding of the Jews and the villainy of their rulers, sparing none, least of all Heroda temerity which cost him his life. Many came to him in the desert where, we are told, he lived on locusts and wild honey; a burning and a shining light. Those who repented he baptised with the water of the River Jordan. Some of Christ's greatest sayings were to do with water; by the banks of the Jordan one can see why. There, water provides an irresistible image of life itself. What better way of expressing the everlasting quality of truth than to see it as living water which will quench thirst for everWhosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; out the water that I shall give him shall be to him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
John the Baptist called for repentance, for, he proclaimed, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He was, he said, quoting Isaiah, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. When Christ came to him for baptism, John recognised him at once as this Lord whose path he was to make straight. Then the wild anchorite, in his raiment of camel's hair, drew back before the young teacher from Nazareth and bowed his head. Christ, he said, must baptise him; not the other way round. When Christ gently insisted, he gave way, and with the utmost humility poured the water of baptism over Christ's head.
At that moment a bird flew across the blue sky, indicating God's joy in what had happened. Only in the natural may we see the supernatural, and vice versa. A bird could not exist without God, and through its existence proclaims God's. Not even a sparrow, we are told, can fall to the ground without causing God concern; all the material universe is, as it were, a message in code from God, which mystics, artists and scientists strive to crack, sometimes with a measure of success, but to which Christ provides the key.
Christ was thirty years old when he received baptism at the hands of John the Baptist; now he must dedicate himself wholly to the mission for which he came into the worldpreaching, teaching and living out his destiny.
Return to the contents page / Return to the Previous Chapter / Return to the Main Menu / Proceed to the Next Chapter