One of the best tales ever told begins with the writer's urbane pledge to a Roman official: he is about to present an "orderly" account of certain recent stories, that the truth might be known.
You will doubtless recognize the tale more readily if we skip from that disarming preface to these more familiar lines: "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . ."
The Gospel according to St. Luke has been regarded for ages as the most accessible and human of the four accounts. Aside from the text itself, more is known, or may be guessed, about the writer. He was keenly interested in so anchoring his story in identifiable time and place that readers and hearers would find it plausible. Accordingly, a story of divine visitation begins with an emperor's whim: Caesar Augustus decides to take a census.
Luke, it is believed, was a Gentile from Antioch. Those who have ears for such things call his Greek polished, or more polished than the humble Greek of the other evangelists. He was evidently a friend and traveling companion of St. Paul. Like Paul he valued the Roman order and wished to reassure the imperial authorities. This new sect, the Christians, posed no threat to the stability of the empire.
With these aspects of Luke's character and purpose 20th century readers are easy. But something is odd about Luke and his book. For all his urbanity, he is a soft touch for the miraculous. His narrative from the first overflows with events which, to a modern eye, strain belief.
The leading figure in the opening scenes is not a man but an angel, Gabriel. This Gabriel strikes an old priest temporarily dumb because he doubts the news that he is to be the father of John the Baptist. Later, when the infant Jesus is brought to the temple for dedication as a first-born son, an aged prophetess is lurking about. And this is to say nothing of the occasion, a few nights earlier, when shepherds hear anthems of universal good will in the sky.
From the modern point of view, all this seems challenging -- at least, not the sort of thing Dan Rather would report with a straight face. The skilled narrator freely dilutes his history with what we would call superstition. If this is an "orderly account" of the "truth," as he solemnly assures his Roman friend Theophilus, then truth is a patchwork fabric.
It is such discrepancies that children invariably notice and question, when adults stand in deferential silence. But never mind, children used to be told, "back in those days" writers did not distinguish as we do between various sorts of narrative -- between fact and fiction, or between history and myth.
But when we grew up, we put away childish explanations, and the matter became more complicated. A writer of Luke's abilities was quite aware when he mixed the poetic or mythic with the historical. The text shows it. Yet he could do it with perfect serenity, and not merely because his purpose was in part liturgical.
The world of Luke, as a famous poet of our own day has explained in another connection, had not suffered a "dissociation of sensibility." It had not undergone that fragmentation of the understanding that was brought on by modern science.
How good it would be, if only for a moment at the Christmas season, to be able to re-enter Luke's profound simplicity of mind, unvexed by fussy distinctions. Then we could take for granted, as he did, that signs and wonders now and then interrupt the predictable flow of observed cause and effect; that such interruptions of the "natural" order may be taken not as puzzles but as signs of a welcome cosmic interest in our small world.
We might again be like those devout Jews from whom Luke learned that even the most mundane events, to say nothing of marvels, reflected divine patterns unfolding.
Yes, it would be the best of Christmas treats to read Luke's narrative as if it were the most natural of expectations that history sometimes pauses for the caroling of angels, or that a child born in a stable might be the answer to mankind's endless strife. For some, this may be difficult. But we are, at least, at one with Luke in seeing that such a story, if true, would be truly magnificent.