Christmas is above all a season of poetry and story, and no poet has caught its divine paradoxes more agreeably than John Betjeman: " . . . And is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, A Baby in an ox's stall? . . . That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Is it true? That must obviously be a matter of personal belief. But we know that the human thirst for divine visitation is abiding--the eternal search for some sign that the primal powers of the universe are benevolently interested in this troubled and mutable world, interested enough to take human form and intervene in it.
Science, for all its power to explain, cannot satisfy it, having centuries ago differentiated itself from "final causes" and ultimate truth. So the craving can be satisfied only by storytelling.
All stories are not fiction, and some are of ultimate importance. The novelist, Reynolds Price, has put it this way: "We crave nothing less than perfect story. . . . We are satisfied only by the one short tale we feel to be true: History is the will of a just god who knows us."
The original Christmas tale is just such a story. Its peculiar twist was that it was the tale of a divine visitation to a world dominated by the Greek intellect, a world that had already mastered the categories of understanding familiar to us -- poetic, mythic, scientific, epic.
The Greeks, of course, told themselves the divine tale in a very different way. The divinities of their ancient Olympus were at once cozier and more remote, more human-like yet psychologically distant, not only powerful and provident but playful, capricious and meddlesome.
The idea of godly attention embraced in the Christmas story came to them as a shock, for it was very different. It was in a way grander than theirs, but in the first instance homelier.
There was in it what Christian theologians call "the scandal of particularity," a startling assertion that the divine could assume fully human form, with all its frailties and vulnerabilities. It was the story of a child born in circumstances of shocking ordinariness, a message of hope mixed with a most ungodly vulnerability to suffering, humiliation and even a criminal's death. It was a "stumbling block to the Greeks," even as St. Paul said, a radical revision of the Greek conception of the remoteness and invincibility of gods and even heroes.
It is small wonder that so strange a tale remained suspect. For Christmas is indeed the newest of the main Christian festivals. It was hardly observed at all before 200 A.D.; it was sanctioned by only two of the four gospels (Luke and Matthew), unmentioned in the most telling, human and authentic (Mark) or in the most exalted and mysterious (John).
So the wariness that has been felt about Christmas was there from the start. And perhaps advisedly, for there is about Christmas an overlay of fancy and sentimentality that is alien to the deeper fabric of Christian belief. It was a pretty tale -- shepherds in the fields, singing in the skies, an infant on a bed of straw -- whose ingredients and colors are to a degree evasive and mythological.
Still, there is a quality about the Christmas story that appeals to the deepest quarters of the heart: the proclamation of a divine gift to humankind exemplifying generosity, good will, kindliness, the hope for universal reconciliation and peace. And all these are at all times scarce in a naughty world.
Today the story remains a scandal -- a stumbling block -- and it is easy to understand why. In our time, the power of story to explain ultimate things is greatly diminished by the habit of scientific thought. Our typical form of knowing is the form that traces all mysteries to "natural" causes, from the known limits of starry space to the microscopic world of biochemistry.
At Christmastime, thus handicapped, we are sharply reminded of the need to rediscover the powerful uses of story and myth, and above all the perfect story that "history is the will of a just god who knows us." It is both incredible and indispensable, not the least of the great paradoxes of faith.
"And is it true . . . this most tremendous tale of all?" It will be truer, certainly, if we admit that life is more than the sum of its natural elements; if we allow the possibility that the universe is pervaded by a purposefulness that science discarded as irrelevant to its uses centuries ago; if we acknowledge the truth of a stubborn and persistent intrusion of divine love into mundane affairs of which not even the wonders of Greek intellect can ever give a full account.