The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
December 24, 2020
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
2 Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
For a humanities scholar of my generation or a little older it may seem a bit hackneyed for me to say that perhaps the greatest influence on my understanding of both literary criticism and the interpretation of culture more broadly is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, first published in the aftermath of the Second World War. I missed the fiftieth anniversary of its publication in 2006 and am just now rereading it in the edition published in honour of that milestone, with a truly enlightening introduction by the late Edward Said.(1) This go round I have been particularly struck by Auerbach’s remarkable analysis of the Gospels, which reveals just how revolutionary these narratives are from a literary standpoint and in comparison with other, truly monumental works from the Ancient World.
Born in 1892, Auerbach was a German-Jewish intellectual brought up in the great classical tradition of his age, and took up the law. He fought for his country in the Great War and afterwards gave up the legal profession for philology. The rise of the Nazis, however, brought an end to his career in the German academy, where he always felt he belonged. He went into exile, teaching throughout the Second World War in Istanbul, where he wrote Mimesis. In the post-war years he continued as a sojourner in the United States, at Princeton and Yale, dying relatively young in 1957. Auerbach was an unlikely advocate for a radical understanding of the originality of the Gospels and their power.
Auerbach argues that by telling a story, embedded in a particular moment, a specific time and place, about ordinary people who are swept up by historical forces that will end up transforming the world, we see in the Gospels something wholly novel. While to us, from our twenty-first century perspective, this may not seem at all revolutionary, to the antique reader, Auerbach tells us, “it is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that it its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.”(2) This is a literary style that must have astonished educated readers like those who would have bought Luke’s Gospel at a bookseller in a cosmopolitan maritime centre like Antioch. Tales involving such diverse characters as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, tax collectors, fishermen, and the like, Auerbach reminds us, “could be thought of in antique terms only as a farce or comedy.”(3) Men and women of this sort, involved in events that would have seemed insignificant at the time to anyone of any importance in Roman society, could never be the protagonists of a story of such consequence. And yet they are. In the critic’s words,“it sets man’s whole world astir.”
The Gospels do “something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: The birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the every day occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature.”(4) It is remarkable, therefore, that the stories about Jesus not only stirred the people who heard the troubadour-bard who probably composed the Gospel of Mark as a performance, or read and heard the words learned Jewish scholar who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, but that it became as popular as it did among those who read Luke’s Gospel, produced as it was for the broad, reading public of the Mediterranean world. People who would have been familiar with the great writers of the Greco-Roman world would never have seen anything like the Gospels. It would have been astounding; rule breaking as it set out to depict contemporary events, combined genres, and mixed high and low, both in style and characters. And perhaps it was its novelty that contributed to both its believability and it’s huge success. It seeped into the imagination of Classical culture and transformed it, transforming the world.
The Gospels, then, from a structural and stylistic point of view, reenforce its subject matter. That God breaks into our world, not just generally or potentially or sometime in a misty, idyllic past, but here, now, specifically, in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire, in the Province of Judea, “in those days [when] a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled ... when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” We are no longer talking about Gods and heroes who represent virtues, or shepherds and farmers or pompous self-made merchants who make us reflect wistfully on the bucolic or laugh at our foibles. We are talking about God entering into history and sweeping up into the current of world events the seemingly most unremarkable people and showing that in and through these lowly folks, God can work wonders, bring transformation, bring revolution and salvation. The least important in the eyes of the powerful can become extraordinary when they become actors in the workings of the Kingdom of God. As Auerbach sums up, “What we see here is a world which on the one hand is entirely real, average, identifiable as to place, time, and circumstances, but which on the other hand is shaken in its very foundations, is transforming and renewing itself before our eyes.”(5)
This magical combination of specificity of time and place and the inclusion of ordinary people acting in recognisably human ways help those of us who are hearing the story at a distance of both time and place to recognise both its truth and the possibility it brings with it that God can and will act again for us, in our chronologically and spatially bound lives. If God acted into history in the past, God can do the same for us, here, now. This is the power of Luke’s Christmas story.
From the first words of the Christmas Gospel we are located precisely, in a world in action, set in motion by an Emperor, whose dicta from the centre of the world, from Rome itself, in his order to perform a census, can stir events fourteen hundred miles away (twenty five hundred, travelling on foot). We move from centre to periphery and find ourselves not in the milieu of that Syrian governor, or of anyone particularly important, but of a Jewish family living in Nazareth, who had to return to Bethlehem on account of the census because that was from whence the father’s family came. And yes, that father has a noble lineage, being descended from King David, but Joseph himself was not a rich, powerful, or influential man in any way, and he may have even been, given his betrothed’s strange pregnancy, a target of gossip and suspicion.
Once they arrived at Bethlehem, “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.” Wayfarers, strangers, unable to find a place at an hostelry, they are forced to stay in a stable, where Mary gave birth to the one of whom the Angel said “he will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David ... and of his kingdom there will be no end.” What a strange juxtaposition between the humble surroundings and the extraordinary events, between the expectations created by prophesy and their fulfilment in the lives of real people, between what we imagined was significant, and that which truly matters.
This upsetting of norms and expectations continues when we learn the identify of those who were first to hear tidings of this birth. Was it announced on the Palatine at Rome, to Herod in his palace? No, it was “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 Saviour, 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!”
This is a scene that would most likely have been played for laughs in classical literature, but it is presented with the utmost seriousness, because it is of the most supreme importance to the force of the divine intervention into history. Jesus’ birth is revealed not to the rich and powerful, to the Emperor or his viceroy, but to shepherds in the fields, who are so moved by what they hear that they agreed, “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.” They become significant actors in this story in a way that no one like them ever could have been before. They become evangelists, messengers of this momentous birth, for “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.”
Luke dares to tell a story about the very Messiah and set it specifically in history and amongst the most ordinary, everyday people. Realism and history meet not in the low style of a comedy, or even in the more respectable pastoral style, but in the most significant divine drama, one that does not fit into any genre of classical literature. The Christmas story, as told by radical voices like Luke’s, lets us know us that extraordinary things happen to ordinary people like us who are open to God’s invitation. The Christmas story assures us that God is active and present and does not judge us by human standards of importance. The Christmas story tells us that God enters into our world, intervenes into history, into the lives of everyday people, not for his own amusement or out of boredom or petty rivalries with other gods, but in order to inaugurate a new age, to bring about change and transformation.
The Christmas story stands here to reassure us, even on this strangest of Christmas Eves, that God loves and values each and every one of us, living our particular lives, in our particular circumstances, in our specific locations, and that God, having already broken into our world as that child in the manger, returns to us again and again to fill us with power and authority to do the hard work of love and justice to which we are called in the world.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Advent Feria, 22 December 2020
(1) Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. By Willard R. Trask, Fiftieth Anniversary ed. with a new intro. by Edward Said (Princeton: University Press, 2006).
(2) Auerbach 2006, 45.
(3) Auerbach 2006, 42.
(4) Auerbach 2006, 43.
(5) Auerbach 2006, 43.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume