18 Dec 2017

In the ancient world, people always told stories about the childhood of famous people. The stories illustrated the direction and qualities of their adult lives and usually grew with the telling. So it was with Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both begin with different stories of his birth that illustrate its significance. Later storytellers adorned them with further details that helped people imagine the scene and to appreciate the meaning of the stories.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was born in a manger. The cribs add animals. Matthew has Eastern wise men visit Jesus with presents. Later stories give them crowns and make them kings, each with his name and distinctive traits. Matthew also says simply that Joseph was told to get up and take Jesus to Egypt because Herod was seeking to kill him. Later stories fill in their journey. Mary and Jesus ride on a donkey, led by a boy. Idols fall from their pedestals as they pass, and at one resting place palm trees bend to provide Jesus with fruit and waters flowed from their roots.

This last story provided rich material for artists to paint the scene and add their details. The Bruges painter Gerard David depicts Mary in a dazzling blue dress, seated regally on a rock ledge feeding Jesus with a bunch of grapes, while the donkey with ears pricked up rests in the shade of trees and Joseph in the distance knocks fruit from a tree with a stick. Behind them lie a village and fields rising to a wooded ridge. When Caravaggio paints the same scene a century later, he has an angel sing to Jesus while Joseph holds the score.

These details don’t tell us much about what life was like along the sea road to Egypt, but they do illuminate the deeper meaning of the Christmas stories. They speak of the Son of God coming into our world to join us, so demonstrating how precious and what a great gift our world is. The added details show us that to God not only large things matter: cities, towns and kings’ business for example. Each tree, donkey, shepherd and sheep matter, together with the breathtaking world of reality and art to which they belong.

The embroidery on the Gospel stories shows that, like the painter and the refugees treading through the dust and heat of the sea road to Egypt, God dreams of a peaceful world in which people and nature live at peace, idyllic villages are well watered, trees are cared for, grapes hang in huge bunches, refugee children are fed, and where angels help make art.

These stories and images of Christmas also speak to the preoccupations of our day and especially to the desire to protect our world for future generations. They speak of the hope of a world cared for and abundant for all, a world in which animals and plants will thrive as well as human beings. They speak of a human world in which people work for one another as well as for themselves, and especially for the most vulnerable. They speak of a world in which people who seek protection can find an oasis and children can play.

This world can come about only through our attentiveness. And attentiveness roots in a rich imagination of what might be. Christmas stories feed our imagination.

Fr Andy Hamilton SJ is editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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