“If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” declared Woodrow Wilson. Before occupying the White House, his Princeton University presidency turned stormy during the 20th century’s first decade. Sons of well-to-do families partied on campus but studied little. Wilson paid a stern price for trying to “reform a country-club college into a top-tier university,” writes biographer A. Scott Berg. Some alumni rejected modifying their cherished view of the college as a social club for spoiled students.
“Beware of false knowledge,” warned George Bernard Shaw, playwright and essayist. “It is more dangerous than ignorance.” Alumni who forced Wilson from academia into politics liked their alma mater notion as a cozy club rather than an intellectual citadel.
Similarly, some Christians find it hard to let go of a Christmas manger scene based on fiction more than fact.
Was baby Jesus warmed by breaths of lowing oxen and braying donkeys? Scripture records, “Mary gave birth to a first-born and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was not room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Cute animals’ noses pressing against Mary’s son aren’t in the biblical account.
Last year, former Pope Benedict in a book entitled “Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives” wrote about missing animals surrounding the manger. “In the Gospel there is no reference to animals at this point,” admits the pope. “But prayerful reflection, reading the Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early state by pointing to Isaiah 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib but Israel does not know.’” So, conjecture about animals at the manger becomes fact.
It’s bad enough that Jesus had no crib for his bed, but the eviction of nuzzling animals — well, that goes too far. Some Christians adopt Christmas fiction and abort biblical fact.
Pope Benedict also questions how much music reverberated when Jesus was born. The pope repeats the Christmas narrative. Angels’ words they said, not lyrics they sung, composed the glad tidings to shepherds. Not wanting to rankle Christians, Pope Benedict interjects: “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song.” An inference treated as fact, again.
The Bible doesn’t count Wise Men among those around the manger. They visited the Holy Family in a home, reports gospel writer Matthew. We don’t know their number. Because the Magi bore three gifts, we guess that’s the number who arrived several days after Jesus’ birth. Again, Christmas fiction replaces fact.
My children kid me about a Colorado Christmas Eve service in The Chapel at Beaver Creek. My mic was inadvertently left on. Worshippers with lit candles exited singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” I remained in the sanctuary, not hearing their pitch. Joining worshippers in song, I unintentionally raised the carol to higher key. Listeners cringed as vocal noise shattered the un-silent night that wasn’t calm nor full of heavenly peace.
Such a miscue reminds us not to take venerable lyrics from favored Christmas carols at face-value. Angels created a commotion in the Judean sky. Giving birth is painful, making Mother Mary wince. Shepherds went pell-mell from door-to-door in the dead of night, looking for baby Jesus. They kept banging on doors, telling what they had seen and heard. A town crammed with visitors irked at paying Roman taxes lacked quiet streets.
“All is calm.” Hardly.
Life’s messy. It’s not as pretty as a manger where animals gather, angels sing overhead and Magi visit. But who wants to wreck such a pastoral scene where everyone’s calm and soft light around the manger makes it bright?
Thomas Jefferson had a knack for sorting fact from fiction. He challenged Christians to move off dead-center about what happened in Bethlehem long ago. Jefferson trimmed angelic wings, dismissing cute cherubs as superstitions gullible believers adore. He read enough folklore from ancient Greeks and Romans whose gods vacated the heavens to cavort with the daughters of men. Jefferson treated such tales, along with the Virgin Mary, as mythology.
Presbyterians accused him of being an atheist. Other Christians suspected his faith was rife with heresy.
Jefferson encountered Christmas narratives as a philosophe, a French title for a searcher after facts. Historian Edwin S. Gaustad describes Jefferson’s trait which he shared with Benjamin Franklin of sifting fact from popular fiction. “These gentlemen regarded nothing as too sacred to be retouched or investigated, nothing to be too ancient and respected to be challenged or even overthrown. Their curiosity knew no limits and their intellectual daring no restraint” (“Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation”).
Let Hallmark continue to embellish the Christmas story. Christians, however, gain credence when they, like Jefferson, “exercise the hard-won intellectual freedom to probe and query, to speculate and compose, to reflect and refine.”
Sort what’s real from Christmas ideals. Life proved more scary than serene at Jesus’ birth, a fact many gloss over or forget.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.